Never let it be said that Neven Maguire isn’t down with the kids. He might wearily note that people think of him as “the Daniel O’Donnell of cooking” but there’s an unlikely streak of hipness beneath the avuncular cheeriness and homespun wisdom. A nation wondered if it really, truly knew anyone at all as the Cavan man revealed himself to be a closet DJ recently; he dusted off his old decks and spent much of lockdown reconnecting with his passion for dance music.
His hair, when he meets Weekend, now has flecks of blond in the tips — “trying to be young”, he laughs shyly. But while he may have his finger more closely on the pulse of social media and pop culture than his reputation would suggest, in other ways, the Neven you see is very much the Neven you get. Weekend tries in vain to render some salty goodness from the affable Cavan man but the results are always as sweet as molasses. There are no off-camera Gordon Ramsay-esque tantrums to savour, he assures me. “Why do people always think that there must be another side to me?” he asks with a smile. “I love being nice to people. I’ve seen the not-nice side of chefs and I made a promise to myself I’d never be like that. We all have good and bad days but it’s how you manage things. I’m the same with you as I am in the kitchen or in private.”
Thankfully, one aspect of modern food he hasn’t embraced is the scourge of calorie-counting. “Sugar isn’t the enemy — it’s about baking from scratch and everything in moderation,” he says. Is this [the food in his new cookbook] healthy food? I’d say it’s good food and we all need treats in our lives especially after the year we have been through.” He jokes that he’s “had the Covid stone” for “the past 10 years” and says weight issues have “always been a challenge” for him.
“People say to me, ‘You’re eating too much of your own food.’ Or they say to me, ‘You’re slimmer in real life than on the TV,’ and I make a joke that it’s the widescreen TV but they maybe don’t realise it’s not the nicest thing to hear. It’s something that I struggle with personally. I love food, I enjoy food and wine, but it’s about getting the balance right. As a chef, you’re always tasting to get it right and you’re eating late. Of all the chefs on television, I’m probably the chef that uses the most butter and I love everything that’s delicious.”
His love of food began in childhood; his parents, Joe and Vera, ran a restaurant in Blacklion, Co Cavan. The restaurant was bombed by the UVF twice during the Troubles and closed from 1976, when Neven was just two years old, until 1989. “They went through a lot but they always stayed positive. They opened a garage — my dad was nicknamed Joe Diesel — and he repaired cars. My mother opened a bed-and-breakfast and we had chalets, nine rooms, and she would have done catering for the local golf club and the GAA club.”
At the beginning of 1987, when he was 12, he began to get serious back pains and was brought to Sligo General Hospital, and from there to Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Crumlin. It turned out that he had jaundice and a type of hepatitis. He spent three months in the hospital and went to school there. “I felt very lonely at times. I remember watching my brother go on with all the friends we’d made in first year and part of second year, and it made me understand that I needed to knuckle down and not be messing around. I became very determined to be a chef. It was a low point in my life and it forced me to grow up and mature.”
He did his Junior Cert and “got an awful” slagging for picking home economics, but left school before his Leaving Cert. He applied to Killybegs Catering College but — in a decision that must haunt their admissions department still — didn’t get in and instead went to Enniskillen College of Food. He was already a club-music buff and on weekends he would travel to Dublin to add to his vinyl collection — he amassed almost 2,000 records over the years, and the styles ranged from drum ’n’ bass to house, dance and progressive house. “I got decks for my 21st birthday and used to spend all my money on music and cookbooks. I used to play at a local nightclub on a Saturday night — for free, I might add. I never got paid. There would be about 1,500 people there.”
After graduating, he had his first big break when he was named Euro-Toques Young Chef of the Year (1994) and worked in Michelin-starred restaurants across mainland Europe. In Berlin he worked at the Grand Hotel on Friedrichstrasse. “The first day I started, I remember the chef saying, ‘Irish! We love the Irish,’ and he swung open the fridge, which was full of Irish beef and lamb, and that made me proud.” The Cold War had just ended and there was, he recalls, “an incredible atmosphere of change” in the city. He threw himself into the city’s dance-music scene, but drew the line at the drugs that often went along with it. “I never got into drugs. The drug was the music. [Drugs] never appealed to me, but I would never judge anyone for it. Berlin was interesting because it was trance and techno. The wall had just come down and there were big changes, and it was a very exciting time.”
In Berlin, the kitchen was very structured and he never heard shouting, but it was a different story in Léa Linster’s restaurant in Luxembourg. “Léa Linster was a great mentor to me but she would’ve made Gordon Ramsay look like a pussycat. She was a tough lady. If she gave out to you, she’d calm down and say, ‘I’m sorry I spoke to you like that.’ And she’s still a great friend.”
He returned to Ireland, taught in Enniskillen and worked in the family restaurant in Blacklion. The restaurant still seemed off the beaten track for many diners, and there were money worries: at times his parents wondered if they could make ends meet. That all changed in 1998 when he was invited on to Open House on RTÉ and the power of television turned Neven into a culinary celebrity.
“The cameraman told me to treat the camera as if I were talking to my granny and that was great advice. I understood the power of television after me and Amelda [his wife] took a few days off and we were down in a wee village in Cork and a few people recognised me. I was on that [Open House] for six years and then I got my own shows.”
Even as his renown grew, tragedy struck his family. In 1999, Neven’s father, Joe, who used to drive him up and down to the studios in RTÉ, was killed in a car accident. “I actually drove by the scene of the accident and the guard said to me, ‘Neven, that is your dad in there.’ I didn’t recognise the vehicle, it was so badly damaged. I was in shock. I went to casualty and saw him there. I just felt a numbness that time. Dad was very distressed in casualty. They [the hospital medics] did everything to try to save him.”
Several years later, Neven met the man who had driven the other vehicle at the inquest into his father’s death. “The poor man fell asleep. He had driven from somewhere in the North. We met him at the inquest. He was so upset. I didn’t have bad feelings toward him. You can’t hold a grudge.”
Neven met his wife, Amelda, two years after his father’s death, at CP’s nightclub in Galway. They already knew each other to see, having grown up on either side of the border, Amelda in Boho, Co Fermanagh, and Neven in West Cavan. “I met her on a Sunday night. I said to her, ‘I remember you from Fermanagh College,’ and the next day we went for a walk on the Cliffs of Moher.” Amelda joined forces with him in the business, MacNean House & Restaurant in Blacklion, and together they have made it one of the most important foodie destinations in the country. “Amelda is the backbone of everything. She does the décor and business side of things. It is a team effort.”
In 2012, they welcomed twins [Neven is himself a twin], a boy named Connor and a girl named Lucia, into the world. Fatherhood is “the best thing that’s ever happened in my life. Connor is a serious foodie. He’s eaten swordfish and razor clams. He has his meat rare. Lucia has a sweet tooth like me. She’s a sensitive, kind girl. Connor is full of beans. He’s taken up fishing and, as an activity, it’s great because it keeps kids off the gadgets.”
His mother died of cancer the same year the kids were born. “Wouldn’t I love if she was there to watch them grow up? I still miss her every day. She was an incredible woman. She was heartbroken when dad died. I think half of her was gone then.”
He says the grief at the loss of his parents gave him a particular perspective on Covid, and the opportunity it presented to escape the carousel of work.
“I remember coming home from a demo and I could hardly keep my eyes open. And what my father went through came into my mind and I said, ‘This has got to stop.’ My life was like a hamster on a wheel, going here, going there, driving to shows. And it [Covid] gave me a chance to relax and settle. I was saddened for my staff, for 60 people to be without work. But at the end of the day, it’s nobody’s fault. I’m grateful that we only have one restaurant, and not a chain. Maybe the grief I experienced also gave me some perspective that there are bigger things in life than business.”
At the same time, he remains the head of what sometimes must seem like a wee empire, with a range in Dunnes Stores, a column in the Irish Farmers Journal, a partnership with Bord Bia, and his own long-running RTÉ show. His brand-new cookbook, Learn to Cook with Neven, goes back to basics and is very much written for the Instagram generation. It contains tips, not only on the fundamentals of actual cooking — the recipes are broken down into four “foolproof” steps — but also on how to get the resultant efforts ready for their close-up. The VSCO filter is best to photograph food, he writes. When taking a picture, use natural light and turn off any overhead lights. And don’t forget to wipe the side of the plate to keep it all neat and photogenic. “Young people are very adventurous and they love to photograph food, so for the first time we’ve included little tips on how to style food,” he says. “We wanted to make it [the art of food styling] fun and accessible.”
He says the various strings to his bow have made the financial blow a little easier — his cookery school, which is beside MacNean House & Restaurant in Blacklion, remains closed. “I would say that during the whole thing we have lost about €2m. Because the other side — the media stuff, the cooking range — has been going well, it’s been easier. But without that, it would have been tough now, I’ll be honest with you.”
That said, he seems to think that the criticism of the Government’s treatment of the hospitality industry has been overblown. He’s just back from Spain, where he was recording his new series on Spanish food.
“Everyone there said, ‘The government has done nothing for us.’ There were signs saying, ‘SOS — save our tourism.’ The PUP has been great; they [the Irish Government] haven’t got it all right, but in a difficult situation they have done well.”
He’s obviously had incredible longevity but he’s modest enough to say that the food, not Neven himself, remains the star of the show. “I’m always looking at myself, thinking, ‘Jesus, would you look at my tummy?’ or, ‘Why am I saying “wow” so much?’ I think people like me because I’m relatable.”
And maybe too because, in dark times, niceness goes a long way.
‘Learn to Cook with Neven’ by Neven Maguire is published by Gill Books, priced €22.99