Donal Skehan learned a lot about his grandmother from the handwritten recipes she left behind.
The TV presenter and cook playfully calls the 1970s in Ireland – when his grandma, Elizabeth Ryan, was cooking – the “worst time for food”.
“But my grandmother, in her great wisdom back in the day, was very forward and confident with her cooking,” he says.
She was a sculptor with a gallery and would “often be entertaining – they would have guests and my grandmother would cook meals for 12, 15 people at a time.
“They would be entertaining the archbishop who might be looking for a sculpture or something – I remember the shots of my mum with a Greek Orthodox priest who wanted a sculpture for his tabernacle or something like that.”
With an unusual home life, his grandmother provided the food to match – whipping up what Skehan calls “these fabulous meals”.
Skehan, 37, calls her recipe books an “insight into another world”, which he treasures since her passing in 2015.
He continues: “My mum has memories of her making croissants in the 1970s in Ireland – unheard of! I’m not sure you could have got them at the local bakery, that’s for sure.”
The food world can be “quite snobby”, he suggests: “But what I love about my grandmother’s approach is that anyone can do it, anyone can try it and anyone can succeed in it.
“More than anything, it comes from a place of passion.”
This love of food and experimental approach was inherited by Skehan’s mother.
“We went to New York when I was about 12, and my mum and aunt insisted we had dinner in an Orthodox Jewish restaurant, where we were the only people who weren’t Orthodox Jews,” he recounts.
“We came and (there was) that moment where everyone turns around, and we had the most phenomenal meal – really beautiful, like matzo ball soup.
“I think that bravery and that confidence and that excitement about food definitely trickles down through my family.”
With this kind of background, it was no surprise Skehan pursued food adventures outside of Ireland – living in LA for nearly five years.
“It’s an incredibly diverse city – it’s a city of nearly 12 million people, so as someone who comes from a country of nearly six or seven million, a town of a couple of thousand (Howth, near Dublin), it was absolute a shock,” Skehan admits.
“But when you dive deeper into the food offering, that’s when it gets exciting – and that’s probably what kept me in LA more than anything else. More than the weather, it was the fact that you had access to beautiful restaurants that are really diverse.
“Oftentimes it wasn’t high-end restaurants I had interest in, it was the mom-and-pop strip mall-style of joints that were cheap, cheerful – and they were being operated by first-generation immigrants who had a really great sense of the Vietnamese food they grew up with.”
Skehan says his time in America encouraged him to be even more adventurous.
“I tried a lot more food than I possibly would have. It certainly influenced me in terms of the cuisines we were trying – like Ethiopian food and Korean food and Sichuan cuisine.
“So from that perspective, it definitely changed my tastebuds and definitely changed my lust for wanting to try new things, more so than I ever thought before.”
Skehan and his family are now back in Howth, and he brings elements of LA food into his cooking. This is particularly seen in his latest cookbook, Home Kitchen, where a recipe for Vietnamese turmeric fish cake bánh mì sits alongside mushroom al pastor tacos and poke bowls.
One thing he’s certainly happy about being back in Ireland?
“The fish – my god!” he says with a laugh.
“I grew up in a fishing village. I loved LA, but I never really trusted the seafood there, because if you grow up in Howth, you know you’re getting it off the boats to the fishmonger.”
Plus, he suggests Irish food has come a long way since the 1970s.
“Traditional Irish cuisine unfortunately gets bastardised by the Americans – if you have a quick Google search, the version of what Irish food looks like is grey and miserable,” he laments.
“Google is not our friend when it comes to representing Irish food! Traditional food is simplistic in its nature.”
This is combined with a growing trend in Irish cuisine for more international influences.
“There’s this other side now where you have Irish people and chefs who have travelled and bring back techniques and ideas that meld together quite nicely with seasonal Irish produce,” Skehan notes.
Back in Howth with his wife Sofie and children Noah, five, and Oliver, three, Skehan can already see the same love of food getting passed down the generations.
“I try not to make my boys obnoxious with food, but they went and ordered separately – one had a bowl of cockles and one had a bowl of mussels – literally the day before yesterday,” he laughs in disbelief.
“I was like, they (people) really must think we’re a*******s now…”
‘Home Kitchen: Everyday Cooking Made Simple And Delicious’ by Donal Skehan (Yellow Kite, £25).