We visited just as Neven was launching his latest cookbook. It started off with our photographer asking him had he a fish and a pair of shorts.

“Please don’t annoy the celebrity chef Barry!” I thought, a little nervously.

But this is Neven Maguire and the airs and graces would be hard to locate.

Neven would have been happy to acquiesce to Barry’s requests for the cover shoot, but instead of going to the river, we went to the mountain and to the foot of the Stairway to Heaven just outside of Blacklion in Co Cavan, where the Maguires run McNean House.

As beautiful as the location was, however, the wind was not co-operating with Amelda’s hair, and so to distract her, I asked how they met.

“I knew Neven to see as we both went to Fermanagh College but I had never spoken to him,” she explains.

“We crossed paths on a night out before Christmas and he stopped to talk to me. We chatted for a few minutes and I remember thinking, ‘I didn’t know that he was so nice to talk to’. In January, I was out in Galway and he was just back from the Bocuse d’Or (world cuisine competition) in Lyon, France. So he happened to have the weekend off, which I don’t think had ever happened before in his life or did again until COVID-19. Got chatting again and that is that!”

This business is all about ‘we’

Amelda talks about the changes in the business since she got involved.

“There is always a risk of getting carried away,” she admits. “We did have to pull ourselves back and think: ‘If there was ever a downtime that we would be glad that we only had 19 rooms to fill’.”

Neven agrees. “Our customers are your readers and they are 99% Irish. There might be a perception that the diners we get are used to high-dining, but they are not.

“We want guests to feel relaxed and that there is something on the menu for them,” he says.

And they have re-invested, with Amelda’s elegant touch evident around the restaurant. But her husband insists her influence extends beyond the décor to her “business head”.

Neven is conscious to give his team and staff the credit they deserve.\ Barry Cronin

“We did it gradually, nothing ‘big bang’. We were tempted to add on more rooms. We got a quote, it was going to cost €1m and we thought: ‘God no’. It didn’t feel right. I remember Amelda at the time saying: ‘This is crazy’,” he recalls.

And Amelda passes the credit on. “It was just instincts,” she continues. “My mum would always say: ‘Just enjoy what yous have now and don’t overstretch’.”

COVID-19 brought change, not all bad

Like most other businesses, McNean House suffered due to COVID-19 and is currently operating with residents only and perhaps a small few dinner guests.

“We are not doing Sunday lunch at the moment, just running with the residents first. You get a table designated for your whole stay, breakfast and dinner,” Amelda explains.

Ever conscious to credit his team, Neven says: “Sunday lunch was a full-on service so we probably won’t go back to the two sittings. Especially for the staff like Blaithin (McCabe, restaurant manager and sommelier) and Carmel (McGirr, head chef) who are here a long time. But we do need to find a way to bring it back that is sustainable for the long term.”

The rooms are key, Neven explains, whereas for most restaurants, it’s a numbers game. Without the rooms, doing 45 sitting and 55 staff, you’d be gone

“I think that the VAT rate should be reduced down but the wage subsidy scheme is far more important than VAT. If the VAT goes to 9%, we just pass it on to the customer so for running a business, the wage subsidy scheme is more important,” he explains.

“Blaithin brought in The Food Safety Company and we did a huge amount of training before reopening. They come once a month, we don’t know when and they will swab the place from top to bottom. We had to take on extra housekeeping because of COVID-19 and they are amazing.

“We got 99 out of 100 the last time. The greatest compliment since we opened up again is guests saying that they feel safe.”

To help people out during COVID-19, Neven put up a social media post asking if anyone wanted help or assistance with recipes. Within 24 hours, they had over 400 emails, much to the horror of the office.

The Maguires have embraced the family time that COVID-19 has afforded them. \ Barry Cronin

It made him realise that “there was a huge hunger for people to learn”.

“Me and Amelda are doing videos every week,” he says. “The most-watched one is the chicken curry with 200,000 views.”

Down with the kids

Neven and Amelda’s twins are now eight and as you would expect, have a sophisticated palette as they always ate what their parents ate. But Amelda explains, they are the same as every other child.

“What they eat at home, they won’t bring to school as they don’t want to be different; I thought Conor was going to turn into a ham sandwich last year!” she says.

Neven balances a lot of different roles between TV, being a Simply Better ambassador with Dunnes Stores and of course McNean House, so COVID-19 brought some positives to their lives.

“I loved the break and we had the best family time. What I have learned is that I don’t need to be in Dublin twice a week. It also means that I am here more for our guests,” he says.

“Having a taste of time, you realise that time is actually the most precious thing,” continues Amelda. “We go to Mullaghmore now to the beach and Neven will go fishing with Conor.”

“We don’t catch much,” laughs Neven, “there would be more in a tin of John West tuna.”

Blacklion as a home

There is no escaping the fact that the village of Blacklion has suffered with the recession and The Troubles and there are now a lot of empty buildings, with McNean House the main employer.

“Rural Ireland can be neglected and forgotten about, but between the Stairway to Heaven and talk of a Greenway being developed, this is a starting point. The Burren in this area is a little gem and they are trying to promote that,” says Neven.

Brexit is also a concern, not just for themselves, but for the community. “Business-wise, most guests actually have to come in and out twice through the North to get to Blacklion. It would be intimidating and would affect your business. Go back to the 59 guards across the road there. We don’t want to go back to that, in fact I don’t think people will tolerate that.

“We have such safe food here and you hear that they will bring in American chicken. The divergence of standards is where I would be worried. It was the farming industry that got us out of the last recession. You’d hate to see that going back.”

Chef’s tips

Neven believes a good chef’s knife should be a staple in every kitchen.\ Barry Cronin

The book

“We wanted to call this book (Midweek Meals) ‘Midweek Meals in Minutes’, but we could have been caught out with the slow cooker chapter. It is the first time that I have put that into a book.

“We bought 10 slow cookers so that we could test the recipes.

“I have them all in my house and please God when the cookery school opens, we can do a course as there is huge interest.”

The recipe

“The best recipe in the book is the ragout – use half beef and half pork. Cook a batch of it, freeze it and then use it for your shepherd’s pie, lasagne, bolognese – it’s a one-stop shop.”

What is in season now?

“We will have game on the menu and pumpkin of course, it’s plentiful and it’s lovely in a soup or a potato gratin or with some pasta.”

Cooking at home

“The questions I get asked: how do you cook the perfect steak? What pots and pans and knives do you use? A good knife has to be an extension of your arm.

“The skillet pan is a great piece of kit and we cook everything in it, stews, curries everything.”

“You pay for quality, build it up over time. I believe that with food too, you get what you pay for. Good food shouldn’t be cheap. Devaluing food is wrong. The approach should be to educate people on good seasonal produce.