Donal Skehan rarely gets angry. At least not in public. His eternally sunny disposition was a feature long before he ever swapped Howth for sun-kissed California, where he has been living since 2016. Yet today, he’s a little under the weather. The reason? Jamie Oliver.
Jamie’s business woes have been making front-page headlines recently – his chain of British restaurants was put into administration last month with the loss of 1,000 jobs – and Skehan is devastated for his “lovely” and “genuine” friend.
“Jamie has been a big mentor for me and played a massive role in my career to date,” Skehan says. “He took me under his wing when we started a YouTube channel in 2014 and that channel now has over 800,000 subscribers. The push it has given me has only propelled me forward, so I was gutted to hear his news.”
It’s not just the news that has upset Skehan, but some of the reaction on social media.
“It’s awful to see people come out and almost relish in the negativity of it,” he says. “The big success of Fifteen [a not-for-profit restaurant Jamie opened in 2002 which hired 15 disadvantaged and unemployed youths and trained them up as chefs] makes it one of the groundbreaking restaurants of its time.
“No one else has done anything quite like that for the cheffing industry. To look at people who are underprivileged and transform their lives. The number of people who came out of Fifteen with careers. I feel like that is something that needs to be talked about.
“I don’t see [the businesses closing] as a failure in any way at all. I see it as an incredible run and incredible success, and I think it’s poor taste for anyone relishing in the negativity of it.
“There seems to be more of a hunger these days for things to go wrong. Social media has delivered a medium where people can jump on the drama. I’m baffled by people giving Jamie a hard time about his healthy eating campaign too. How can people not see that he’s pushing for possibility, for change?”
In many ways Skehan and Oliver are not dissimilar: easy-going, vivacious, enthusiastic and made for television. Skehan is not a trained chef, however, rather a food writer and TV host, falling into his career via a popular food blog he began as a 19-year-old in 2007. The Good Mood Food blog featured Skehan’s upbeat recipes and beautiful photos he shot himself, leading to his first book deal in 2009 and his first TV series two years later. Having studied media at college, he was a keen photographer, using his bright food images to elevate his blog into something worth talking about.
Today, brand Donal is a far more slick operation than the naive, exclamation mark-laden blog of old. Living in LA with his wife Sofie and baby boy Noah, his days are a whirl of recipe development and writing, filming, TV presenting and photoshoots. He has cracked YouTube - his channel has 400,000 subscribers and boasts over 17 million views to date - with his cooking videos regularly breaking 100,000 views.
One of his more popular videos, Croque Madame, the classic French sandwich, has pulled in almost 150,000 views and leads us on to the subject of toasted sandwiches, in many ways the ultimate comfort food. “Toasties have evolved so much since the days of sticking a slice of cheese between sliced pan!” laughs Skehan. “Nowadays there’s tricks like spreading mayo on the outside to get the correct golden crunch, or using a combination of three cheeses with Gruyère to get that really stringy meltiness.”
Something of a self-professed cheese addict, Skehan admits that this may have played a part in influencing where they settled in LA. “Los Angeles is such a huge city that you have no idea where you are basing yourself when you arrive. We found this lovely house with a good kitchen and garden and wanted to check out the neighbourhood. We found a fantastic little cheese shop close by and that is what sold it to us!”
He loves the fact that he can find a nice chunk of Gubbeen or Crozier Blue locally and bring it home for his dinner in Los Angeles. “That’s a testament to how Irish cheese has travelled, how it’s respected, the craftsmanship that goes into it. It’s a story that has evolved and anyone who hasn’t got on the cheese bandwagon is really missing out.”
He credits his friend, Melissa Ryan, with developing his awareness of the Irish farmhouse cheese scene when he was starting out food writing. “Melissa was heading up Sheridan’s Cheesemongers and really opened my eyes to Irish cheese; the quality, the innovations, the branding that have seen it become a success story right across the world.”
Quick to acknowledge how much Irish palates have evolved since he first became a food writer ten years ago, Skehan recalls receiving criticism for having a cookbook filled with foreign recipes and things that weren’t necessarily from Ireland. “People were starting to change then and were moving towards cooking with ingredients that they first tasted when they travelled abroad. Happily, now, it’s become the norm to take that inspiration and experiment.
“And people’s knowledge has changed too. Nowadays [in Ireland] you can find a jar of harissa paste on the shelves in your local supermarket. I just love that something like harissa has gone mainstream and that people, in general, are more willing to experiment with food.”
Delighted to see people eating more sheep’s and goat’s cheese too, he’s not convinced it has been a conscious decision. “It’s possible they’re doing it subconsciously, like buying a pecorino cheese and not realising it’s made from sheep’s milk.” Acknowledging that goat’s cheese can be divisive, he counsels that the grassy taste is something to conquer rather than to fear. “The minute you taste that really pure flavour that you get from a really fresh goat’s cheese, with that clarity of creaminess, there’s nothing else like it. I think that the grassiness is part of the sell, rather than something that should put you off.”
He loves blue cheese too (“I can’t get Young Buck over here and it’s one of the things I miss the most”), though uses it more in recipes than on a cheese board. “Recipe writers are always looking for those hits of umami, and blue cheese always delivers.”
Recently announced as the official ambassador for ‘Cheese. Your Way’, an initiative between the National Dairy Council and European Milk Forum, the new campaign is aimed at encouraging more Irish consumers to enjoy quality cheese from Europe. Skehan is thrilled with the partnership, not just because it allows him to experiment with cheese recipes, but also because of the campaign’s rather cool competition.
Record an original food video about yourself and why you love cooking with cheese and you could be jetting off with a friend to LA to hang out with Skehan at home, take in a video workshop with him to learn more about food styling, and check out the sights of LA. “I was really excited when I heard they wanted to offer this prize,” he laughs. “It’s great for anyone aspiring to work through photography or styling and presents a lovely opportunity to learn. There’s a whole new food scene out here to introduce them to and we want to take the winners to a few key food spots close by. We’ll do some outdoor photography as well. The perma-blue skies deliver great light!”
Few people realise the work that goes into a single photoshoot, and Skehan likes to be involved in every aspect of it. “We had a six-part photoshoot the other day, so I do a flat plan first. I’ll draw the image of what I want each shot to look like, then we go to a prop house and we pick props we’ll use in the shoot.” And that’s all before he sources ingredients and starts cooking.
“I believe that if I didn’t do photography alongside my recipes, they certainly wouldn’t have got the attention they have got. It plays a big part and is what I learned my craft in. Having dishes look really appealing on paper or on screen is so important.”
Easygoing and fun, Skehan wants the winners to enjoy themselves while coming away with some solid shots they feel proud of and which could be used in a portfolio.
But he’d be just as happy to host two food lovers who simply want to come out and enjoy the experience. “I think there will be some lovely take-away moments from those days, no matter what the winner wants,” he says.
He promises to supply a long list of places to eat out in while here and, if you play your cards right, he may just introduce you to his favourite cheese shop too.
Ingredients, serves four
For the tomato marinara sauce:
3-4 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely sliced
2 x 400g tin whole plum tomatoes
½ tsp dried red chilli flakes
½ tsp dried oregano
For the breadcrumbed chicken:
300ml sunflower oil
4 medium chicken breasts
2 large free-range eggs, beaten
200g fine dry breadcrumbs (Japanese panko works well)
50g flour, seasoned
100g parmesan cheese, whizzed in a food processor
1. For the marinara sauce, place a large frying pan over a medium high heat and add the oil. When it’s hot, add the onion and fry gently for ten minutes or until softened and slightly golden. Add the garlic, chilli flakes and oregano and stir through for one to two minutes.
2. Add in the tomatoes and fill one of the tins halfway up with water and add this also. Bring the contents of the pan to a steady simmer and then reduce the heat and cook for 35 minutes or until the sauce has reduced by half.
3. Check the seasoning before transferring the sauce to a food processor or blender. Blitz until completely smooth - you can also pass the sauce through a fine sieve if you’d prefer. Transfer the sauce to a container and set aside.
4. Lay the chicken breasts across the chopping board, place a piece of parchment paper on top and, using a rolling pin, flatten the breasts gently to a thickness of about 1cm.
5. Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium-high heat. Place the breadcrumbs, egg and seasoned flour in three separate wide bowls. Remove the parchment paper and dip each breast in the seasoned flour, then in the egg and finally the breadcrumbs.
6. Fry the crumbed chicken in the oil for one to two minutes either side until golden brown - they will continue to cook in the oven/grill. Remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to a plate lined with kitchen paper. You may need to do this in batches depending on the size of the pan.
7. Heat an oven to 240°C/Gas mark 9 or a grill to its hottest setting. Line a large baking sheet with low sides with parchment paper.
8. Add the chicken breasts to the baking sheet and top each one generously with the marinara sauce, spreading right to the edges. Sprinkle each breast with parmesan cheese and then sprinkle the cheese lightly with a few tablespoons of water - this will help the parmesan cheese melt slightly. Place in the oven or under the grill for two to three minutes or until the cheese and sauce is bubbling and the chicken is cooked all the way through. Serve immediately with freshly cooked spaghetti.
Cauliflower mac ’n’ cheese
Ingredients, serves six
1.4 litres full-fat milk
1 head of cauliflower, broken into small florets
25g unsalted butter
150g mature Cheddar, grated
125g grated mozzarella
2 tsp Dijon mustard
Sea salt and black pepper
1. Put the milk and macaroni into a shallow casserole dish and season well with salt and pepper.
2. Bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer and cook for ten minutes, stirring frequently.
3. Add the cauliflower and cook for a further three to five minutes until both cauliflower and pasta are tender and the sauce is thickened and reduced and coating the pasta.
4. Add the butter, cheeses and mustard and cook, stirring, over a low heat until the cheese has melted. Meanwhile, preheat the grill to high.
5. Put the casserole under the hot grill to brown all over, then serve straight away.
Ultimate grilled cheese sandwich
Ingredients, serves six
White bloomer loaf
200g cheddar cheese
200g Gruyère cheese
English mustard, sriracha and/or hot sauce
12 good-quality crumbed ham slices
1. Heat a griddle pan or frying pan low to medium heat.
2. Grate the Gruyère and cheddar cheese on the large side of a box grater; toss together.
3. Slice the loaf into thick slices and spread the butter on both sides.
4. Top half the slices with sauce of choice, grated cheese and two slices of sliced ham per sandwich.
5. Top with the other slice of bread and press down.
6. Put them on the grill pan and cook for four minutes on either side.
The ‘Cheese. Your Way’ competition is open to anyone 18 years and over from across Ireland. To enter, record and send an original video saying why you love cooking with cheese to [email protected] or via Facebook message to @TheCompleteNatural by 5pm on Friday, June 28, 2019. For full competition terms and conditions, visit thecompletenatural.ie or ndc.ie
Ingredients, serves six
For the filling:
2 tbsp olive oil
500g beef mince
8 rashers of smoked streaky bacon, roughly chopped
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 small carrot, peeled and coarsely grated
75g mushrooms, finely chopped
2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée
250ml red wine
1 tsp dried oregano
Sea salt and ground black pepper
Handful of basil leaves, chopped
8 sheets of lasagne
For the cheese sauce:
50g plain flour
300ml warm milk
75g blue cheese, crumbled
75g cheddar cheese, grated
50g Parmesan cheese, grated
1 tsp English mustard
1. Heat one tablespoon of the olive oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the mince and fry for two to three minutes until browned. Remove the mince from the pan and set aside on a plate.
2. Heat the rest of the oil in the frying pan, then add the bacon and fry for about two minutes until cooked through. Add the onion and garlic and fry for a further two minutes, then stir in the carrot and mushrooms and fry for two minutes more. Return the mince to the pan with the tomatoes, tomato purée, red wine and oregano. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Season with sea salt and ground black pepper to taste, then stir through the basil.
3. Preheat the oven to 190°C/Gas Mark 5. To make the cheese sauce, melt the butter in a saucepan and stir in the flour quickly so you have a smooth paste. Gradually whisk in the warm milk and bring the sauce to the boil. Reduce the heat to a steady simmer and simmer for two minutes until the sauce becomes thick.
4. Remove the pan from the heat and add the cheeses (saving a little of the blue cheese and cheddar for sprinkling on the top) and English mustard. Season with sea salt and ground black pepper.
5 Spoon a layer of the bolognese into a high-sided 27.5 x 20cm baking dish, then top with a layer of lasagne sheets followed by a layer of the cheese sauce. Repeat the process until the bolognese and cheese sauces are used up, finishing with a layer of cheese sauce. Sprinkle the reserved cheese over the top and bake in the oven for 30–35 minutes until the lasagne is bubbling and browned on top. Serve straight to the table.