Chatting with Donal Skehan, a Mentor on the Brand-New Food Network Star Kids

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Fresh off a game-changing Season 12 of Food Network Star, Tregaye Fraser joined the Food Network family as an on-fleek chef with an uncanny ability to entertain. But that doesn’t mean the search for Star power has ended. In fact, the journey is set to continue this month when Donal Skehan and Tia Mowry team up to discover the next budding culinary talent — a young talent, that is. On Food Network Star Kids, the mentors will ask pintsize cooks to not only strut their kitchen chops but also shine on camera, just as an adult Food Network Star needs to be able to do.

Recently we checked in with Donal to get his take on what it’s like working with kids and the joint culinary-camera challenges he and Tia have in store for the finalists. Check out his exclusive interview below for a preview of the season and learn more about Donal.

Just like Food Network Star proper, this competition is special in that it asks kids to not just cook well but to also present and perform well. Do you think one part is trickier to master than the other?

Donal Skehan: It’s a tricky one because, like, obviously, to be a cook you have to have incredible skills to make people enjoy your food, that’s — I think sometimes I believe it’s something you’re kind of born with. Either you can do it or, I mean, you can learn it, but I think it’s something that you know if you have it in your heart and it’s something that that’s the place that you cook from, I think that’s something really cliché, but it is, and it’s true, though. And I do think that side of it is such an important part to have because you can teach most things, but if you don’t kind of have it from the outset, it’s going to be very hard to kind of create. So I think in this competition you do, but as soon as people start cooking you see who’s a natural cook and who’s someone who has learned it as a skill. Both can be very good, but you do see it more out there than ever before.

How would you describe your mentoring style compared to Tia’s?

DS: Tia’s a mom, so Tia has the mom thing down, and I worry sometimes that I’m a little bit too tough, but I think at the end of the day with any of these sort of cooking shows and where it’s a competition there has to be that element of giving advice that’s constructive and something that hopefully pushes forward. … At the bottom line for all these contestants, I am rooting them; I’m rooting for them to do well. … I think if you don’t tell it like it is and be honest with people, I think people see through that as well. So, you know, I think at the end of the day our contestants have to go away with something that they will take away and into the next challenge, so that they will improve, basically.

How do you balance the teaching and mentoring aspect of your role with the part that has to ultimately judge and eliminate the finalists?

DS: These are life lessons. I’ve auditioned for things, Tia’s auditioned for things — you don’t get everything you do. … Especially for kids, you know, although they’re not getting to the end, and not everyone can win, they’re still going through this process and learning along the way, and for me that’s the most-important part, even if you don’t win, you come and you give it your all, and these kids certainly do.

What’s the most-rewarding part of this job for you?

DS: Ah, the most-rewarding part is actually seeing progression. I think that’s it.

Why is a culinary POV so important, especially for kid cooks?

DS: Even for me when I was starting out, to figure out who your food personality is is one of the most-important parts because essentially what we’re creating is a brand. They are a Food Network star, so they have the Food Network brand as a part of what they are doing, so they need to know exactly who they are coming into this competition. I wish I knew what I was doing … at 12 years old. … I think from the outset, the fact that they’re even thinking like that is an impressive thing, but it’s an important part so that we know who they are in the competition we know what to look for. It means that they have a solid idea of what they’re doing in this competition, and I think if they didn’t have that, you would have very kind of mediocre attempts at going through these challenges. … But it does give us a clear picture of who they are and it’s important to form their point of view to decide that from the outset as well.

Everyone talks about looking for a specific “Star power” quality. How would you define what that “it” factor is?

DS: The guidelines for what we’re looking for in a Food Network Star is someone who can come and present on camera — and not just present on camera but actually show genuine personality and a natural nature, you know, a natural approach to something like that, so it’s not rehearsed. There has to be the twinkle in the eye, the actual want to win this, and the actual want to do this as a job. … I get up every morning and I know this is what I want to do, and if you don’t have that, I think us as mentors we can see that, so very quickly in a competition like this, those sides of things begin to show. … But I think at the core, for me, you know, I need to see bloody-good food. And that’s what I get most excited about; the contestants that make me the most impressed and excited are the ones who know their food, who can talk about food, and can actually deliver on the dish. Because you can talk about it being one thing, but if you can’t deliver it on camera, that’s a huge part of the deal, because we’re not just looking for a television presenter. We’re looking for a cook as well. And there’s some great cooks in the competition — really great cooks.

What’s the best part about working with kid cooks specifically?

DS: One hundred percent is that they say it like it is. So if you’re wearing, like, different, weird-looking clothes or if your hair’s not right or if you say something or you mess up, they’re going to call you out on it, and I love that. Because I think if you were an adult in this competition you’d kind of be like: “I’ve got to be cautious. I’ll keep my mouth shut. I won’t say this. I don’t want to be noticed doing this. I want to be noticed for the great things.” Kids just say it like it is. They saunter on in and they basically deliver it, which is a good thing and a bad thing.

Can you tell us a little about your culinary style in the kitchen, your POV?

DS: My background in cooking comes from my family. My parents were in the food business; my grandmother is an amazing cook. So I grew up with traditional Irish food, but I think when I was in my teens and certainly around the age our kids were, I was experimenting with foods that we wouldn’t have had access to, so I do a lot of Asian food, I do a lot of Middle Eastern spiced food, so these are the sorts of flavors I get drawn to. So, I suppose my food is slightly complicated compared to these kids’ [POVs] — they have a clear vision of what they like to cook — but I think at the core of it my recipes are easy and they’re accessible. So anyone who’s — even if you’ve never cooked before, the sort of recipes that I create are stuff that anyone can go [to]. So they’re family classics, but they’re mixed with a little bit of a twist in there, I would say.

When you were a kid, did you have culinary chops like the finalists?

DS: I certainly was cooking in the kitchen … I have this video where myself and my friend, my best friend, we decided we would film our own cooking show. … We must have been about 11 or 12, the two of us have tea towels on our heads because it was only women on [food] TV at that stage, so Julia Child and that sort of stuff. So I’m dressed up, I have a tea towel on my head, and we’re doing a cooking show making homemade pizza, so I actually have video proof that I was cooking at that age. … I don’t think I ever auditioned for something at that young, and that’s where I’m, like, just so impressed with because there’s 100 people on this set. If you told me I had to go in at 10 years old and basically talk about food, cook food and go through challenges I had no idea what was coming in, I would be terrified. So, I mean, that is where I go back to, like, I’m just so impressed from the outset that these kids are taking part in a competition like this. But, no, I mean, I loved cooking from a young age, but I think the presenting side was only ever fun for me.

Do you remember the first dish you made on your own?

DS: I had this really cool, old kids’ book. And it was a kids’ cookery book, and so I used to just cook my way through that. So it was probably a pastry, as far as I remember it was either a pastry or pancakes, because those were the two things.

What’s your earliest memory of mastering a dish, be it when you were younger or when you started doing this professionally?

DS: I was always into baking when I was younger because I loved the process and, you know, the scientific side of it that it was quite precise. Whereas kind of more into my teens, I was more interested in the savory side of things, and I do remember like at about 12 or 13, making this beautiful — and it’s something I still make right now … this duck dish, beautiful with a little bit of soy sauce, ginger and honey, and it’s spectacular. Have it with noodles, it’s so easy. You can still make it, I still make it now, it’s the sign of a good recipe.

What advice would you give kids who will be watching from home and want to start cooking or break into the industry?

DS: Get into the kitchen and cook because at the core of what you need as part of this job is to be able to know your food, to be able to talk about it confidently. The presenting thing I feel like it does come naturally, but I do think you can learn it a little bit, and from my own personal journey into the world of TV presenting is that you become your best at the job once you continually do it, so it’s consistency. First things first, get into the kitchen and start cooking, and second, set up a camera and talk to that camera, and keep doing it, watch it back, and keep that process going and you will find that you will end up a really strong performer in terms of food and presenting.

Tune in to the premiere of Food Network Star Kids on Monday, Aug. 22 at 8|7c.