You know him, you love him and now he's back on home soil.
Donal Skehan, celebrity chef, cookbook author and ambassador for the National Dairy Council's Cheese Your Way campaign, recently returned to Dublin after four years in Los Angeles, so we sat down with him to talk lockdown, Irish produce and, of course, cheese.
First of all, welcome home! How has it been to come back to Ireland after more than four years in LA?
"Thank you! It was a weird welcome home but we are fully back now and settled. One of the main reasons why we wanted to come back was to have the security blanket of friends and family around us, especially with the kids, so it's been lovely to come out of lockdown and see everyone again, especially seeing the grandparents with our kids! It's been great to get back to some sort of normality."
Ireland and its food scene have changed so much over the past few years. When everything is a bit more normal, what are you most looking forward to trying?
"I really hope that the restaurant industry can make it back from this because there have been some very strict regulations put on them and people who have small businesses have had an incredibly tough time. I really hope that all of the places we were excited about trying will still be there once lockdown is over.
I have to say I have been amazed by the food scene here in Ireland. Coming back after four years, I haven't a clue about most of the restaurants here! Of course, I have been keeping up with what's going on, but I'm really looking forward to a real exploration. There are so many new producers and cafés and restaurants that I can't wait to try, there has been a huge wave of great new food producers like butchers who have honed their craft in such an exceptional way. It's a completely different scene to come back to after LA, which has an incredible amount of food and there's so much choice, but the one thing that Ireland has over everywhere else is quality and that goes from restaurants to food producers and everything in between. I'm very excited to explore!"
What has been your biggest food highlight since coming home to Ireland?
"In LA, there is great quality food available, but I think as a consumer, the availability of really great quality ingredients in Ireland cannot be surpassed. I am really close to Higgins Butchers here in Howth and they do some of the best meat that I have ever tasted and to have that right on your doorstep is absolutely incredible.
One of the biggest highlights since coming back home was receiving a hamper from Sheridan's Cheesemongers. Picking out all of the amazing cheeses they have in stock was so exciting and some of the cheeses, like Young Buck, were completely new to me."
What would you say is your favourite type of cheese?
"Wow, I don't know how to choose, it always changes! I loved the Templegall, which is an Alpine-style cheese made in Cork by Hegarty's Cheese. Sheridan's 15 Fields cheddar was an absolute revelation too, Sheridan's is always next level in terms of flavour.
I really love blue cheese so Young Buck is one of my favourites now, and of course, Gubbeen is a classic. I love St Tola goats cheese with the black ash rind too. In terms of European cheeses, there are so many great ones to choose from! You can't beat Parmesan or pecorino."
How did you spend your time in lockdown?
"Lockdown started in LA for us and ended in Ireland, so it has been a very intense few months and we've been wrecked since we've gotten home, so we've mainly been recovering! We really had to scramble to pack up our house and life in LA and then try to find a new life here in Ireland, so we took it as easy as possible. I had a little bit of work to do, which was mainly preparing for future projects, but then we did a lot of cooking and baking with the kids."
How did you find cooking at home with the kids during lockdown?
"We really cooked lots, it was great. We found my old waffle maker in storage, which Noah loved, so we made lots of waffles! It was really nice to make lots of family-friendly recipes, it really inspired me for - hopefully - a future book. More than anything, I used the time to experiment with whatever ingredients I could get my hands on and let the great produce stand for itself.
We also really leaned into nostalgic Irish food, dishes that I'd had during my childhood. I've made Irish stew a million times in LA but it never tasted as good as when I made it here. I've always said that if you want to taste Irish food properly, then you need to go home for it. Classic Irish recipes will never taste the same anywhere else - I've seen some terrible soda recipes in the States! You need to use really great Irish ingredients or else it's difficult to replicate the taste and feeling you associate with great Irish food.
Our biggest excitement has been coming back to the nostalgic recipes I had as a child, things I really missed. My Wild Atlantic Kitchen by Maura O'Connell Foley landed on my lap when we got home so I cooked my way through that and it really is such a lovely cookbook that brought me right back to what Irish food is and where it's going."
Do you have any tips you could share with us on how we can use Irish and European cheese in our cooking?
"Look at what you really enjoy. When I come up with recipes, I think about what recipes I really enjoy and how I can incorporate cheese into them - it's not all about the cheeseboard. Adding the funk of cheese into something can really transform a dish. There's one American inspired dish that I've created, crispy fried chicken with a wedge of some blue cheese, and it just takes the whole dish further and really elevates it, that's what really good cheese does. Look at the dishes you like and try to see how you can incorporate cheese. Creaminess and saltiness are the flavour profiles you add by using cheese, which is what I love most about cheese."
Donal Skehan is the Irish ambassador for 'Cheese. Your Way', the EU-funded programme that aims to educate consumers on the importance of including cheese in their everyday diets in a variety of traditional and contemporary ways.