Maggie Beer learned to cook in the kitchen with her father and passed on the joy of foo to her daughters. With her grandchildren shaping up to be the next generation of board members to the Beer empire, does Maggie feel able to kick back and relax?
She runs a flourishing food business with 60 staff, is co-star of a TV show and has one bestseller out and another book set to hit the market in November. And yes, she still loves to cook up a storm every day, often for her whole extended family and great gaggles of friends.
The popular image of Maggie Beer, Australia’s modern-day patron saint of good food, is of a warm earth mother, deftly combining the myriad ingredients of her hectic life with ease and fl air, and still serenely serving up a wonderfully wholesome and delicious meal each night. But, the reality isn’t quite there.
We’ve now changed the date, and time, of this interview five times because Maggie’s so busy, her timetable is so crammed and she’s plainly overstretched. One appointment spills into the next, another folds when an unfinished, overdue project needs more urgent attention, and another simply curdles in the heat. “I just have so much on,” says Maggie, apologetically.
Friends are used to it. One, on being served a sumptuous lunch – just on dusk – laughs affectionately. “It’s always like that around here,” he says, gesturing at Maggie’s huge open-plan kitchen in her home in South Australia’s Barossa Valley, filled with the chatter of hungry guests. “That’s her life.”
In a world of careful measurements and exact timings, such mayhem can prove a dash unsettling. After all, her great mate, fellow celebrity cook Stephanie Alexander, is the very model of carefully cultivated precision. But here, in Maggie’s kitchen, testing recipes for her books and writing stories about them is sandwiched between an early- morning hunting and gathering trip to the local Barossa Markets, refining one of the flavours of the ice cream she produces, slow-roasting duck with onion, garlic, cumquat and figs for a lunch for 10, and fielding numerous calls – and this is Saturday.
The overall impression is of a woman completely possessed, living life in a sticky frenzy of food, sauces and relishes. “But I do love it,” says Maggie, 63. “I just have to remember sometimes that I’m no longer 45, and now and then something has to give.” She’s recently had a bout of flu, for instance, and it’s taken her much longer than usual to get over it. “But I love what I do, and my passion for it invigorates me and keeps me going.”
It’s hard to resist suggesting that convenience foods, the well-publicised bêtes noires of a life spent extolling the merits of good home-cooked meals of fresh produce every day, could save a little time in her frantic schedule. But she won’t take the bait.
“We’re all time-poor,” she responds. “No-one has enough time. The trick is to be organised, for example, by picking up fresh produce on the way back from work, visiting your local farmers’ market, and keeping some good pasta and olive oil in the cupboard and some fish in the freezer. That way, there’s never an excuse for not having good food.”
It’s now 35 years since Maggie, then working in citizenship law, and husband Colin bought a pheasant farm in the Barossa, an hour’s drive north-east of Adelaide. She turned all her energy to the pheasants … until the couple discovered that no-one knew how to cook them, so wouldn’t buy them, either.
Instead, Maggie learnt to cook them herself, started a farm shop and soon established herself as a talented cook with a successful restaurant, then as a vigneron and, finally, as a manufacturer of fine foods. That food business now produces more than 30 different items, from burnt fig jam to Sangiovese verjuice to pheasant and porcini terrine, exporting to the UK, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai and the US. In addition, The Cook and the Chef, the TV program in which Maggie is cook to Simon Bryant’s chef, is now in its third year on ABC TV, while her cookbook released late last year, Maggie’s Harvest, is still selling strongly.
Maggie is keenly aware that she’s privileged to be surrounded on all sides by good food: Colin, 65, is now CEO of the food business and their two daughters, Saskia, 34, and Ellie, 32, have a catering operation together, with Saskia also producing organic Barossa chicken and milk-fed lambs. And she’s worried for those people who aren’t as fortunate as she is. “You just can’t overestimate the importance of food in our lives,” she says. “It’s about good nutrition, and giving us the vitality to really seize life, but it’s also about sharing the table with family and friends. Too often people say they don’t have the time to prepare proper meals, or the money. But anyone can, really – you just have to plan ahead.”
She believes that everyone could save both time and money by buying and cooking fresh food. “A lot of people spend more time queuing at supermarket checkouts for convenience foods than it would take to prepare meals with fresh produce,” she says. “As for the expense, if you buy fruit and vegetables in season, then you’re buying them at their very best and cheapest and, personally, I prefer cheaper cuts of meat, like shoulder or oxtail or neck. They’re the sweetest pieces you’ll find.”
If only people weren’t so fearful of food, she laments – obsessing about calories and fat content and conflicting reports of what’s good and bad, when everything in moderation is the real secret of healthy eating. And if only they weren’t so afraid of the kitchen, and nervous about making mistakes.
It’s fine to muck up, she insists – that’s the way we learn. And simple dishes are often just as good as complicated ones. Most weekdays, she’s happy to eat just a piece of grilled fish or chicken with vegetables or salad, and even when making her own recipes, she’ll sometimes come unstuck.
“I’ll often make mistakes and forget to put the salt in something or burn food,” she admits, laughing. “I’m a very
haphazard cook, I’m very unstructured and I’ve never been formally trained. “In many ways, I’m the very antithesis of the celebrity chef trend. While I respect chefs, and have learnt a lot from them, it’s my role, as a cook, to make people feel comfortable in the kitchen.”
She’s always happy to call a spade a spade, is eager to demystify cooking by using plain, simple language – and ingredients – and to go through recipes, step-by-step. “I like to encourage people to have a go,” she says. “Cooking should be fun, and I hope I can help people enjoy the experience.”
Starting early is always best, however. While she was taught by her dad, Ron, to cook after his kitchenware business failed, and he and Maggie’s mum, Doreen, started cooking in RSL clubs, she taught her own daughters early, and now enjoys the kitchen with her grandchildren, Max, about to turn 11, Zoe, 11, Lily, nine, and Rory, four. Six-month-old Ben will join them when he’s old enough.
The fact that the whole family shares a similar philosophy about the importance of good food means she never worries about anything as organised as a succession plan. “I don’t plan to retire for at least another 20 years,” she says, although she longs to have time one day to sculpt, draw and play the piano. “By then, my grandchildren will have grown up and become members of the board. In a business like this, it’s always difficult to work out what will happen. But why would I want to give it up? I’m having far too much fun.”
Look for the Maggie Beer range of produce at your favourite food store, or order direct.
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