Journeys in Taste Interview with Simon Delaney

When Simon Delaney – busy actor and established presenter of the Virgin Media One morning show, Weekend AM – says that food is his favourite topic, he means it. This is no glib or facetious comment from the man but rather the considered remark of a person who several years ago was a finalist in 2017’s Celebrity MasterChef Ireland. “I had been asked to do the show for years but the time was never right,” he relates. “I was either away filming or I was in Ireland and working, but then I was asked again and I happened to have six weeks free in the diary. I had always wanted to do the show – I love the process and I’m competitive. I love that edge to it and as a cook, I wanted to learn. Doing it was genuinely one of the best experiences of my life.”

Simon’s entry into the world of cooking began in his late teens. With both parents having passed away, and with sisters at college and brother out working, he was at home “in between jobs, and I cooked lunches and dinners for them. I was cooking out of necessity, really, and then I met my wife, Lisa. We had kids, so it’s still cooking out of necessity, but I’ll be honest with you and say that cooking and the kitchen is my happy place. I love the act of food preparation. Today, for example, I’m cooking a lamb bhuna for dinner and right now I have all the ingredients out, all the prep done so that when the kids come in I get the dinner on and cook away for a few hours. I love one-pot wonders, which I regard as proper family food.”

When did cooking by necessity, I ask, evolve into something perhaps more refined and sophisticated? Blame marriage, he replies. “Myself and Lisa started cooking dinners for each other and expanded the menu in terms of repertoire. We always loved eating out, we loved eating away on holidays, and I had a particular penchant for Italian food. And then I spent a lot of time in the US on my own, working over there. I developed a taste for American home cooking and diner dishes, and I loved the variety of foods that a diner could offer you – you could walk into a diner at 7am and have meatloaf, corned beef hash or steak and eggs if you wanted. And then I watched a lot of food and cookery programmes on TV, chefs like Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. I’d be watching things I’d always like to cook because they looked so delicious.” And then what happened? “I actually got up off my arse, tried a few recipes and made mistakes like the rest of us.”

We learn from our mistakes, of course, but what Simon has also absorbed over the years, especially as a father to four children, is to leave well enough alone when it comes to food likes and dislikes. Every parent has their own way of getting their children to eat healthily, and he is correct when he says the philosophies or methods change over the years. When you think back to when we were kids, he reflects, “you never asked what was for dinner, you asked what time was dinner, and you just accepted that what was on your plate was what you were going to eat. The problem that we as parents have nowadays is that when kids ask what’s for dinner, we say what do you want?”

Chef, actor and comedian Simon Delaney demonstrating at the Taste of Cavan on Friday afternoon. Photo: Lorraine Teevan

His youngest, he says, is five, and his eldest is 14, so the age range is representative of stages of development in food preferences. “From when they were babies, they would eat whatever you put in front of them because they hadn’t developed a voice to say they didn’t want it, or to say can you make me something else. What I have tried to do is to make sure they’re eating the right things in terms of vegetables, and so on. One of their favourite dinners is Spaghetti Bolognese, but when I make it I add as many vegetables as I can – carrots, onions, garlic, and more. Also, one of my kids was diagnosed with coeliac a couple of years ago, and so we have to be on top of the gluten-free aspects, particularly when it comes to family dinners. So little things have changed over the years, but their tastes are so different. One fella likes this and one fella doesn’t like that, so it’s a bit like a restaurant in that you could end up cooking up to four or five different meals in a day – one wants pizza, one wants sausages and mash, one wants Spaghetti Bolognese, and another wants chicken wings. Like any good restaurant, I just make sure they get their orders in early so that the chef has time to prepare everything!”

What about signature dishes, the great go-to meals that arrive without too much thought yet taste like the gastronomic equivalent of a comfort blanket. Such treats vary, he admits. “I’m very lucky because Lisa is a great cook as well, and also a great baker. I don’t have the patience for baking because it’s too exact for me. Also, I find that after you bake something it’s like the house has been ransacked, what with pots, pans, containers and flour everywhere. As far as go-to family dinners, I do a lovely chicken bacon and lentil casserole – I do it for the boys and it’s gorgeous, and I load it with my trio veg: carrots, onions and leeks. Leeks are my favourite – I’d put leeks into cheesecake if I could.”

Knocking into a cocked hat the perception that working husbands have neither the time nor the inclination for home cooking, like pretty much everything else he puts a hand to, Simon is adept at the gig. It boils down to one and one thing only, he reveals: the simple fact that if you fail to prepare then you had best prepare to fail. He thinks back to his time on Celebrity MasterChef Ireland and how much of an eye-opener it was for him.

“When you’re cooking at that level, or even entertaining at home or in the garden doing a barbecue, it’s all about the preparation. Get that right and you’ll take all of the stress out of the cooking. If you have all the prep done, with everything beside the cooker, then it makes your life so much easier. There’s nothing worse than starting to cook a dish, to get part of the way and then find you don’t have an important ingredient. Simple ingredients, also, are essential for me – it’s all stuff you have in the cupboards. I tend not to go for meals that need the essence of basil oil or finicky things like that. With some recipes, you need a degree from NASA to get through them.” Time efficiency is crucial, Simon implies. He is, in fairness, a very busy guy. “I can’t be arsed with that.”

WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA

Journeys in Taste Interviews are Sponsored by Lexus Ireland

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