What inspires Donna Hay?
Editor Karen Barnes chats to Australian food writer Donna Hay</ and discovers that her lifelong passion all began with shelling peas…
She has legions of fans worldwide. In Australia she’s as famous as Nigella is in the UK. Her cookbooks and magazine create a world where everything is a calm, stylish shade of blue, white or silver grey. The food is artfully tumbled on the plate, perhaps with the pasta strands twirled coquettishly, interwoven with vivid green herbs. The setting is a bible for style; the ingredients are vibrant and fresh – food you want to dive into – yet the recipes are simple and down to earth.
You’d be forgiven for imagining that Donna Hay might be intimidating in the flesh, but far from it. As we met to discuss her inspiration and approach to food, I clocked in the first five minutes a naughty glint in her eye, a cheeky chuckle, a lack of reverence, a reluctance to toe the accepted line. Donna is a woman attracted by anyone with a maverick streak – people who are down to earth and prepared to be brave; people who enjoy life; people who care more about doing what they love than doing what other people think they should. Coffee in hand, biscuit ready to dunk, it was time to find out more…
How did it all begin?
I don’t have the knitting gene or the embroidery gene or the drawing gene, but I do love to cook, and it goes right back to childhood. My mother didn’t like to cook, but my grandmother did – my food inspiration came from my grandparents’ house. They had a garden planted with vegetables and fruit trees, and when I went to stay with them we’d spend the mornings outside. The house wasn’t particularly rural and the garden wasn’t huge; they just used the space well – that’s how they survived when times were hard. My grandma had a big strawberry patch. And beans. And peas. After lunch we’d go inside and I’d help shell the peas and prepare whatever else we’d picked that day. My granny used to cook all afternoon – lots of things, but what I remember most is the lemon curd. She let me stir it as it cooked, and it was so good. There were always friends and aunties popping round and swapping their food. People would swap eggs for some strawberries or a jar of that wonderful curd. It made a powerful impression on me.
What about back at home. Did you ever cook there?
I’m the youngest of three, and I remember cooking dinner for our dad’s birthday – I was eight years old. I cooked steak diane and a potato gratin, I think, with chocolate blancmange for pudding. I put the blancmange in glasses from my mum’s good cabinet. At some point I must have transitioned from cooking dinner that once to cooking for everyone more regularly, but I don’t remember when or how. What I do remember was that I wasn’t allowed to make a mess in the kitchen!
Was it kind of inevitable that food was going to be your job?
When I finished school I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t think I was going to be a cook, though. I was too scared to be a chef as I was quite shy. I went to cooking school to appease my parents, but secretly I intended to go for just a couple of weeks. Luckily, I met some great girls and I stayed.
Have you always considered the style and look of food on a plate to be important?
I’ve always been about the beauty of things as well as the taste. From the beginning I wanted to use Mum’s good china. When I was helping my parents to pack up their house recently I was packing up her treasured china (that good cabinet again!) and realised it was blue and white with a bit of silver. I’d forgotten about it but realised that china must have influenced my taste because those colours are the colours I love now – especially blue.
What or who inspires you now, in 2016?
French Vogue is a source of inspiration. Reading that, which I do regularly, gives me a different take on food. Apart from that, I’m inspired by clever people who are brave – people who’ve contributed to the world in a way that isn’t normal or safe. I met a woman the other day at a food market who was selling black garlic and her knowledge was inspiring.
Would you say you’re brave?
I guess I had to be quite brave when I first started my magazine… I had no staff, I wrote every recipe, I styled everything myself for the pictures. There was no budget. It was like a runaway train. Now the team is bigger I still take work very seriously, but I make sure everyone is ok. It’s a lot of fun. It’s like a naughty school yard sometimes. You get the best out of people when you’re having fun.
After all these years, do you ever get fed up with cooking?
Never! But I don’t have to try too hard. I rarely follow a recipe when I’m cooking at home. Everyone knows I cook on Sundays – I can have two people for dinner or I can have 20. We might go for a swim (we live right on the water), then come back and a houseful of people will have turned up. We expand the food to fit, and I’m happy for people to put in requests.
Do you find cooking therapeutic?
For me it’s like meditation. When I get stressed out, I bake. The precision of it makes you slow down and think; it makes you concentrate on something other than whatever you’re worried about. The detail takes focus. So yes, it is therapeutic.
What would your death-row meal be?
Dessert – and lots of it! I’d have passionfruit curd, raspberries, caramel and lots of ice cream. And meringue. All those things massed together on one plate. With plenty of rosé champagne.
You’re renowned for your healthy recipes, too. How does that mix with the dessert fetish?
The way I see it, it’s about balance. My mother has always been health-conscious, so that made an impression on me. And as you get older the awareness of health becomes more important, doesn’t it? As time passed I started to include healthier ingredients in my weekly repertoire: more greens; more broccoli. Food is medicine. If you eat well it makes such a difference to how you feel. But we’re never going to convert the general public into spiralising courgettes. Healthy food has to be accessible. And appealing. And affordable.
What about sugar? Have you tried to cut down?
Once I tried to give it up, but not permanently – I just wanted to see what it felt like. I was going to give up coffee as well, but there was an office intervention (I drink a lot of coffee!). I had no idea how hard it would be. I was like a heroin addict.
And finally… Do you have a secret recipe for doing well?
I wake up early. I don’t want to waste my life in bed. I love life. I’d have to be sick to be in bed until 10am, but I’m lucky because I don’t need much sleep. If you love what you do, you find a secret energy store. When I was starting out as an assistant on shoots it was so competitive I thought, “I’m going to run the fastest, be the tidiest, do the best, get there earliest.” I was right there, giving people what they needed before they even realised they needed it. When you’re an assistant your job is to make someone else’s job easier, and if you do that well, people remember it.
Find 10 of Donna Hay’s inspiring midweek recipes in the February issue of delicious. magazine, on sale 1 February. Her new book, The New Easy, is on sale now.