They say good things come in three – just ask Neven Maguire, who had a wonderful past year. Donal O’Donoghue talks to the award-winning chef.
“Last year was a rollercoaster of emotions”, says Neven Maguire. “My mother was diagnosed with lung cancer just after Easter and wasn’t given a very positive prognosis. But just before Christmas she was given the all-clear. Now my wife Amelda is going to have twins this February, so I will be a father for the first time. And my twin brother, David, is getting married in March. When mum heard about Amelda and the other good news it gave her a great lift. She now has so much more to live for.”
The news about Neven’s mother, Vera, arrived just in time for Christmas and buoyed up everybody. “My mum is an amazing woman with a powerful faith”, says Maguire. “When she was first diagnosed she said that she was going to beat it. I have to really admire her. She’s an inspiration, that’s what she is. She was so full of optimism, even when she was disgnosed. She said that she was going to beat it and she did. She’s an amazing woman. She got a miracle and she deserves it, fair play to her.”
Neven Maguire is a delightful interviewee. Naturally, you expect his infectious enthusiasm for food, but he is just brimming with positive vibes. Back in 1996, the Irish Times described the Cavan man as “a fresh faced young man with a fiendish imagination”. Today, at 39, he still has those cherubic looks and his imagination is as fiendish as ever. He’s always pushing himself – at the beginning of this month he spent two weeks at the two Michelin-starred Amstel Hotel restaurant in Amsterdam – but never pushy. “I want to continue to better myself as a chef and you never start learning about food”, he says.
But that learning curve is likely to be much steeper this year for Maguire, who admits he’s not the most organised despite a sometimes helter-skelter schedule. “It’s going to put a lot more structure in my life”, he says. When we spoke he had just come back from Tokyo (“I saw fish there that I didn’t even recognise”) and was getting ready for the third series of RTÉ’s Home Chef. “Life can pass you by and if you don’t, well, bite the cherry, it might never happen. We always wanted a family and to have twins is amazing. That was the best news I could ever have. We don’t know what sex they are because we want to keep that as a surprise. We couldn’t be happier and I want to be the best father than I can.”
Neven Maguire was born into the food business. His parents, Joe and Vera, ran MacNean Bistro in Blacklion on the Cavan-Fermanagh border and all the family, four boys and four girls, mucked in. “At the age of 12, I knew that cooking was for me”, he says. “I love talking about food, I love eating it and I love the whole subject of cooking and being inspired. It has changed a lot since I started but it’s still down to local, seasonal produce. That’s the secret to good food. You’re only as good as the produce that you use.”
After he graduated from catering college, he worked in a number of top-class kitchens across Europe, including the Roscoff (Belfast), The Grand Hotel Restaurant (Berlin) and the Arzak (San Sebastian). From 1998 to 2004, he was the resident chef on RTÉ’s Open House series and in 2003, he became head chef and proprietor of MacNean House. In total he has published five books, and behind his success is his wife, who worked front of house at the restaurant. He has known Amelda for nearly 12 years, after first meeting her in a Galway nightclub. “She lived just a few miles from me here in Blacklion and after we met the rest is history”, he says. Six years later, they married. “She’s my wife and my best friend: the best thing that has happened in my life.”
He will be the best man at his brother David’s wedding. They are very close, even if they are very different. “On Christmas Day, he had a T-bone steak, well done, carrots and parsnips, tomato ketchup and mashed potatoes”, he says. “He has simple tastes but like me he’s a perfectionist: he’s a woodwork teacher and much better organised than I am. But we are so close. I was the first person he told after he got engaged and similarly he was the first person I told about the twins.”
There are 12 chefs in the kitchen of MacNean House. Maguire prides himself on being among their number most of the time: a hands-on chef who’s never likely to put his name to an empire of restaurants just to swell the coffers. He also says that he’s not a food snob. “Oh no, I never was”, he says. “I think that I’m very approachable when it comes to food. I cook with my heart and love to share my passion and give people inspiration, not put people off by saying ‘that’s lovely but I’m not going to make it’. This is food that people can make at home.”
Neven Maguire must be one of the nicest chefs in the Ireland. Is he? “Well, I am”, he says and laughs. “No really, what you see is what you get. I’m very easy-going. I’m very passionate in the kitchen but I never lose my temper. I’m not like some other chefs – I won’t mention their names [I didn’t expect he would] – but I treat people with respect. If you make a mistake that’s not a bad thing; learn from it and try not to do it again. I make mistakes every day but once you learn from it, that’s OK.”
If there’s one thing he gets angry about, it’s the VAT increase to 23%. “When you’re right on the border, it’s like waving a carrot”, he says of the temptation of going across the border for cheap drink. “It’s very difficult when you’re running a local business. We have always tried to offer value and quality. We’ve never changed our prices. When the VAT decrease came in we immediately passed it onto the customer. We want people to buy local. I think that VAT increase will have a negative effect.”
The new series of Home Chef once again celebrates home-grown produce, indigenous producers and local talent. In his trip around the island, Maguire gets to meet the grand dame of Irish cooking, and founder of Ballymaloe, Myrtle Allen, as well as Patrick Bewley (grandson of the founder of Bewley’s Café), the chief blender at Barry’s Tea in Cork and Mr Tayto, Ray Coyle. It’s unashamedly and fervently pro-Irish. “It was a great education for me”, says Maguire, who also got to pull his first ever pint during filming. “Can you believe that?” he asks. “And it took me 12 goes to get it right, I swear to God. Most chefs like their pints but I don’t, I drink wine.”
He also has a famously sweet tooth. The last time we met in his Cavan home we served us homemade shortbread and chocolates and that was before we even sat down for dinner! He reckons he got his sweet tooth from his father and his culinary CV is littered with awards and citations for his desserts. He laughs: it’s a fair cop. “I just love desserts”, he says. “I love ice-cream and chocolate and the rest. I’d rather waive a starter instead of a dessert. And his favourite main course? “It has to be grass-fed Irish beef. I use the ribeye cut which I love, with a little bit of braised cheek.”
Next autumn, Maguire will publish the MacNean cookbook, a more personal project than previous books as it will feature his mother and his family. Before that, he plans to launch on online cookery club where he will cooks live every month. Like his mother, he has a strong religious faith. “If you don’t have faith you can be a little bit soulless”, he says. “So I do think that you need something in your life, some direction and guidance. It was the way that I was brought up and if you have faith you treat people with respect. My mother’s dream for 2012 was to go to Medjugorje and we got her that for Christmas with all the family chipping in.”
Neven Maguire’s dream for 2012 will come into the world in February. “Am I nervous?” he asks. “Yes, I certainly am. My world is going to turn upside down but it’s a new challenge and I love new challenges. It’s going to be what life is all about: rearing a family and spending time with them. I’ve only cooked for Amelda six times last year. If you ring me next year I don’t want to say that: I want to say that I was at home most weeks. That’s what I really want.”