Chef Neven Maguire tells Mags Gargan about the joys of a family Christmas
Does Neven Maguire cook the family Christmas dinner? It is perhaps an obvious question to ask an award winning chef, but it is hard to resist, and the answer is of course he does.
”We had 35 in our house for Christmas dinner and I loved it,” he says. ”We had all the family over for goose and turkey and ham, except for my twin brother who had a T-bone steak with mash, carrots and parsnips — he loves to keep it very simple!”
Christmas is a busy time for Neven, between running the family business, MacNean House and Restaurant in Blacklion in Co. Cavan, and preparing for his new RTE¨ TV series Home Chef starting in the new year, but he says this is still his favourite time of year.
”To me, cooking for the whole family on Christmas Day is a bit fun and relaxing,” he says. ”We closed the restaurant on Christmas Eve and my wife, mum and I went to midnight Mass in Blacklion and then it was back to mum’s house for mulled wine and some nibbles.
”Mass on Christmas Eve is very important to me and I suppose if don’t have faith you really have nothing in your life. It is important to have some structure. I do go to Mass, not every week, but it was the way I was brought up and we have a local priest that has done lots for the community.”
Next year there will be two more mouths for Neven to feed on Christmas Day as his wife Amelda is expecting twins in February. ”We are a wee bit nervous and excited, but Amelda is in such great form,” he says. ”It’s twins, and I am a twin myself, but we don’t want to know if it is girls or boys. It is a surprise. So far it has been a lovely pregnancy and please God they will be healthy.”
Facing into such an exciting and busy year, does Neven have a new year’s resolution? ”Next year will be busy but I need a bit of structure in my life and I need more time at home. I am embarrassed to say I have only cooked six times at home for Amelda and I want to spend more time with my family and my mother. I am from a big close family. It has been a really good year but an emotional one. My twin is engaged and will get married in March. My mother was diagnosed with lung cancer at Easter. She just finished chemo and thank God it has gone into remission. She got a miracle because it wasn’t a good prognosis,” he says.
It is obvious how important the role of family plays in Neven’s life and it is perhaps fitting that he took over the family business in 2001 and together with his wife and mother has turned a local restaurant into a national brand.
From a very young age, one of Neven’s favourite pastimes was to shadow his mother in the kitchen, watching her cook.
In 1992 he enrolled in Fermanagh College, Enniskillen, to study catering, where he received the prestigious student of the year award.
He then trained in some of the highest profile restaurants in the world including Roscoff, Belfast (Michelin Star winner), Grand Hotel Berlin (Michelin Star winner), The Lea Linster Luxembourg (where he cooked for Lady Diana and Tony Blair) and Arzak, San Sebastian, Spain.
At the core of Neven’s philosophy is a dedication to using only the finest local seasonal ingredients and he works closely with Bord Bia to promote Quality Assured Irish produce.
”I was in Tokyo a few weeks ago with Bord Bia,” he says, ”and Ireland is seen there as a very natural, unspoiled country that produces great tasting food. We are renowned for our beef and fish. We are the only country that exports live oysters every week to Tokyo. It is amazing for me as a chef to see the respect Ireland has as a food industry.
”Slowly but surely our taste buds have changed in Ireland. I started cooking when I was 16 and I have seen food change so much in variety and choice.
”One good thing to come out of the recession is that more people are cooking for themselves and eating together as a family. Also the traditional craft butchers are doing very well because people have trust in the butcher, they can give advice on the cuts, how to cook the meat, and what’s in season. They are very proud and passionate about their craft.”
Neven has been travelling across Europe to catch up with some of Ireland’s great export success stories in the food industry for his forthcoming series of Home Chef starting on January 12.
”There is a huge focus this series on Irish food and the jobs behind every Irish brand,” he says.
”There is a great story to be told about the ripple effect of buying local, helping to employ people and create jobs, and people really want to know where food is coming from. We have visited 18-20 Irish brands from Ballymaloe to Jameson, two brands per programme and then I use their produce in a recipe. It is a real success story of how Irish food has grown in respect.”
Neven was also in Africa earlier this year but it was to see firsthand the effects of a different kind of Irish export when he went to Uganda with the development aid charity Bóthar, which provides the living gift of a farm animal to struggling families.
This year Bóthar marked 20 years of working in Uganda and Neven, as their new patron, launched their Lenten Fast campaign to raise some €40,000 towards its animal transfer scheme to send an Irish dairy cow to families in Mukano, Uganda.
”We don’t realise how lucky we are,” Neven says of his impression of poverty in the developing world.
”In Uganda these people have no water or electricity. I had to go over to see for myself how they lived and the work the charity is doing. It was a wonderful experience and they are a beautiful people. It was an inspiration that makes you realise that you should not take things for granted.”