Over the past decade, Irish food writer, food photographer and television presenter Donal Skehan made a name for himself around the globe. He grew up inspired by a family of passionate food lovers who worked in the food industry for more than 60 years, so cooking and eating hearty home-cooked food has always been a way of life for him. When others were out playing sports, Skehan was on the bus every Saturday to purchase ingredients to make dishes from the book “Encyclopedia of Chinese Cookery,” a gift from his grandmother. Years later, with a detour singing in a successful pop band that opened for The Pussycat Dolls, it was not long before he realized food was his true calling. His passion for the culinary arts led to the creation of his popular food blog. “The Good Mood Food Blog” chronicled quick cooking dishes and the cheap meals he prepared when he first moved out of home and was awarded the title of Best Irish Food Blog in 2009. A book deal and television series on Irish TV were quick to follow and Donal quickly established himself as one of Ireland’s most-popular food profiles.
His television career features him exploring European cities and Vietnam on the Cooking Channel in the “Follow Donal” series, learning the secrets of Italian cooking from 13 incredible grandmothers (aka Nonnas) on Fox International’s “Grandma’s Boy,” judging some of the U.K.’s finest young cooks on BBC’s “Junior MasterChef” and using his Swedish language skills while presenting Sweden’s biggest food show, “Mitt Kok.” Donal also had a primetime series for the past five years on RTE, Ireland’s largest TV channel and public broadcaster, as well as a popular YouTube channel. It is quite an impressive resume for a young man who only recently turned 30.
In summer 2016, Donal is bringing his effervescent personality and unique take on food to America. Alongside multi-faceted cohost Tia Mowry, he will hit the airwaves in the highly anticipated premiere season of Food Network’s new series, “Star Kids.” Over the course of six weeks, 10 fearless pint-sized hopefuls will attempt to prove themselves worthy of the title of Food Network Star, showcasing their comfort on camera and culinary skill sets, which go well beyond their years. Just like the adult finalists who came before, these kid competitors will come face to face with a series of demanding challenges to test their ingenuity and quick thinking in the kitchen as well as their ability to command an audience. Together Donal and Tia will mentor and judge the kid competitors through their tasks. The competition will be fierce and, at the end of six pressure filled weeks, only one young chef will earn the coveted prize of their own web series on FoodNetwork.com.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Donal Skehan to discuss his ever-blossoming culinary career, his American television debut with Food Network’s “Star Kids,” the challenges involved and the many irons this young entrepreneur has in the fire!
You made a name for yourself over the past several years. What intrigued you about the culinary arts early on?
My family has always been in the food business, so I grew up around food. One of my aunts and two uncles are chefs and my parents have a food business themselves. It was something always around the table when I was growing up and it was definitely something that was hard to get away from! I started in the kitchen when I was about 8 years old. My mom would always encourage use to get in the kitchen and try new things. That was kind of what sparked the interest. I was baking at that stage and it transitioned into more grown up dishes when I was about 12 or 13 years old.
What are some of your first memories of being in the kitchen with your family?
We have a tradition in Ireland of Pancake Tuesday. I think traditions are key when it comes to cooking because they are the way family memories are shared. For us, Pancake Tuesday was one thing we all celebrated together as a family. You mix up your pancake batter and have competitions as to who can flip the highest! That is something my mom always encouraged us to do and is one of my earliest and favorite memories of being in the kitchen with my family!
Early on you dove into your passion for music. What made you change gears and set your sights on the culinary arts as a career?
I think what it all comes down to is passion. I had a serious passion for food. The music thing was there and I absolutely love the process and performing in front of 15,000 people is awesome but it is not really sustainable for a long period of time! [laughs] You see these pop acts come and go, so focusing on the food side of things was more of a realistic career option. When I got the opportunity to go down the food route, I jumped at it! At the same time, both food and music were on the back-boiler at the same time. I was exploring both options at the same time and had a cookbook out at the same time we had a number one single. It was really ongoing. Like I said, I grew up with it and it was what my family did. It was like coming from a family of doctors. It’s part of your blood and at some point you know you are going to get into it. For me, I never had any reservations and it was an obvious choice as a career. It is something I do on a daily basis and if you work with your hobby and it is something you love doing, it makes it a lot easier to work with it everyday!
What went into finding your creative voice with your brand and in the kitchen?
It’s funny because it all started with my food blog and it was just at the time where food blogs were taking off. My point of difference was that not only did I cook the food but I photographed it. That really set what I was doing apart. That was an absolutely key part of what food is. Not only does it have to be delicious but it has to be extremely appealing. That was another side of it that I absolutely loved. All the aspects from selecting the ingredients to how the end product looked, it is something I had a great passion for and get pretty excited about.
You have written a number of very successful cookbooks. What goes into bringing those to life and how has the process changed along the way?
You know what? It is different every time I do one. I just finished writing my seventh book and every time it is pretty different. Someone has compared it to giving birth but I couldn’t comment on that because I have no idea! [laughs] It is that process of taking an idea, incubating it for a year and really seeing where the results end up. For me, the idea of creating a book from the start is creating something that is accessible to someone is going to be cooking from it. All of my recipes are like that. It is really about making sure people are actually going to cook from this book because so many of these cookbooks, as I’m sure you have seen, end up on people’s shelves and they never use them again! From that point of view, I am really about creating recipes that people will indeed cook! There is no point otherwise! I get a lot of my inspiration from my travels, which is what the new book I am working on is all about.
You have a brand new series on the way with Food Network’s “Star Kids.” How did you get involved and what excites you about the project?
I am so excited about it! This is my first ever American TV show and I am really, really excited about it! It’s a bit of a dream for me. I have been doing what I have been doing in Ireland for about eight years now and for me to cross the waters and have a TV show over here is thrilling and exciting! The process of doing it came from a show I was doing called “Follow Donal,” which was on the Cooking Channel. That aired this summer and then we got the call earlier this year that they were doing a spin-off show from “Food Network Star,” which is their biggest show. It has been pretty exciting to get there! My co-host on the show is Tia Mowry. She is absolutely brilliant and one of the most professional people I have ever worked with! She has been doing it for so long, she is an absolute legend! She has been really great in terms of advice and how to get on. Coming over here and working with these young kids who are just so talented is quite impressive and has been wonderful. I’ve had experience doing it in the UK with “Junior Master Chef.” When you come over here, there is a slight difference in the attitude of the kids! They are so much more confident and have more influences in terms of cuisine, so you get Middle Eastern, Asian and European as well. It’s been exciting to see the broad range of skills and inspiration that they bring to the table!
You are no stranger to the world of television. What have been the biggest challenges for you on this series?
I suppose the biggest challenge is, obviously, that you are working with kids. From that point of view, I always want to inspire them. It’s really important to push people rather than push people down. With a competition show, it is important you are instilling the love of cooking. I think with a lot of these competition shows, you can find people are put off by them. With the kid’s shows, the great thing is that they are given the ability to improve and showcase their skills. To narrow it down, the hardest part is not giving criticism but giving constructive criticism so they will leave with a great takeaway and will continue to cook from here on out!
You have brushed elbows with a lot of talented people throughout your career. What is the best advice someone has given you?
You know what, there was an Irish TV host and she told me, “Whatever you do, no matter where you are or who are dealing with, always be delighted and happy in what you do! If you don’t love it, it comes across.” That is something I try to hold onto in whatever I am involved with. Being on a show like “Star Kids” is a great example of that because not everyone gets the opportunity to do these things and you just have to be so grateful!
You mentioned having another book in the works and it seems you always have a few irons in the fire! What do you have in store for us in the months to come?
I have a little project coming up with Food Network that we are working on. Then I have a book coming out in the new year with Sterling, at the end of March, and it’s called “Fresh.” It is going to be my first ever US book release. I am very excited about that! We have a YouTube channel and we have done a collaboration with Rosanna Pansino from Nerdy Nummies and she has been great! We are continuing with the YouTube channel, so that is our big focus for the next little while! It’s busy! It’s busy!
That is awesome to hear! A lot of young people can look to you and what you accomplished in your career as an inspiration. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey?
When it comes down to this sort of business where you are at the mercy of whatever you are doing all of the time, I think it is really important to stay focused and absolutely love what you are doing. I mentioned it before but with any situation in life, it is very important to be grateful for what you do. It does come back to you. Whoever you are working with or whatever you are doing, having that element of gratitude is incredibly important!
Thanks so much for your time, Donal! We wish you continued success and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for you!
It was great to talk to you, Jason! Thanks very much for your time!
Mark your calendars for the premiere of Food Network Star Kids on Monday, August 22 at 8|7c. Be sure to subscribe to Donal’s awesome YouTube channel at this location! Get the latest and greatest from his officials website at www.donalskehan.com.