"I have only ever got one fan letter and that was from a 74-year-old nun”, says Donal Skehan. “She was looking for my recipe for chocolate peanut butter squares. But I do get a lot of emails from people looking for me to come and do demos.”
I bet he does.
Although still only 25, Skehan has lived a number of lives. He has been a pop star and radio producer and is now, with his TV show Kitchen Hero and its spin-off books, a celebrity cook and best-selling author. This success owes as much to his talent as his relentless drive. Speaking at a rate of knots, he admits that he’s a total control freak and he can’t sit still for any length of time. “Are you a bit hyper, Donal?” I ask. “Yes, I think I am”, he says bouncing around in his seat. He then picks up the press release for his latest book, Great Food for Less. “I haven’t seen this yet”, he says, scanning the page like the hands-on writer, cook and photographer that he is.
We meet in a terraced house in the picturesque Dublin suburb of Howth (Skehan grew up down the road). It is both home and office (the phone rarely stops ringing during our stay), as Skehan shot both series of Kitchen Hero and photographed all the recipes for his new book in its kitchen. He lives here with his Swedish girlfriend, Sofie Larsson, and although a rented property, it is punctuated with their photographs and personalities. Shelves are tightly packed with cookbooks, from Jamie to Nigella to Donal himself. “I think there never can be too many cookbooks”, he says, pooh-poohing any suggestion that the world might be cluttered with culinary publications. The kitchen table still groans with the props from a photo-shoot Skehan did the previous day for Food and Wine magazine. On the fridge door, an alphabet of letter magnets have been rearranged to form some apt phrases, like ‘Kitchen Hero’ and ‘Great Food for Less’.
The book, which had the working title Cooking on a Shoestring, is a tome for these times. “Everyone is talking about budgets and money but there are ways of cooking well for less”, he says. So he delivers recipes that utilise the cheaper cuts of meat (trotters, brisket, shanks) to serve up a feast.
His main inspiration was his granny, Elizabeth Ryan (Betty), who raised seven children on a modest budget. “She was and still is a fantastic cook and she has an amazing collection of recipes”, he says. “I love visiting her because she says something like ‘I have nothing in the house’ and then she might produce this amazing cheese soufflé.”
Skehan grew up in a family wedded to food. His parents, Liz and Dermot, run their own food and vegetable production company, Freshcut Food Services, and his aunt, Erica Ryan, is a food stylist (for TV adverts, films and magazines). He has one sibling, John (21), who is studying business at Dublin City University.
Long before Donal took up the chopping board, he dreamed of treading the boards. At school, he was in musicals as both singer and actor. His best subject was fine art and although he applied for art college he ended up doing media studies. He lasted one year. By then, he was already in a band, Streetwize, and believed his future to be far from academia. His parents were not amused. “I remember my mum saying, ‘you’re what!?’ It was the equivalent of me saying that I was going off to join the circus.”
He took a year off, performed with Streetwize, re-sat his exams and got them and found himself back in college at a lecture on the first day and decided then that was that. “I called my mum and said that I just couldn’t do it. She asked me: ‘well what are you going to do?’ I didn’t know then but I knew that I wanted to do something.”
So, being Donal, he tried a number of things. He signed up for a media skills course. He produced a showbiz spot with Glenda Gilson for Bubble Hits radio. He was in a band that was beaten by a turkey in the 2008 National Song Contest (afterwards, Dustin asked him whether it was his family who were in the audience giving the turkey a hard time. It was). But most significantly, he was in the pop band, Industry, that notched up two Irish Number Ones and released three music videos.
“We played in front of 16,000 people in Killarney when we supported the Pussycat Dolls”, he says. “That was one of the most amazing things I have ever done. When I first started doing cookery demonstrations I said to Sofie that I was never likely to get knickers thrown at me doing them.”
Skehan’s boy-band past is still there in his gelled-up hairstyle: a windswept look that seems nailed into place. Even a brief photo-shoot in a windy back garden couldn’t budge it. But it adds to his boyish good lucks – he will be 26 in June – and you cannot but be taken by his zeal and optimism: the pop star who has become a pot star. His breakthrough was Good Mood Food (Mercier Press), a book compiled from Skehan’s food blogs, many of which were written while on the road with Industry. It won Best Irish-Published Book at the 2010 Irish Book Awards and put Skehan on the map. “When we launched it my mum came up to me and said: ‘Your book means more to me than any thesis you could ever have written.’ She knew then that I was doing something with my life.”
Skehan regularly asserts that he’s not a chef (“I’m a home cook”) and he has no aspirations to own his own restaurant. Books and TV are his world and he writes to inspire and encourage. “When someone comes up to me in the supermarket and tells me that they have made my fish pie, that is the most rewarding thing for me”, he says. But there’s no denying his ambition. Kitchen Hero has been sold to TV networks in Brazil, France and the UK, and there have been Swedish and German editions of the book. Last St Patrick’s Day, Skehan appeared on the flagship ABC show, Good Morning America. But the show’s female hosts seemed more interested in the cook than the cooking. “Basically I was groped for four or so minutes”, he says and laughs. “I didn’t really get to cook that much that day. But it was a brilliant experience and I was asked back.”
Even so, with his lack of formal training – and pop star history – Skehan has his critics. “Yes it does get under your skin”, he says. “But it will always be like that until I go off and do a culinary course. But even if I did that I suspect people would still bitch about me. We’re all pass-remarkable, that’s human nature. People don’t know that I was writing the food blog, people don’t know my parents work in food or that my aunt is a food stylist or my granny is a fantastic cook. Delia Smith never had a day of training in her life. Neither did Nigella Lawson or Bill Grainger. I think the thing I do is that I give people the confidence to cook. It’s not elitist and it shouldn’t be.”
Skehan runs his business with Sofie. If he is the front-of-house poster boy, his girlfriend is the behind-the-scenes business woman. “It’s Pinky and the Brain”, he says, name-checking the cartoon Animaniacs. “And I’m Pinky.” So what’s it like to work so closely with your partner? “I won’t say we didn’t have issues at the start because you’re working together and living together”, he says. “But I think we have found a nice way of making it work.”
The couple have been together for nearly six years. So have they talked about getting engaged? Donal fidgets in his seat. “I’m only 25, I’m not even thinking of that yet”, he says. “But yes we do talk about that (fidget fidget) so it’s in the air (fidget fidget) and being talked about (fidget fidget) but I am far too young for that kind of carry-on yet.”
As we leave, he offers some lemon buns which he wraps up in tin-foil shaped like a swan. “I’m famous for my tin-foil swans”, he says. He’s also increasingly famous for lots of other things: and already, with his Swedish book just launched and Great Cooking for Less about to hit the shelves here, he’s planning his next cookbook. “My ambitions are to spread the love of Kitchen Hero”, he says.
* Great Food for Less by Donal Skehan is published by Collins on May 10.