Neven first donned his chef’s apron at the early age of 12, when he began cooking in the kitchens of his family restaurant, MacNean House & Restaurant in Blacklion, Co. Cavan. Like many home cooks, he would eagerly shadow his mother as she worked in the kitchens and soon began experimenting with his own creations. He pursued this passion at Fermanagh College, where he studying catering, and eventually moved on to work in Michelin-starred restaurants around the world, cooking for celebrities, politicians and royalty. He returned to MacNean House and Restaurant in 2001 and has become one of the most celebrated chefs in Ireland, renowned for his top-quality cooking showcasing the best of Irish produce.He opened the Neven Maguire Cookery School to share his love and knowledge of food and to spread the message that any meal can be a masterpiece once you start with the right building blocks – seasonal, local ingredients. He lives by this ethos both in his restaurant kitchen and when cooking at home for his wife, Amelda, and their twins Lucia and Connor, and it is at the core of all his cookery shows, books and demonstrations. He recently released the Complete Baby and Toddler Cookbook and is currently filming his new healthy series of ‘Home Chef’ for RTÉ, pairing perfectly with his latest cookbook, The Nation’s Favourite Healthy Food – 100 Good-For-You Recipes. Read on to test out some of these new wholesome recipes and to glean Neven’s top tips for becoming a master cook in your own home!
What is your cooking philosophy?
The most important thing is to buy the best quality seasonal ingredients. This is what cooking is all about, at every level. You need to start with the right ingredients at the restaurant and at home. Also, don’t complicate things – keep your cooking simple and make it your own!
What do you remember about first starting to cook?
Like so many of us, I started off by watching my mother cook at home. I was very lucky in that she gave me a passion for cooking – she let me experiment with ingredients and new dishes in our kitchens, and it just grew from there. So I suppose I’ve always really enjoyed cooking and I knew from the age of 12 that I wanted to be a chef. Again, my parents were very supportive all the way through, so it was always a very positive experience being in the kitchen.
We know cooking in restaurant kitchens is quite different to cooking at home, but what are the similarities?
The main difference I find is that when you’re cooking at home, you want to get back to the table and enjoy the experience of eating with your family and friends, so you want to cook simpler, quicker things. I want to give my customers at the restaurant a real “Wow!” experience, so I’ll take more time preparing the food – there, it’s my job to stay in the kitchen, whereas at home I don’t want to be stuck in there when everyone else is sitting down to enjoy the meal. Still, though, the same principles apply; I want to serve wholesome, delicious food I can feel proud of.
How can home cooks transform a standard meal into something impressive for guests?
There are lots of simple ways to make a dish impressive without getting fussy. If you’re entertaining at home, presentation can make all the difference – even if you’re serving your go-to weeknight dinner, using nice plates and crockery can elevate it to the next level. Also, it’s important to be prepared; make sure you have enough food for everyone and practice it ahead of time if you haven’t made the meal before. Preparation really is key – try to make as much of it ahead of time so that you can enjoy the day with your friends rather than in the kitchen!
Have you ever had any major kitchen blunders with dinner guests?
Well, there was one Christmas when I had 32 people in my house for the main meal and the electricity went out – luckily, the gas was still working, but the meal just didn’t turn out the way I wanted it. The food was all prepped and ready to go so, as they say, “the show must go on”! It just goes to show that you just have to make the best of what you have sometimes. In the end, we had a lovely and memorable Christmas dinner in the candlelight!
Speaking of dinner parties, what would be your ideal dinner menu for this time of year?
Winter is nearly upon us, so slow-cooked, braised meals are always a favourite. I would love to sit down to a meal of pork belly slow-cooked in soya sauce and star anise, caremelised with honey and served with roasted pumpkin. These are all gorgeous seasonal ingredients and, the best part is, slow-cooked dishes are perfect for dinner parties because they can be prepared the day before and then caramelised or finished off before guests arrive.
What tips can you offer to homecooks that want to make wholesome, homemade meals during the weekdays but are short on time?
It’s all about baby steps and making small changes. Don’t try to overhaul all your cooking habits, but rather try and make gradual steps to healthier eating; this is what my newest cookbook is all about. One helpful trick is to make really healthy grains ahead of time and freeze them for later. Quinoa, bulgur wheat and tabbouleh are all really great ingredients, and you can just defrost them when you need to bulk up a dinner or lunchbox. Once you have those, you can add fresh vegetables, chicken or fish and you have a healthy meal ready to go.
You’ve been so involved with Irish cooking for many years now. How has home-cooking here changed in the past few years?
I think there have been huge changes really. I think now people don’t want to spend the day in the kitchen preparing a big meal and would rather have more user-friendly recipes that can be made ahead of time so they can really enjoy their time with friends and family. We’re definitely more adventurous with our cooking and we have more ingredients available to us now than ever before. It’s an exciting time to be cooking here!
Which ingredients do you always have in stock in your kitchen at home?
I always have good-quality Irish rapeseed oil, balsamic vinegar, tins of Italian tomatoes, brown rice and a range of spices. They may sound quite basic but, again, I believe quality ingredients are the foundation of all good cooking.
What advice would you offer to people just learning how to cook?
The first step is to get the basics right. Start off by learning how to make things like an easy soup, poached eggs, the perfect steak and simple, moist fish. These are the everyday foods you can enjoy and build upon. Once you’ve mastered these, then you can start to flex your muscles in the kitchen and move on to more complicated recipes. Just don’t get ahead of yourself too quickly – start off slowly and make sure you’re comfortable with the basics.
This interview is from the issue n. 107 of Easy Food.
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