“I feel like such a fraud,” Brian O’Driscoll smiles.
Ireland’s greatest-ever rugby player is sitting in a corner of Dublin’s Saba restaurant, shaking his head in bemusement. We’re talking about food, about what he loves to eat and what he pushes to the edge of his plate, and I’ve brought up his famous ‘foodie’ quote. You know the one: “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.”
The quip was delivered back in 2009, just as Martin Johnson’s England trundled into town for a Six Nations clash at Croke Park. O’Driscoll went on to captain Ireland to a win, and subsequently their first Grand Slam in 61 years… but not before being asked for an opinion on Johnson.
Like Roy Keane’s prawn sandwich brigade, or Eric Cantona’s seagulls, O’Driscoll’s cryptic response just keeps on giving, years after the fact.
But what was it all about?
“Some people think that I came up with that!” he laughs. “It’s obviously completely plagiarised! You see, we have an itinerary in national camp every day, and our bagman Rala [Patrick O’Reilly, the Irish rugby team’s baggage master] puts a thought of the day on it. That was his contribution one day, and I thought it was brilliant. I loved it! Then I said it in an interview… I had a bet with one of the lads. He said, ‘I bet you can’t get that into a press conference!’ So I did.”
“At least seven or eight times a week I have people quoting it in my Twitter feed,” he continues. “At least! The Chicago VeggieFest sends it out about once every three weeks, and gives me credit for it. I feel like such a fraud! It’s is a well-known saying!”
He pauses, shaking his head at the surreality of it all. “But then it was the week of an English game. And anything you say those weeks is always magnified…”
Welcome, however briefly, to the world of Brian O’Driscoll.
In advance of the 2013 Lions Tour of Australia, the Irish rugby legend and HSBC Ambassador is taking an Asian cooking masterclass in Saba. And the fact that he’s a keen home chef is just one of the surprises revealed over the wok alongside sous chef, Natthawut ‘Yo’ Khuhathong.
Arriving into the restaurant, O’Driscoll swaps his HSBC polo shirt for a chef’s jacket, momentarily revealing an upper body whose muscles appear to have muscles. A scrum of chefs, cameramen, managers and PR people flurry about. Restaurant staff sneak a peek from behind dividers. He may only be 5’10” tall, but the outside centre is built like a human Harley-Davidson.
“Where’s your chef’s hat?” someone asks.
“We couldn’t find one big enough for my head,” he grins.
With that, centre and chef get busy prepping a couple of Vietnamese spring rolls. Yo gamely lays out the noodles, bean sprouts, rice paper, mint and other ingredients, revealing a red number ‘13’ emblazoned on his back. He offers some tips on knife technique.
“Get the Band-Aids ready!” O’Driscoll quips.
There follows a pause, as the rugby star methodically slices his ingredients.
“Erm, can you go faster?” Yo asks.
“Absolutely not,” his co-chef smiles. “I need these fingers.”
It’s not everyday you see a rugby ball tossed around a restaurant. But that’s exactly what happens next, as O’Driscoll pulls a branded ball from a bamboo steamer, and proceeds to offer Yo tips on how to pass it – an impromptu pay-back for the cooking lesson.
“Put your left hand there, spin it over like that…”
Yo obliges, sending an impressive spinner over the spring rolls.
“There you go! Boom! First time!”
The pair break to sample their fare. “Mmm. The mint in that is beautiful,” O’Driscoll says. “That’s what makes it. I’d definitely see myself making that at home.”
He asks Yo to give his spring rolls a mark out of ten.
“Eight and a half,” the chef ventures.
“I’ll take it!”
I had no idea O’Driscoll was so into food. His Leinster teammates Jamie Heaslip and Gordon D’Arcy are investors in Dublin eateries Bear and The Exchequer, respectively, but this is the first time I’ve heard their former captain singing the praises of stir-fries and slow-roasts.
“Food would be very important to me,” he reveals. “My wife [actor and author, Amy Huberman] is a bit of a grazer, whereas I look forward to meals, they’re a big focal part of my day… It’s probably not the best thing to do as an athlete, but if I wanted to go for a nice brunch or something on a Saturday, I’d eat nothing before 11 or 12 o’clock. I’d be starving, but I wouldn’t eat anything to take away some of that hunger, because I look forward to it so much.”
Neither he nor Huberman eat carbs in the evening, but when it comes to getting the apron on, Ireland’s top try-scorer also leads the stats at home.
“I’d say it’s about 85:15 percentage wise. We would have eaten out a good bit prior to small people coming along, but dinner has a different dimension now [Sadie, the couple’s first child, was born on February 10th]. One of us could easily be eating hours before the other. I like cooking. I wouldn’t say I’m brilliant at it, but whereas I used to love looking at a recipe, getting all the bits and pieces in the shops, getting them ready and prepared…. I don’t really have the time to do that anymore.”
He has “about five or six” regular dishes, he says, with a rice dish featuring beef, chillies, green beans, spring onions, peppers, ginger and oyster sauce currently topping the list. “That’s our go-to, 25-minute, job-done dish, and it rarely disappoints. Although that said, I did it with chicken stock instead of beef stock last night, and absolutely screwed it.”
Is he more of a Gordon or a Nigella in the kitchen?
“I prefer the look of Nigella more than Gordon,” he smiles. “But I’m probably more of a Gordon Ramsay, though I tend not to have so many sous chefs… When your wife is sous chef you can’t really be swearing and roaring at her. I’d say I’m not really like either of them. I fancy myself a bit more of a Jamie Oliver… but it’s nonsense about those half-hour meals. Anybody else doing those, it takes about 55 minutes to an hour. It’s just that he has his timing down.”
Strictly controlled diets form a big part of any professional athlete’s life, but O’Driscoll has learned to take a measured approach, trusting himself with a little breakout now and then.
“My nutritional knowledge is good enough at this stage to figure out what’s good, what’s bad and where my leeway is,” he says. “If I feel as though I’ve overdone it in some areas, I’ll pull the reins back in. Other times, if I’ve been super good, I’ll have a bold meal, or something that probably as an athlete you shouldn’t be having. It’s about managing the balance.”
Darina Allen would be delighted to hear he’s a fan of butter, for instance.
“I will not put margarine on my bread! I’m going to have butter. And it’s going to be salted butter. I don’t eat a huge amount of it, but the bit that I do eat, I’m going to enjoy.”
And whilst Irish rugby fans have spent season after season putting their trust in BOD, it’s refreshing to hear he’s as human as the rest of us when it comes to chocolate.
“I don’t eat a lot of it, but to be told that you couldn’t eat chocolate ever again would be heart-breaking,” he says, back in front of the camera. “I love, love Toblerone… I’m a bit of an all or nothing person, so I could go through the guts of a bar and be violently unwell… I could be abstemious as well and go two or three months without it, but then when I get stuck in again, I do it with force!”
O’Driscoll is diplomatic when it comes to discussing his Lions prospects for 2013, but he has fond memories of his first tour to Australia in 2001 – and not just from the pitch.
“The seafood there is fantastic… I’m fairly adventurous with my eating… I’ve tried kangaroo, and Moreton Bay Bugs, which are a kind of lobster, and so good. Please God, next time I get to travel to Australia – whenever that may be! – I’ll look forward to more Moreton Bay bugs.”
When he eats on match day, he says, depends on the time of kick-off.
“My go-to pre-match meal would probably be a spaghetti dish with some chicken – very simple if I’m doing it myself, with some pancakes maybe to make it easier. Pre-match meals tend to be hard to eat because of the nerves and butterflies; it’s just a matter of getting it into you. You know you’re going to burn it off too, so a little bit of maple syrup on those pancakes isn’t going to hurt anyone…”
What about his four weeks off every summer. Does he loosen the belt?
“Absolutely not. I used to, but not anymore. As a professional, knowing that I’m playing the following year, I’m still good. The worry is, that time when I actually finish… Hopefully vanity will get the better of me on that and I won’t let myself go! I have a fat person in here bursting to get out,” he chuckles, clutching an imaginary paunch. “So I know I can’t just indulge in whatever I want.”
His idea of savoury food heaven is lobster, he says. Hell is… courgette. “We were force-fed that by my mum from day one, and whenever I see it, it’s pushed aside.”
Next on Yo’s menu is a green papaya salad, for which O’Driscoll is encouraged to pound a mix of vegetables, nuts, fish sauce, palm sugar, shrimps and lime juice (“I like a bit of lime, though more so in a bottle of Corona…”) together in a pestle and mortar. Get the flavours right in this classic Thai dish, Yo teases, and he’ll have the ideal meal to romance a Thai woman.
“I’m ok! I don’t need to be romancing any Thai women at this stage in my life!”
Now 34, O’Driscoll is completely at ease working the scene in Saba. Surrounded by lighting rigs, chefs, cameramen and PRs, his gentle, self-deprecating drawl washes over the afternoon (“Set fire to a wok? Ok. I’m glad I got my hair cut yesterday”). Yes, it’s inherently silly to be chopping chillies for HSBC. But you can have fun with these gigs, or you can be a jerk about them. O’Driscoll has genuine fun. Everybody wants a piece of him, and he’s remarkably gracious about it.
Beyond rugby, I wonder, what makes him tick?
“It’s funny, I used to think in interviews that I really needed to come up with some good things to say about my downtime. But I don’t really like doing a whole lot. I get enough exercise in my day job. I like doing simple things like going to the cinema, chilling out at home, going for a coffee, eating out. I like spending time with friends and family. I couldn’t tell you: I love gardening. I wish I had some passion – like being able to look out on a garden, and being proud of that. But I can’t! Our garden is overgrown! It’s somewhat of an eyesore! My Dad’s like: ‘Wait another few years and you’ll absolutely love the gardening.’ But I don’t think it’s coming anytime soon…”
He has his interests of course. He loves his iPad, constantly checks his news and fun feeds on Twitter, watches the DVD boxsets doing the rounds in camp, and loves the Food Network. “But it always makes you hungry. That’s the only danger. Don’t watch it late at night.”
Like everyone else, I’ve watched O’Driscoll on TV for years. But it’s only up close that I notice how rugby has written itself into his face. His jaw is square, his nose angled, his face and neck faintly scored with scars. The smile is famous, but it’s amazing how much more lived-in he looks than the fresh-faced 20-year-old who scored his first try for Ireland in a baggy green jersey in 1999.
The obvious question is how long he plans to continue playing. Before our interview, however, I’ve been told that retirement, babies and O’Driscoll’s recent suspension for stamping are off the table. It’s par for the course with a slick media operator, as are the intermittent doses of bland diplomacy: when I ask him to tip some stars for the future after a disappointing Six Nations, for example.
“Obviously I don’t really know the Ulster, Connacht and Munster academies, but I know in Leinster we have a good lot of talent coming through… with a new [Irish] coach coming in it’s going to change things up, and whoever that is will have to bring the fresh talent through. But I think there’s plenty of it there to feel positive about for the future. I don’t know, did that answer your question?”
Well… kind of, I say. There’s a moment where we look at each other, recognising the robotic choreography of question and answer that has just passed.
“I have to give generalisations,” he offers. “I can’t be identifying individuals, because…
“It implies an endorsement?”
“Yeah, exactly. But as well, it’s funny, because rugby players can be egotists. If you mention one person and not another, that person might go, ‘Well why did you mention him’. Or if someone’s vying for the same position all of a sudden, you’re the bad guy. That’s why I talk in generalisations sometimes.”
That’s the nature of being Brian O’Driscoll, I guess: one of Ireland’s most famous sports stars, its most photographed people, and its most marketable men.
You won’t find any tomatoes in this fruit salad.
Brian O’Driscoll is an HSBC ambassador. HSBC is proud Principal Partner to 2013 The British & Irish Lions Tour to Australia. For more info visit www.lionsrugby.com/jointhejourney. Brian O’Driscoll food: this interview originally appeared in The Irish Independent’s Lineout Magazine.