Neven Maguire’s “Neven’s Spanish Food Trails,” which has been airing on the KLCS Saturday afternoon cooking block, has been a guilty pleasure for many as we virtually follow this Irish chef travel on tasty jaunts in various Spanish cities. He talks to KLCS about his love of all things food, his path to TV, the anchor of his life’s work of food – MacNean House & Restaurant, which is his family restaurant started by his parents, his favorite places in Spain, and the importance of respecting others, whether it’s staff or fellow chefs.
What made you become a chef?
(laughs) I suppose my mother. Where I live is a small rural village and it’s a family business where I’ve been cooking since the age of 12, I’m 46 now. I learned to cook from my mother Vera and that’s where I got my love of food.
It’s fun that this show is focused on Spain and you get to travel to places like Bilbao. What’s the theme and aim of this show and what made you want to focus on Spain?
Don’t I have the best job in the world, to travel? I used to work in San Sebastian and the Spanish tourist board have been fantastic supporters for promoting their country, for food and Bilbao, and San Sebastian is the most wonderful place to visit for food and culture. It’s very similar to Ireland in so many ways. It rains a lot but it’s magical when it comes to food. They tend to eat very late in Spain, which was a little bit hard for me to get used to, but when it comes to ingredients, the way they cook fish, the way they serve their “pinchos”, their tapas, it’s very special. It’s very unique.
Do you have some favorite places or episodes you did for this show?
Definitely San Sebastian has to be my favorite. I used to work there many years ago as a young chef, I trained at the world famous Arzak, which is run by Elena Arzak and Señor Arzac.
Do you have a favorite dish to cook?
I love beef cheek is what they serve a lot, and crispy calamari. It’s a very unique place and San Sebastian would be the highlight for me and it’s a beautiful city to have the old town, where they have the pinchos. The way they eat, they graze. They might eat a one or two small plates of food and move on the to next pinchos. There’s a wonderful pinchos tour called Discover San Sebastian and the lady’s name is Eskerne, so she takes me around to places where you get really good beef, really good foie gras, really good prawns and she’s very, very passionate about San Sebastian and the food culture. It’s just wonderful.
What is the favorite part of your job?
(laughs) That’s a good question – eating, cooking food, the whole subject of food, whether it’s meeting food producers, meeting chefs. I love my job full stop. It’s all about food and whether you’re meeting a brilliant producer, a wonderful chef, or a wonderful producer who makes the most gorgeous wine. For me it’s learning all the time and discovering new techniques, new ingredients and I suppose seeing the way chefs put different combinations together like in Spain. They eat so late but they really respect and enjoy their food and it’s very much a family occasion, even the way they eat fish. When I go back to where we live in Ireland, we’re an island but we don’t at enough fish compared to in Spain. They absolutely adore fish. To be honest, I just love the whole subject of food.
Do you ever run out of new recipes?
(laughs) I’m very lucky. I have a good team around me, that’s a good question. I wrote 16 cookbooks and what I always try to do with my recipes for my television shows and my cookbooks is that the recipes are practical, people can make them, they’re all tested. We try and use really good local ingredients and for the TV show, whether we’re cooking in Spain or Italy, wherever we’re doing the program, that we use the local produce there and we use the local wine. It could be local rabbit, local chorizo, so whatever it is, I think we try and do a recipe that people watch and say, “Oh, I can make that, that’s easy, that looks delicious.” Because they’re not really “chefy”, they are in one way and they’re not in another, they’re not fine dining, they’re real food, and tasty food.
What made you originally want to cook on TV and what was your path to being a chef on TV?
I never wanted to cook on TV, I got lucky; I won a lot of competitions in Ireland. I’ve been cooking since the age of 12, when I started off wanting to be a chef. I never dreamt that I’d be on television, have cookbooks. I’ve been lucky, very privileged and I feel the gentleman who does all my TV shows, we’ve done over 200 shows together, he’s an absolute gentleman. He knows my strengths, he knows my weaknesses and he also knows what I need to rally focus on and he helps me a lot. It’s all about being yourself, I think that’s so important and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t appreciate how lucky I am [to do] what I do. I have a great variety from working in my kitchen to doing my TV shows, to doing my cooking demonstrations. Food is my life and I love it.
What was that catalyst that put you on TV?
I won the “Young European Chef of the Year” when I was 21 and it was a huge accolade for me and then I went to work in Luxembourg and when I came back, I got a break. I used to do an afternoon TV show in Ireland called “Open House” and I was on that, live, every Tuesday for six years. So that gave me confidence. I really enjoyed it and I met some really great people and to this day I’m very grateful for that. Very grateful.
So far everyone’s had a Julia Child story. You’re not from America so you wouldn’t have her as an influence, correct?
Yeah. I suppose if go back to my career, my mother was a my huge influence like when I eight or nine, I used to bake shortbread, cookies, flapjacks, apple tarts and my mother was a wonderful cook. She ran the restaurant and started the restaurant. I feel very, very lucky that I got the inspiration from her. She taught me about respect in ingredients and respect in your staff and I think that’s really important. Where I live, in my village, we have 75 people employed and we have people working for us for over 25, 30 and 45 years. That’s very important to me that I take on my family values, my traditions, cooking local food but also respect; admire and listen to your team and bring them with you. I think that’s so important. So my mother would be a huge influence and has always been throughout my life. I wouldn’t be where I am today without her support, her encouragement and I never take that for granted. My mother passed away four years ago of lung cancer. She reared a family of nine and then she started the business off at 31 in a restaurant in Ireland; it’s been an amazing journey because we run the business now and it’s something I’m very proud of.
When you talk about cooking at the restaurant, it was her restaurant?
Yes. My mother and father owned a restaurant, we closed – our house was bombed twice during the Troubles. We bought the building in 1965 and then in 1973 our house was bombed twice, so we closed from ’73 the year I was born until 1989 and then I was taking an interest in cooking and food and after that my mom and dad opened up, I was the chef with my mother, with my family. Mom was a wonderful cook and a trained hotel manager, so she knew about how to run a business, how to do bedrooms. We had five rooms, now we have 19, so we’ve extended our business over the years and it’s just been a wonderful success. We’re in a small rural village in Ireland, two hours from Dublin, two hours from Belfast and it’s my home and I’m so proud of it.
Do you get feedback that your show is a calm place that takes people away from their lives for a bit?
The amount of people who say they love watching the show, because the show is not about food: it’s travel, it’s about tourism, it’s about showcasing the region, the country, the people. It’s the people that make it. And for me I feel I have the luckiest job and the happiest job in the world because it all revolves around food. I’m always asked to do like a touristy kind of thing, whether it’s go and [visit] kids, or in a hot air balloon, different things, so we always work with the Spanish tourist board who are just so proactive and wonderful and they will always have somebody with us when we’re over in Spain for two weeks who will speak in English and Spanish and help us go from place to place. So it’s busy, it’s intense, it’s so much fun. So much fun.
What’s the most frequent question you get? And what’s your answer to that?
Do you enjoy everything that you taste and my honest answer is 99.9 percent. I love everything about food and there’s very few things that I would eat and say, “That’s off.” You know the way everyone says, “That’s so delicious, that’s tasty.”? But when you’re working as a chef and you work with chefs, and you see what they do, everyone has their own style and you have respect that and value that. And people probably are a little bit jealous that they see you having such a great time like for a holiday, but you’re actually working and you’re tasting and you’re enjoying some lovely local wine.
Do ever pinch yourself that you get to do this for a living?
You feel very lucky. Like when I started, it was the love of food and it still is now. That’s the core of everything – my restaurant, what I do, my cookbooks, my television shows. And I’ve a very good structure, we do two weeks in October, two weeks in September, we’re going to do a seafood show now in Ireland. We’ve done the Spanish show, which is great and it’s just a lovely way for me to learn about cuisine, food, cultures. I’m very lucky.
When you’re in L.A., do you have any favorite places to go or dine?
Do you know what? It’s been about five or six years since I’ve been there, I think in L.A. you’ve got some of the most exciting food scenes, so I think if I go back I’ll have to contact you and you can recommend what spots to go to because I think there’s so many choices, variety and I think that’s what makes L.A. such a vibrant place to dine.
Your show has been airing on KLCS on the Saturday afternoon cooking block, is there anything you want to tell viewers?
I hope that we do Spanish food and the culture and the cuisine justice. For me I’ve done four different series in Spain. I just think it’s so diverse, like when you spoke about Bilbao and San Sebastian, I think that is such a wonderful place to visit; the food culture, the food history there. They’re wonderful people. They’re very friendly, they’re very kind, they’re very open, they’re very genuine and it’s not an expensive place to go. I think the way they dine, you can get five beautiful tasting plates of food with a couple of glasses of wine for about 20-25 Euro. That’s a bargain and that showcases just their local food, they call it the “pinchos.” So it’s something that everyone should experience. I love going over there. I have twins, they’re eight years of age, we go to San Sebastian if we can once if not twice a year for two or three nights, it’s just magical and I love it.
Watch ‘Neven’s Spanish Food Trails’ Saturday afternoons on KLCS and be sure to follow Neven’s social media on Twitter: @nevenmaguire; Instagram: @Nevenmaguire or Facebook: facebook.com/neven.maguire