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Monday 11 December 2017

Donal Skehan: I silenced the food snobs

Donal Skehan tells Joanna Kiernan about going global, planning a wedding and ignoring food snobs

Donal Skehan
Donal Skehan
Tea with Joanna Kiernan & Donal Skehan. 10/10/2014
Sophie and Donal

"You might see a show on this November, but we've done all that work ages ago, so it always feels like you are waiting for it to hit and the next thing to come along," Donal Skehan tells me. "In a way that's what keeps you going."

Life is certainly a bit of a whirlwind for Donal Skehan these days. The 28-year-old food blogger and TV personality is just back from a two-week stint filming a new show for the UK-based Food Network and this Saturday he will begin his second nationwide Kitchen Hero Live tour.

"We start at the beginning of November, run right through to Christmas and then we do the Christmas TV special," he smiles, clearly happy to be kept so busy. "I have only been on television four or five years and it is amazing the power of it and what it brings you. There are few enough Irish people, who go from Irish TV to the UK and beyond, so it's an incredible opportunity. I do have to pinch myself."

Donal has always loved food. Yet not everyone in the food industry has always welcomed Donal's 21st Century approach to the area.

"I think at the start I got criticised for not being a chef, but the world has changed," Donal explains. "It is a naive view to think that a person has to be a chef to talk about food on TV."

Tea with Joanna Kiernan & Donal Skehan. 10/10/2014
Tea with Joanna Kiernan & Donal Skehan. 10/10/2014

"If you are self-taught, you have to have a passion for it and for me it really was, all from the point of view of passion," he adds. "When I started a food blog, I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would someday be talking to the people whose cookbooks I had or watched on TV. I never thought I would get to be on the same level as them."

Approach

Almost eight years later, however, the critics have been silenced.

"The world is changing," Donal says. "At the very start I would get caught up by the criticism you get, but now as time as moved on, my confidence has grown."

"I think when you know who you are and what you are doing, you just have to push people who will criticise you to the side, because you are going forward and they are trying to pull you back. You have to keep moving and that's essentially what I do, or what I try to do!" he laughs.

He may not have had much of a formal education in food, but Donal grew up surrounded by the industry. His parents own the award winning Dublin food company Fresh Cut Foods and Donal's grandfather had a wholesale fruit and vegetable shop on Dorset Street for decades.

"I remember always being really interested in cooking and being in the kitchen with my mum watching from very early childhood. Then in my teens I got a present of an Asian cookery book, going into the Asian supermarket for all of the ingredients and trying it out. It was literally just trial and error and sometimes that can be a great way of learning," he explains.

In person, Donal is just as he is on screen, there is no showbiz affectation or 'TV Face,' he is as bright, smiley and genuine as always. It is a trait that mimic Mario Rosenstock capitalises on, by playing Donal as a two-faced, hard-nosed, all round diva in his hilarious skits.

When he first heard he was up for the chop, however, Donal admits he was nervous.

"He'll kill me for saying it, but I think I got off lightly because he plays me as something I'm not, drinking, smoking, horrible guy, so I think it has actually given me a bit of street cred where I may not have had it before!" Donal laughs. "It was great fun. He can do my hair, but he can't do my voice!"

This summer Donal signed with Jamie Oliver's FoodTube channel, Europe's largest and fastest growing YouTube channel with nearly one million subscribers in its first year.

The move makes Donal part of an all-star line up including Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall of the River Cottage and Mr Oliver himself. The opportunity came about as a result of a meeting over eight years ago.

"It's a true case of the value of simply getting yourself out there," Donal explains. "When I was just starting out, the book had just been published here and I packed my suitcase with very little clothes and a lot of the books and went over to London, wheeling this suitcase around to meetings with people."

"One of the companies I went and had a meeting with was Fresh One, which is Jamie Oliver's production company and it was cringe-worthy because on the front of my book at the time, was the line 'Ireland's answer to Jamie Oliver,' but it was all I had to show them what I did."

"I gave them the book and they were really excited about what I did and the loved the energy and all of the usual stuff they say, but nothing came of it because they said they felt that I was a little bit too young for it."

On reflection, Donal who was just 21 at the time thinks they were right.

"Two years ago, I got a phone call from the same woman I'd met saying 'we've watched your career blossom and we loved everything you've been doing and we have this new opportunity!'" Donal beams.

And it's not just exciting times in Donal's work life; Donal and his long term Swedish girlfriend Sofie, who works as part of his small team, got engaged last May.

"I don't think I ever expected the reaction we got," he smiles. "We're still looking for the right wedding venue. It's hard to find something you are really happy with and something you both want. So we don't know where yet, but we are still hoping to have it next summer."

The hen and stag party plans, however, are a little more advanced.

"We've been talking about doing a 'Sten' (joint stag and hen party), so we'd all go away for a weekend together; have a girls night and a guys night, and then all go out together because all of our friends are quite close. We might as well do something different like that and get a mini-break out of it while we're at it," Donal adds.

Donal and Sofie met in his local pub in Howth.

"Her best friend is half-Swedish and her grandmother used to live on the road I grew up on, so we kind of got to know her and one year Sofie came over with her, we all went out to the pub and the rest is history!" he smiles.

"I followed Sofie to Sweden for a few months and I worked there and then she came back here. So Sofie has lived in Dublin pretty much for the last seven years."

The young couple now go back and forth to Sweden regularly and Donal has become something of a hit there of late.

"I have just started this show in Sweden speaking Swedish, which is quite random and it's going unbelievably well," he reveals.

"I have been asked to do the Swedish version of Strictly Come Dancing and the Crystal Maze and all of these shows, so we have got a great reaction to it," he laughs.

Donal believes his attempts to master the mother tongue have helped with his audience appeal, but says he is far from fluent.

"I have enough to present a TV show!" he laughs. "Enough to get by let's say. I think half the charm is that I don't speak it perfectly. Not very many people learn how to speak Swedish because they all have such fantastic English, so when someone who is not Swedish, speaks Swedish, they kind of warm to you a little bit."

It is not hard to see why, it would be very difficult for anyone who met Donal Skehan not to warm to him.

The Donal Skehan Kitchen Hero Live Tour kicks off on November 1 in Galway. Tickets are available directly from each of the venues nationwide, online or via DonalSkehan.com

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