It's hard to have a bad meal in Ireland in 2015 thanks to a revolution in the way the Irish now think about and cook food says celebrity Irish chef Kevin Dundon.
“Food has become such a hip thing and people are so keen and interested by it,” Dundon tells the Irish Voice.
“We skipped a generation in Ireland where parents passed on traditional recipes to their children. Because of the Celtic Tiger years everyone was too busy. It was much easier to order take away. That's all changed now.”
If it has changed it's thanks to change your life books like Dundon's Back to Basics, the kind of battle-station book that does exactly what the title suggests.
“If someone asks you to prepare a Coq au Vin or a shortcrust pastry or Irish soda bread you’ll know that it's in this book and you’ll have it covered,” he explains.
Dundon's new book and his new cooking series (which begins broadcasting on the Create channel on March 13) go right back to the fundamentals of Irish cooking, so in the first episode is one on chickens and eggs.
“I literally start with the right way to crack an egg, then I show you how to poach eggs, then I show you how to scramble eggs, or make an omelet or a meringue. Ultimately by the end of that show you’ll end up learning to how to make advanced things like a raspberry soufflé,” says Dundon.
Going from a cracked egg to an ambitious soufflé is all part of the journey Dundon says. “The point of taking such a back to basics approach is that each time you learn a new way to make eggs you're learning the building blocks of cooking.”
In fact Dundon reckons if you make each recipe from the book you’ll be an accomplished cook by the book's end, because you’ll have learned all the basics of good cooking.
Having lived with the book for two weeks and attempted the recipes I can vouch for his claims. Learning how to produce these dishes using his helpfully illustrated step by step guide will see you creating new meals that wow your loved ones.
But producing Back to Basics was the most challenging task of his career Dundon reveals.
“It was a nightmare to do. There was an awful lot of work involved to produce it, but when I received it in my hand it was worth every minute.”
The book took three weeks of principle photography to produce, he explains.
“Normally it takes a five day shoot onsite, then five days in the studio. But I want the recipes that readers cook to look like the recipes in the book,” he says.
“You see the recipes and you see the finished dish. If you make a mistake you can catch it before it’s too late. It’s the only way you and I will be happy.”
Taking the fear out of cooking is a task that only the most accomplished cooks can master. If you’ve ever been utterly defeated by an ambitious recipe you already know that terror. But Dundon’s book and TV series aim to guide you on each step so that you never feel that you're in over your head.
“The book teaches you techniques, then you repeat what you have done before in other dishes. It takes the mystery out of it and it teaches you the basic skills,” he said.
If you’re Irish there are some cooking skills you should just know -- how to make a soda bread, how to make a decent roux, how to roast potatoes, how to cook chicken or fish. Back to Basics covers them all.
“You won’t be afraid to attempt anything once you’ve been through this book, that's the plan. I love hearing from people who try my recipes When you hear that someone’s cooked my recipe and it’s really worked for them, that’s what it’s all about.”
Dundon's mother and grandmother were terrific cooks, and growing up they talked about cooking all the time, he explains.
“I was out of Ireland for 10 years living around the world. It was only when I came back that I realized how good our ingredients were. I took them for granted when I grew up with them.”
Applying the cooking techniques that he learned on his world travels, Dundon realized that the well-known dishes suddenly exploded with taste.
“It’s all about stripping it back and letting the ingredients speak for themselves. Once you understand that our produce is amazing the respect you develop for the food we have in Ireland grows and grows.”
He learned on his travels that far away fields aren't necessarily greener.
“You can go to many countries and look at bakeries and everything looks pristine and perfect. They’re decorated beautifully and then you taste them and they taste like plastic. It’s all show and no substance.”
Contrast those showy desserts with a home prepared dessert like a Victoria sponge filled with good honest Irish cream and strawberries and we win every time, Dundon says.
Asked what were the most memorable meals of his own Irish life he answers without hesitating.
“As a kid fresh mackerel was one of my favorite things. When it comes out of the water that day. We had a house down in Kilkee in Co. Clare that we used to visit for the summer. We’d catch it and Mum would cook it that night under the grill with lemon and butter melted over the top. It’s very hard to beat a dish like that.”
As a boy he used to get pocket money, but budding foodie that he was, instead of buying sweets he used to buy a bag of periwinkles.
“I used to love them. I loved the saltiness. But my favorite meal of all time is a beautiful roast chicken with a sage and onion stuffing and fantastic roast potatoes,” Dundon reveals.
“I cook Golden Wonder potatoes which are crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside with a great gravy and some fresh vegetables from the garden. That’s what’s in my oven at the moment.”
Asked what's the secret to the prefect roast potato, Dundon says there are a couple of important steps.
“I use Golden Wonder or Maris Piper potatoes (common in Ireland). I peel them, then cut them into roughly the same size. Pop them in cold water with a good pinch of salt.
“Bring it to the boil, simmer them for 10 minutes. Release the water out of the pot, put it back on the stove to evaporate the moisture. Give them a shake until they’re fluffy on the outside – this is crucial.
“Pop them into the roaster with the chicken and a bit of goose fat, make sure the oven is hot. Salt keeps them fluffy on the inside as it extracts the moisture on the inside.”
Kevin Dundon's Back to Basics premieres on Create on Friday, March 13.