It seems like Donal Skehan is everywhere you turn these days. His new book, Kitchen Hero, is in bookshops and on bestseller lists, his TV show is currently airing on RTÉ and he’s spent the past couple of weeks doing cooking demos at Bloom and Taste of Dublin — and that’s in addition to blogging on his website, writing his regular columns for The Cork News and the Irish Independent and doing all his own food photography. I caught up with Donal to ask him what inspires him in the kitchen, what advice he has for new cooks and what a day in the life of a food writer is like.
You were one of the first food bloggers in Ireland. What prompted you to start your Good Mood Food blog back in 2007?
When I started I think you could count the active Irish food bloggers on one hand! Absolute boredom at the job I was working at and an obsessive love of all things food were what spurred me on to starting my blog.
Your two cookbooks and now your TV show all came about because of the blog and you’re often described as Ireland’s answer to Jamie Oliver. Did you ever think you’d be where you are now when you started blogging?
It’s quite amazing to have become accepted on the Irish food scene having sidestepped all the traditional routes. I think it says a lot about how we are consuming food info these days. People want fast access and food blogging provides that. Before I actually started the food blog I had written out a plan for a cookbook, so I guess it was in the back of my mind all the time. I just had no idea how I would get it out there, but food blogging provided the answer!
You’ve been busy lately launching Kitchen Hero and promoting your new TV show on RTÉ, but what is a typical day like for you as a food writer?
It changes from day to day, there is always something different going on. I went full time with food writing, blogging and photography back in February 2010 and thankfully it has been really busy! I try and keep the new website up to date as much as possible, which is a lot more work than when it was a blog, so updating the technical side of that can take up to two hours a day. I write a weekly piece in The Cork News which takes the bones of a morning’s work. I am now writing my piece in the Irish Independent Weekend Magazine every two weeks and that takes a good day’s work.
Generally shooting takes the most time because there are a lot of elements to it and because I do it all myself. A normal day’s shoot starts with a shopping list, picking up everything, prepping in the kitchen, setting up props, cooking the food, styling the food and then taking the photo, but then of course there is the editing and the writing of the recipes to do as well. I’m just starting work on my next book so it becomes harder to fit everything in, but hopefully I will be able to keep all the balls in the air!
You’ve not only published two cookbooks, but took all the photos in Kitchen Hero as well. How did you get started in food photography?
I only really started photographing food in 2007 when I started the blog, so anyone who has been following from the very start would easily be able to see the transition my photos have gone through to be where they are now. It was a lot of trial and error, but in my teens I worked alongside my aunt, who is a food stylist, so I would have been aware of what looks good and what sort of angles to look for, what sort of props to use, etc. The real transition in photography for me was changing from a Canon 400D to a Canon 5D Mark II. All of a sudden I was able to provide high-res photos for magazines and newspapers and I could confidently approach people with my photography, which was probably one of the main reasons I got the go-ahead to shoot the photos for Kitchen Hero.
You make a point of often saying that you’re a self-taught home cook. What words of advice do you have for people just starting to cook and learning their way around a kitchen?
My main aim with this current book and TV series is to give people the confidence to go into the kitchen and try their hand at any dish. For anyone just starting out, the main things I always mention are getting your store cupboard ingredients sorted so that you have a good base from which to start. Go out and buy essential pieces of kitchen equipment, like a good knife, a chopping board, a frying pan and some pots. When you have those sorts of things in your kitchen, life becomes easier and you can happily go into your kitchen and cook knowing you have the essentials to hand.
What inspires you in the kitchen?
Travel is one of my big inspirations. I love tasting and trying things on the move and I cannot wait to travel to Asia in the next few years, I have a feeling I’m going to love it! Travel is a big one, but also shopping, visiting food fairs, farmers’ markets and vegetable gardens and reading cookbooks and magazines are all great resources for cooking inspiration.
You’re a food writer, but do you ever have times when you stand in front of the pantry drawing a blank, not knowing what to cook for dinner?
All the time! Lack of organisation is one of the key things that can kill any home cook’s confidence, which is why I try and plan ahead sometimes and pop meat in a marinade in the fridge or freezer, have salad dressings in jars and lots of fresh salad leaves washed and ready to go in my fridge’s bottom drawer. Generally it doesn’t take too long to have an inspired idea cooked and ready to eat. Sometimes it’s a nice challenge!
What do you cook when you need to whip up a quick dinner at the end of a busy day?
Pasta tends to be my go-to ingredient during the winter, so anything from vodka penne to pasta amatriciana for a quick supper. But during the summer months, salads are what I’m all about! I grow a lot of my own so it’s really easy to have a cheap supply of fresh leaves at all times, so I like to mix it up with dressings, nuts, chicken or fish for a light summer supper.
What are some of your favourite cookbooks? What cookbooks are you reading now?
I love anything by Donna Hay, Nigel Slater, Nigella Lawson, Leila Lindholm, Bill Granger and Jamie Oliver – they definitely make up the majority of my bookshelves! At the moment I have Leila Lindholm’s new one, Two Greedy Italians (I’m loving their TV series) and New Zealander Annabel Langbein’s new one.
You’ve written some fantastic (and envy-inducing) blog posts about eating out in Paris and New York, but where are your favourite places to eat out in Ireland?
I try to spend a lot of time making sure I end up in nice places when I travel, so I do my research! I really don’t eat out in Ireland that much, but recently we spent a few days in the south and I had fantastic meals at Cafe Paradiso in Cork, Chapter 40 in Killarney and The Fish Kitchen in Bantry Bay.
Kitchen Hero is in the shops and the TV show is now airing on our screens. What’s next for you?
Well, as I mentioned I’m starting to write the next book. That will take most of the summer, but I’m hoping to spend some time travelling to pick up lots of new inspiration for it. The Kitchen Hero TV series stops in the first week in July and then comes back for another six episodes in the autumn, so I’m hoping to organise some more cookery demonstrations around that time. Lots of exciting things are happening that I have just started working on, one of them being a free app for my website!
All photos are courtesy of Donal Skehan
Kitchen Hero is available in Irish bookshops, on Amazon.co.uk or bookdepository.co.uk. The accompanying TV series airs on Monday nights on RTÉ at 8:30 p.m. or you can watch it online via the RTÉ Player.