Big Interview: Eamonn Holmes happy to be back home in Northern Ireland for first food to fork cookery show

GRAEME COUSINS talks to Northern Irish television legend Eamonn Holmes about the new BBC NI cookery show he is hosting and finds out the question the presenter gets asked every time he’s out shopping
TV Presenter Eamonn Holmes speaks to The News Letter at the Europa Hotel in Belfast.
 Pic Colm Lenaghan/PacemakerTV Presenter Eamonn Holmes speaks to The News Letter at the Europa Hotel in Belfast.
 Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
TV Presenter Eamonn Holmes speaks to The News Letter at the Europa Hotel in Belfast. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

You can tell a lot about a person’s level of celebrity by how long it takes them to get from one side of a room to the other.

This week when I met Eamonn Holmes in the Europa Hotel I reckon it must have taken him a good 20 minutes to cross the bar area on the first floor to the snug where our interview was taking place.

I wasn’t the slightest bit impatient, rather I marvelled at how he stopped, chatted and posed for phone snaps with everyone who called him over to their table.

Eamonn with judges Danni Barry and Joris MinneEamonn with judges Danni Barry and Joris Minne
Eamonn with judges Danni Barry and Joris Minne

Even when we began our interview, he started by asking questions of myself and our photographer, taking an interest in our backgrounds, such was his familiarity with leading the chat as a TV host.

It’s no wonder the people of Northern Ireland are proud to have him as one of our own.

“People are very kind,” said Eamonn. “Unless they’re on social media.”

Although the Belfast-born presenter has plenty of experience with chefs through the cookery slots on ‘This Morning’, his new show on BBC One NI sees him go ‘all in’ with a programme that is purely culinary-based.

Eamonn Holmes with the judges Danni Barry and Joris Minne and all the cooks who took part in Farm To FeastEamonn Holmes with the judges Danni Barry and Joris Minne and all the cooks who took part in Farm To Feast
Eamonn Holmes with the judges Danni Barry and Joris Minne and all the cooks who took part in Farm To Feast

He is joined by Michelin star chef Danni Barry and food critic Joris Minne as judges for ‘Farm To Feast: Best Menu Wins’ – the first farm to fork cookery programme for BBC One Northern Ireland.

Eamonn said: “When I look back at my schooling, the one big complaint I have is, ‘why didn’t you teach me something useful?’ I’ve got Latin, I’ve got Ancient Greek, but I didn’t have Cooking – to learn how important it would be for my health, for my wealth, for my physique, for everything.

“If I could do it again I would do this – I would take HE and Dance. What I’ve learned in life is women love a man who can cook and a man who can dance. That’s the ideal man.”

Beginning on Monday at 7.35pm, the six-part series invites seven of Northern Ireland’s most talented amateur cooks to move into a stately home – Crom Castle in Co Fermanagh – where they live together and compete against each other, using some of the most amazing ingredients on our doorstep to make kitchen masterpieces.

Eamonn Holmes and his wife and co-presenter Ruth Langsford at the opening of the Merchant Hotel in 2010Eamonn Holmes and his wife and co-presenter Ruth Langsford at the opening of the Merchant Hotel in 2010
Eamonn Holmes and his wife and co-presenter Ruth Langsford at the opening of the Merchant Hotel in 2010

The seven cooks are: Alia (35), an estate agent and make-up artist lives in Glengormley; Chin (23), a medical student lives in Belfast; Hannah (27), an archaeologist lives in east Belfast; Jamie (28), an assistant restaurant manager from Comber; Kirby (33), a quantity surveyor from Waringstown; Paul (22), a civil servant from Belfast, and Sansao (46), a retail assistant living and working in Newcastle.

Eamonn said: “You look at these people and feel humbled because they’re so good. They all have regular jobs but they can cook to this high standard. You say to them, ‘did you have lessons?’

“One of the lads, Paul, he’s only 22. On a Saturday he goes down to Tesco, studies all the ingredients, experiments with them.

“I’m looking at him saying, ‘were you not just interested in watching the football with your mates?’

Gerry Kelly and Eamonn Holmes in their UTV daysGerry Kelly and Eamonn Holmes in their UTV days
Gerry Kelly and Eamonn Holmes in their UTV days

“There’s one man called Sansao, he had to flee Angola, he’s in Newcastle where he works in Tesco doing a relatively menial job.

“I took him aside and said, ‘God did not intend you to stack shelves in Tesco. God has given you a gift, you’ve got to follow it’.

“Him and I would have had very deep conversations about things. He’s a beautifully spiritual man.

“I think what Tesco are now doing is they’ve got him at the front of the store rustling up food using ingredients in the store. He gets to demonstrate what he can do. I’m so pleased for him. It won’t stop there for him.”

Eamonn added: “We all lived together for a week. We ended up such good friends.

“I was in huge pain when we shot it. I’d just dislocated two discs, if I could have drank morphine I would have.

Eamonn Holmes speaks to News Letter's Graeme Cousins at the Europa Hotel in Belfast.
 Pic Colm Lenaghan/PacemakerEamonn Holmes speaks to News Letter's Graeme Cousins at the Europa Hotel in Belfast.
 Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Eamonn Holmes speaks to News Letter's Graeme Cousins at the Europa Hotel in Belfast. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

“Everybody helped me, they were such a great bunch of people. When you see the show you wouldn’t realise I was on crutches, you wouldn’t know I was in pain. It was a very lovely experience.

“The fact we were in our own country made it even lovelier. And it wasn’t a studio, it was very different.

“The surroundings were lovely – the farm and Crom Castle. My God we were blessed with the most marvellous week’s weather. The silence was beautiful.”

Filming wasn’t without its setbacks however. Eamonn’s mother took ill on the first night he was in Co Fermanagh.

He said: “We were really expecting the worst. It was terrible dilemma, I would have continued with what I had to do, but she’s my mum and I would have been there for her if anything happened. I could have been up the motorway from Enniskillen to the Royal, I was prepared to do that without sleep.

“I’ve got four other brothers around, we all stayed in touch. At the end of the filing I went to see my mum, thankfully she rallied.”

When it comes to food Eamonn said he isn’t a fan of big portions: “I love food, nice fresh food, but when I go out in Belfast in particular, every restaurant you go to it’s piled high. A lot of people in Northern Ireland equate good food with a huge amount.

“I’m no saint, but a lot of the time you could take half of it off the plate, we don’t need it.

“What you see in ‘Farm to Feast’ is real food and you form the connection about where it came from and where it’s going to.”

‘Ruth dances around the kitchen when she’s cooking’

Eamonn said his wife Ruth Langsford makes cooking a “real event”.

He commented: “Ruth dances around the kitchen, she puts music on when she’s cooking, she sings out loud.

“The only thing she doesn’t like in the kitchen is me.

“Ruth says to me she unwinds with cooking.

“All I see after cooking is dishes, pots and pans someone is going to have to clear up. It stresses me out, I’m a clean freak.

“She says ‘Farm to Feast’ is my dream come true because then I can stand in the kitchen barking orders at people and have no consequences.

“She’s quite annoyed that I’m doing the programme and she’s not. I said, ‘listen, can I remind you that initially the BBC asked for Eamonn and Ruth but you said you were too busy’.”

Eamonn said he filmed the programme in what should have been their time off: “Normally Ruth and I, before we start a summer run of ‘This Morning’, we’d take two weeks off. But we weren’t going away anywhere. I wasn’t going to do all that queuing and be on amber lists and red lists. This came about and I said I’ll do this instead.”

‘I’m never more happy than when I’m at home in Northern Ireland’

Although Eamonn moved to England when he landed a presenter’s role on BBC news programme Open Air in 1986, he said he has never stopped calling Northern Ireland home.

The 61-year-old said he would come back to the Province as often as possible and relished any chance he got to work on programmes here.

He commented: “When I’m in Northern Ireland people say to me, ‘welcome back’ but to me I’ve never gone away.

“I’ve always had a house here, this is always home.

“Yes, there are things that keep me away for longer than I’d like at times, but I’m always here.

“I used to come back every week, then every two weeks, sometimes it’s six weeks.

“I’m always back to see my mum, everybody I know lives here. I’m never more happy than when I’m here.

“The great thing is no one ever notices when I’m here until you put a suit on and come into the Europa to do interviews.

“I go out to the Spar to get my groceries or I go to get petrol or the chip shop, and this happens to me all the time, people look at me and say, ‘what are you doing here?’

“I’m standing in a chip shop – ‘Three guesses’, I say.”

He said the other question he gets asked when people see him out and about is ‘Have you not got someone to do that for you?’.

“People say that to me all the time. I go to Tesco at Knocknagoney, it only happened to me a couple of weeks ago, and they literally say that. It’s a stock phrase.

“Sometimes I think they’re joking, it’s a funny thing to say. Then I think, ‘should I have someone to do that for me?’ Maybe I’m missing a trick.

“I think if I was Ant and Dec level I’d do it. It’s whatever makes you happy yourself.

Eamonn recently appeared on RTE show Meaning Of Life where he gave an emotional interview, recalling his late father.

He said: “It was a show I did for my mum because she rates it so highly.

“If you ask me why I got tearful I’ve no idea. I’m quite a sentimental person, I started talking about dad and the tears came.

He added: “I think if my daughter was to get married I’d dread it. How could I make the speech, how could I give her away?”

Asked if he preferred live or pre-recorded television, he said: “Live every time. I can’t see the sense of rehearsing a live programme, or presenting a live programme that looks recorded.

“It has to be a bit on the edge otherwise what’s the point of doing it.”

Explaining Troubles, TV best friends and David Blaine encounter

Eamonn said he’d wanted to get into journalism since he was 11, but it wasn’t a career his mother was that keen on him pursuing.

He recalled: “It was to do with the Troubles, having to watch a lot of TV and not being able to go out a lot. I wanted answers for myself and also for other people who were asking, ‘why do they hate each other, why do they fight?’ I was wanting to say, ‘we don’t all hate each other’. It was that mission to explain.

“The Europa Hotel which was the centre hub for world communications. We were the biggest story on the planet – Vietnam had just ended and we began. The world’s press gathered here.

“It’s what I wanted to do. It was a vocation, a calling for me.

“My dad – he wasn’t qualified in that field, he’d no contacts – but he used to try and push me, try and recommend me to people.

“He believed I should do it but my mother was very against it. She wanted me to go out and get a job.

“It was a testament to how much respect I had for my parents that I followed her advice and went and got a job as a trainee manager in Primark. It was so tough. I thought, ‘I’m out of here’ and I went back to journalism. I was admitted into journalism college and I didn’t take my place up.

“I went to the College of Business Studies. I’m looking right at in now. It’s now the Maldron hotel. I went through that and got a job in Ulster Television. I was 19. When I was 21 I was anchoring the top programme in Northern Ireland - Good Evening Ulster. It was amazing. I pinch myself that it actually happened.”

Asked how Eamonn and his wife Ruth’s closest TV friends are, he said: “Rylan Clark-Neal is our best mate, we’re very close to him. Lucy Alexander from ‘Homes Under The Hammer’ is another.

“We’re not great red carpet people, but our friends are our friends.

“There’s lot of Sky News presenters who we’re close to. We’re friends with a lot of the Loose Women – Coleen Nolan, Saira Khan. Christopher Biggins is another very good friend.

“Luckily if you’ve been doing it for as long as I have you’re on nodding terms with most people.”

Remembering his most challenging interview, Eamonn said: “Probably David Blaine, the magician who didn’t speak. You’re better prepared for that now. It could have been a publicity stunt, it probably was, but I wasn’t prepared for it. I was on my own. Usually my partner who was beside me – Fiona Phillips – never shuts up. She never said a word during the interview. You lose pounds on that one, you sweat.

Of his beloved Manchester United, he said: “My son goes to uni in Manchester, I sit on the board of the Man Utd Foundation, we’ve got two season tickets – it’s a great family affair. The guy who sits beside me is my mate from Belfast.”

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