Donal Skehan: ‘Cooking has always been a moment of solace’

After a tumultuous couple of years, the former boyband star is going back to the recipes that get us through, he tells Ella Walker

Wednesday 20 October 2021 08:30
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Cookbooks are not just a record of recipes, but a record of meals cooked and eaten together, of travels and gatherings, events and moments both ordinary and extraordinary. They are effectively records of life, and for Irish presenter and food writer Donal Skehan, every one of his cookbooks “ends up being a little bit semi-autobiographical” in the sense that they “come with, or identify, a purpose in my life that needs recipes”.

The 35-year-old’s latest, Everyday Cook, is no different. Skehan and his wife, Sofie Larsson, have two boys under three (Noah and Oliver) and have moved three times in 18 months, on top of a pandemic – and so this, his 10th book, is a “real celebration of family life” and the doable recipes “we come back to; the ones that get us through”.

And schedule allowing, the former boy band singer really does cook every single day. “Hate is too strong a word, but I’ve grown to love less the travel and all the things that go alongside the job I do,” he says with a diplomatic grin, having flown from Dublin for this chat and an appearance on ITV’s This Morning. “Now, because we have kids, I don’t want to be on a plane, I don’t want to be in a hotel room. I want to be at home, and I want to be cooking.”

It’s more than just dinner, he explains, “it’s the ecosystem of your home. It’s the ecosystem of how the kids eat, how we treat our bodies” – and jetting about, however fun and important, can get in the way of that. Skehan particularly likes cooking at the weekends, when you can do bigger projects. “I do pot stickers with the boys and we built a lasagne the other day, which was great craic for our little fella Noah.”

Having kids has undoubtedly shifted things “pretty drastically” he admits with a laugh. There’s less freedom to “freewheel it” in the kitchen, but it’s not all bad. “I feel like one of these cliché parents,” he says in mock horror. “I don’t hide veggies! But I sneak a lot more vegetables into my dishes than I ever did before.” And his children happily appreciate him making finger food out of “leftover crap from the bottom of the fridge. It’s actually made me use my kitchen more actively and more efficiently,” he says.

It’s a change too from the food he was immersed in while living in LA. “It was nothing to do with green juices, red carpets, all the things you imagine LA to be, in fact it has this incredible food scene that’s somewhat, from a European perspective, undiscovered,” he says excitedly. “We always think of New York as the food destination in the States but LA is just this incredible gem of a city.”

The tacos alone are enough to make him throw his hands in the air with glee. “Oh my god, the tacos! We ate out so much,” he says, remembering the brilliance of the little Ethiopia, Thai town, and Koreatown neighbourhoods.

After four-and-a-half years in LA though, Skehan and family had to leave in a mad dash: the lease was up on their house, their youngest was only a few months old, and the pandemic had hit. “We left in a bit of a panic, with two Ubers with guys in hazmat suits, and like 18 bags,” says Skehan. The plan was to come back to Ireland but not indefinitely. “It was all very tumultuous,” he recalls. “We were very much like new parents and not really knowing what was going on.”

Stressfully making it to Dublin, they moved into a house they hadn’t even seen (Skehan’s parents scouted it out for them). “Then we had to move again, and we’ve just moved again, and so the last couple of years have been – combined with the pandemic – personally and from a family perspective, we’ve had really quite a lot of stopping and starting and no consistency.”

The cookbook falling now, when they finally have a house to settle in and a reliable oven (“It’s functional, it works, the gas hob, for God’s sake, I just wanted a gas hob! I’ve been working off an Aga that doesn’t heat up!”) feels not a little serendipitous. “I don’t know if I was writing for future me,” Skehan ponders.

In times of tumult, cooking can often be a marker for how Skehan’s feeling in himself. “At my very best, I am cooking every day and for me, cooking has always been a moment of solace,” he says when asked about his experiences of burnout and mental health. “Even as a kid growing up, my mum’s kitchen was that place of warmth,” he continues. “I would come in from school in the autumn days, steamed-up windows, knowing there was a pot of stew on. There was always that place of warmth.”

When life and work get too demanding or overwhelming, when there’s too much travel and a sense of routine erodes, things can become emotionally and mentally difficult for any of us, which is a feeling Skehan recognises. “Burnout and anxiety and – I don’t know if I would kind of go as far as depression – but certainly there’s those moments that do come up for me,” says Skehan. “I’ve certainly experienced them in the last 12, 15 years, and particularly now with Covid and stuff like that, it is something that comes and goes and is fleeting, and then comes at you like a freight train in different ways.

Everyday Cook by Donal Skehan,(Donal Skehan/PA)

“But I do find when I’m at my calmest, cooking comes into play, and it really is a lovely way to turn to something that is wholesome and really is something for yourself; it’s something to look after you and the ones that you love.”

Back in Dublin – Skehan describes life in LA as “treading water”, compared to being home with “your hand on the side of the pool, you’ve got people around you” – he’s taken up paddle boarding. “It’s just so good,” he says. “It’s just this complete calm. The only thing that bursts your bubble is a seal might pop up – and that in itself is amazing!

“I can recognise [that burnout] kind of comes my way due to the nature of work and stuff like that, and choosing activities like paddle boarding, that do step you out of it and put you in a place of flow, keep you grounded, are really important.” Good food, ocean air and the chance of seals, yes please.

‘Everyday Cook’ by Donal Skehan (published by Hodder & Stoughton, £25) is available now.

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