A chef’s life is notoriously demanding, and that’s before you into account Neven Maguires’s extra circular activities: running his own restaurant, guest house, and cookery school, filming TV shows (he holds the record for RTE’s largest ever audience for a cookery programme), developing cookbooks (13 of them), hosting cookery demos all over the country, working as a brand ambassador, and of course being a father of two.
So, you can appreciate that trying to arrange an interview with Neven, often tipped as the nation’s favourite chef, might be challenging, and all the more so when you learn that Neven has his schedule mapped out for the next six to eight months at any one time.
Despite this, a fact that Neven admits scares him, he is unduly generous with his time, and when I finally capture a window in his itinerary he is quick to divert the praise for this feat of organisation to his is two “guardian angels”; PA Andrea, and wife Imelda. The dynamic duo run his diary with military precision; helping him to come close to a life-work balance, something he strives to achieve all the more since he became a father of twins, Conor and Lucia, four years ago.
And so seeing them only one day in the past two weeks, as he was shooting his new TV show, is something that audibly effects the chef. “This is a rare occurrence”, he says happily. “Being a father has actually meant I’ve been at home more. Having a family has made the house a home.” “I remember before that I really had very little structure; I was running; going here and there; and now I’m at home at lot more, and I’m in my kitchen more which is really important to me.”
While at the restaurant, Neven’s acclaimed Tasting Menu includes complex dishes like Seared Thornhill Duck Breast, with Confit Leg Spring Roll and Quinoa, his busy lifestyle means that when it comes to meal times at the Maguire household Neven keeps it very simple. In his latest cookbook, Neven Maguire’s Complete Family Cookbook Neven strips back the complex cheffy techniques, and forgoes the use of state of the art kitchen equipment, to distill his knowledge and experience of the stresses of everyday life into 300 ‘user-friendly’ recipes.
“This is probably the most user-friendly, everyday cookbook, that people will use again and again. It’s a kitchen bible. How to make bread; how to make pasta; how to roast a chicken, there’s a generation of people that wouldn’t even know how to do that.”
With the book he hopes to make life less stressful for home-cooks around the country, but what about in this own professional kitchen; is there another side to the wholesome chef that comes out during an intense service? Neven doesn’t deny that the kitchen can be a pressure-filled environment, comparing each night to a “live performance”, but says he is far from the temperamental chef caricature we are familiar with. “There’s no hidden side to Neven Maguire, what you see I what you get.”
“I’m probably the calmest chef out there. To be honest, you can’t get away with that now. It’s a high pressure job, but you won’t hold on to your staff if you don’t look after them. It’s all about respect.”
His approach has inspired a loyalty among his staff of 55 at MacNean House, including a team of 14 chefs, ten of which are female; an anomaly in the industry. Male or female, Neven thinks the sustainability of a chef’s career needs to be looked at. To mitigate the demanding lifestyle, Neven says he can see a future of chefs working four days on and three days off. To allow for a reasonable workload, at MacNean House the team currently have two and a half days off, “just so that they have a life outside the kitchen, that’s so important.”
While a number of chefs have been with him over 10 years, Neven concedes they haven’t been immune to the national chef shortage. “I think everyone has felt that. We probably have lost ten chefs, for the first time in my career.”
While Neven accepts some chefs might fly the coop at MacnNean House to further their development in more cosmopolitan settings, thousands of customers flock to the unlikely culinary mecca he has created in County Cavan. Even in thriving cities restaurants struggle to stay open, but despite its location diners find it hard to get a table at the restaurant at MacNean House, and its 19 rooms are booked out at weekends for the next two years.
“It wasn’t an overnight success,” Neven admits, “I always remember the tough days when it was just five or six of us here in the restaurant, myself, mom, dad and a few chefs. So it’s been an amazing journey, and one I don’t take for granted.”
Rather than a hindrance, Neven believes their location has helped them create a niche as a destination restaurant, and says they are currently “riding on a crest of a wave”. However, he has no plans to recreate the magic formula outside of Blacklion, and reveals he has “politely declined” offers to open restaurants in Dublin, London, New York, and Dubai.
“I only want to do one restaurant. I have no intentions of opening up another restaurant. Home is where the heart is, and that’s in Blacklion.”
Of course, along with flawless food and service, many people are lured to Blacklion to see Neven himself – and his presence isn’t something he could ensure at multiple locations. “I’m very much hands on in service and in the cookery school, I’m there all day, and I think people are surprised by that,” Neven says, adding that customers are always very understanding on the occasions filming takes him away from his kitchen duties.
Not alone at the restaurant, at events, demos, and even on the street, Neven is regularly mobbed by members of his extremely loyal fan base. Engaging and meeting with them is what Neven says ‘inspires’ and ‘motivates’ him. “I get letters every week. A lot of them are from young people who want to get into cooking, and I’ll send them a wee cookbook or an apron,” he says, just one of the ways he encourages young chefs to get involved in this “exciting time for Irish food.”
“There’s a new generation of chefs that are coming up who are very, very talented, creative, and just know what they are doing. I think that Ireland is already very known for food, but give it five, ten years and people are going to be going ‘wow, this is one of the most exciting places to eat in the world’”
“If I can make it work in Blacklion, I think anyone can make it work. It’s all about consistency, quality, never dropping your standards, and for me as a chef, it’s about being true to yourself. We can all follow trends but it’s about showcasing your style of food.” For Neven, local ingredients are central to his own showcase; many of his suppliers are located within only a few miles from the restaurant, and others he has worked with for nearly 30 years.
Artisan producers are also at the core of his work as ambassador for Dunnes Stores Simply Better range. “A lot of the producers I use are actually producers for Simply Better too,” says Neven, which took him by surprise when he started looking into working with Dunnes Stores earlier this year.
Travelling all over the country to meet the faces behind the Simply Better range, like those at Killowen Farm Yogurt, The Burren Smokehouse, and Ballycamma Farm Rapeseed Oil, Neven says he has asked them all off the record are they happy with the partnership.
“Everyone has said, Neven, it’s the best thing we’ve ever done; it’s a route to market; it’s space on the shelves; they’re paying us within four weeks,” a feature which is crucial for the cash flow of a small business he says.
Not one to “put his face to something just for a quick buck”, Neven believes “Dunnes Stores as an Irish brand are really upping the ante.” “They don’t want to work with big companies, they want small producers who they can nurture, bring on the journey, and put them in their shops.”
“Putting him on the spot” to name some of his favourite Irish chefs, Neven lists Wade Murphy, John Wyer, Mikael Viljanen, and Ciaran MacSweeney, among others, including Ross Lewis; who he believes “runs one of the most consistent restaurants, not just in Ireland, but anywhere in the world.” “He’s the kind of guy I could pick up the phone to and ask for advice, and I have done so all throughout my career.”
“I think what JP McMahon is doing for food in Ireland is incredible. He is smart, articulate, a great business man and doing great things for Irish food. He’s really breaking the mould.” On when he attended JP’s global chef symposium, Food on the Edge, last year Neven says “the hairs stood up on the back on my neck.”
Last month, TheTaste spoke to JP, along with another very influential chef, Marco Pierre White about Michelin stars. On one side you had one Michelin starred chef JP saying it is the most independent qualifications that a restaurant can get, and on the other Marco, who famously handed back his three stars, denouncing them as “worthless, because you are being given them by people who have less knowledge than yourself.”
Neven strikes a line somewhere in the middle. His balanced view means that while he has huge respect for Michelin and what it does for the industry, he also thinks “it’s a great time to be in Irish food” and this isn’t necessarily reflected by the number of Irish restaurants in the guide. He also insists a Michelin star is something he personally has never aspired to.
“It’s something I have never went for or looked for. It was never a goal of mine. My goal is having a full restaurant; my customers are my biggest critics. My world doesn’t revolve around Michelin, and maybe I’m wrong, and people might say I’m naïve.”
Without being “dismissive to the guide”, he believes gaining a star could “be double edged sword.” “We couldn’t be any busier, and to be honest some of our customers might have a perception of the Michelin (guide) as being very stiff and formal, but it’s not like that anymore, it’s changing year on year.”
On TV since the age of 21, he is has appeared on our screens countless times, but has yet to take part in one of the omnipresent reality TV cookery shows. “I was asked to do the Irish MasterChef,” Neven discloses. “I went in to do the audition, and honestly? It didn’t suit me, because I am always looking for the good in people, and maybe I’m a little too soft but I find it very hard to criticise somebody who is putting their heart and soul into making something.” “I’m very happy doing my own thing; doing my own programme, once we keep it fresh and different.”
Next year he hopes to continue to keep things fresh and different. At the end of January, his new seven part series on food all over Ireland will air on RTE, and the popular show Neven’s Food Trails will see him in Italy. “Taking a break from the cookbooks” will give Neven a chance to “get stuck into the school” and be in the restaurant as much as he can. While plans to renovate the kitchens and extend the restaurant are definite, despite the demand Neven admits he is hesitant about building on more rooms at MacNean House.
“I’m a bit nervous. I’m 43 now, who will take it on when I retire? Will Conor or Lucia? I honestly don’t know. You have to think long term, but for now it’s all about enjoying the moment.”
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.