TV chef and housewives’ favourite Paul Rankin proves quite a hit on board MSC Splendida. He talks to us about food, travel and why he likes a hot game tart…by Jessica Tooze

Paul Rankin interview

You’ve just finished your first on-board cooking demos. How did they go?

It is always difficult to cook or do demonstrations in someone else’s kitchen, but when you’re cooking on dry land at least you always have the facility to send a runner out to the shop. On the ship it’s not so easy so you have to make sure you have absolutely everything.

The staff have been wonderfully helpful and one of the things I really liked about this experience is that the viewers got to taste the food. That just shows the capability of what they do downstairs – it’s crazy the numbers involved in the catering operation here. Normally I am preparing one, two or four portions but of course they never do that – they are often cooking for a thousand people.

You had quite a gaggle of fans in the audience I noticed…

I got two proposals of marriage did you notice that?! I enjoy this type of thing actually. When I first started to do this sort of stuff I did get nervous and then I discovered a little secret for demonstration and TV work – when I lose the thread the lucky thing is I always have the work to pull me out. So if I can’t be entertaining or I don’t have the interaction I’m looking for I just go back to the work. When I’m doing this type of demonstration it’s important that I keep my sense of fun and keep it light and entertaining.

Paul Rankin interview

What did they ask you afterwards?

Some were saying they had relatives in Northern Ireland, some were saying that after today’s demonstration Saturday Kitchen would be easy, some just wanted a picture and some just wanted to flirt a bit! I may have talked in my demo about how there is nothing I like more on a cold day than a hot game tart!

Do you have groupies?

Kind of, yeah, definitely. At the BBC Good Food Show you see the same faces all the time… stalkers, ha!

What’s your general impression of the ship?

Well my first impression is just the sheer scale of the whole thing – I am not only impressed but blown away. My head goes to the logistics of how you keep 4,000 people happy, fed and watered on a ship. My strongest most honest and heartfelt impression on this ship is how wonderful the hospitality of the front staff are; it comes across as so natural and professional and they are an absolute joy to be with. It’s a credit to MSC and the organisation because this stuff is not easy to pull together. Once you get the hospitality right people start to relax and have a good time. I am also pleasantly surprised by the choice there is on board – especially the entertainment.

How have you found the food on board?

The food is very good; it could be better if they had me consulting on the boat though! No, for what they are doing they are doing very well. I had a delicious lunch yesterday even though it was just a buffet. I’m really good at picking out the good stuff you know so I made myself a beautiful salad with fennel, some lettuce and tomato, and dressed it with some extra virgin olive oil. Then I had a little bit of saffron paella type rice, some vegetable stew and sautéed
escalopes – for me it was a beautiful lunch. But I do think the sausages and burgers tempted most people!

Do you have any advice for people to eat better and healthier without overspending?

Easy – make soup. Big chunky soups are very low in fat, very easy to cook and they almost always taste great if you use good ingredients, and they last ages in the fridge. I think that the tide is turning slowly and more people are becoming interested and aware of what’s in their food.

Paul Rankin Interview

So how did you get into cooking?

I dropped out of university to go travelling and worked in restaurants. For me, coming from Ireland, the restaurant business was pretty darn glamorous – all this food I had never seen before and different wines – and when I enjoy something I am quite an anorak and I really throw myself into it. So I loved being a waiter and I was good at hospitality. The more I worked in the business the more I became interested in the food and the better restaurant that you work in the more interesting the food becomes.

In Australia I started to shop in the markets and do dinner parties and then started to go to the kitchens early in the morning and do things like peel rhubarb and skin fish and stuff. Eventually I wrote Albert Roux a mad passionate letter saying I wanted to dedicate my life to food and… he gave me a job as a dish washer!

Do you still love to travel?

Yes I almost feel it’s time for a sabbatical type thing – something to recharge the batteries and to keep the mojo going! I have just made a lovely TV programme this summer with Nick Nairn, called Paul and Nick’s Big Food Trip, where we travel about in a boat and search out different producers and suppliers and that kind of thing.

I like to try and work with schools and children too. I also do charity work and last year I was lucky enough to go to Ethiopia with Concern and do some filming and see their work there. I have a lot to be thankful for – cooking has been very kind to me!

Paul Rankin runs the acclaimed Cayenne restaurant in Belfast. He was giving cookery demonstrations aboard MSC Splendida’s special themed cruise round the Med in February.

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