Each week SHESAID features an inspiring woman who has been kind enough to share her story with our readers. She might be a leader in her chosen field, someone still on their own path striving to make a difference or simply someone with a remarkable story to tell. These women contribute their own knowledge, expertise and life lessons in order to truly inspire others.
Name and role
Maggie Beer, founder of Maggie Beer Products
What do you get up to on a day-to-day basis?
Everything in my life has been an ‘organic’ process that has developed rather than necessarily been planned… that’s not to say it has always been easy but more so that I have learnt to ‘go with the flow’. So when it came to a career involving food it really just evolved. There was no grand plan – but moving to the Barossa when I married Colin and being surrounded by such wonderful, seasonal produce certainly sparked my existing interest in food to be taken to the next level.
There isn’t really too much that’s ‘regular’ on a day-to-day basis! Every day is different for me, I might be filming and cooking in an aged care facility to promote my latest project, the Maggie Beer Foundation, teaming up with my favourite side kick from our TV days, Simon Bryant to cook on stage to a live performance by the WASO, taste testing and fine tuning my latest ice cream flavours with my product development team, cooking for a photo shoot for a magazine or my website, or picking produce from my garden to cook for dinner – always a common theme of food, food, food.
How/when did you know this is what you wanted to do as a career?
I really didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was growing up, so when I left school I carried out a career ‘degustation’ of sorts – from a lift driver in a New Zealand department store to the assistant to the senior geophysicist for British Petroleum in Libya and in the fields of light aircraft to being a citizenship law clerk for the American Embassy and undertaking house management at the Women’s College of Sydney University. So when it came to a career involving food, it really just evolved.
Where do you think your passion for food developed from?
This is a tough one. In many ways it was my parents; my father, particularly, was a great cook and was obsessive about freshness and quality. As a child I learnt so much without realising it. Even when financially there were really tough times in our family, quality of food never suffered. Then the luck of coming to live in the Barossa continued my journey. This is where I really learnt about seasonality, simply because we lived it and it framed my whole philosophy on food. We were so busy surviving in the days of the Pheasant Farm Restaurant that we could not afford to eat out or travel for years. But that very thing allowed me to develop my own style by simply being a produce-driven cook. I loved the writings of Elizabeth David. She had abundant ideas and suggestions that spoke to me as I’ve never had the patience to follow recipes. Then later, I was influenced through my friendship with Stephanie Alexander, whose knowledge and writing adds so much to so many Australians.
What drove you to first create the Farm Shop/Barossa Pheasant Farm Restaurant?
I guess the path chose me in that it was a necessity that turned into serendipity. When we first started breeding pheasants we could sell them just for novelty value but no one knew how to cook them. Any written recipes that people might have tried were pretty horrific and would have resulted in dry, overcooked birds – so no wonder they didn’t come back a second time. Cooking came naturally to me so that’s what I started to do – cook our pheasants, our quail, pickle our quail eggs, make our pate and utilise every bit of the birds. We started the farm shop and sold fresh birds with instructions on how I cooked them and offered roasted pheasant and stuffed quails as picnic food on the side of the dam. Still I wonder how I had the audacity, with no experience or training, to start a restaurant (the acclaimed Pheasant Farm Restaurant which closed in 1993) but I’m so happy I did. And today we’re a farm shop again, serving picnic fare, so we’ve truly come full circle.
What were the initial stumbling blocks, getting started and since then?
My original food philosophy from all those years ago still stands today; to always cook from the heart, with ingredients at hand, never letting anything go to waste. This is the basis that underpins all that we did in the Farm Shop’s starting years, and all that I still hold dear now. Of course things have developed quite a bit since those early days of peaches arriving by the ute-full at the Farm Shop, and the pate being made in 10kg batches. Those first days of pate production, using a domestic food processor, didn’t even muster enough profit to cover our costs but it started something I could never have envisaged. Our first dedicated pate kitchen was the incubator shed rebuilt after a fire. That lasted for 10 years until we were bursting at the seams. In November 1996 we built our state-of-the-art Export Kitchen where even though our pate is now made in the thousands we still make it with as much care and attention to detail as we did in those first production days of only 4 to 5 blocks a week.
As an indication of terrific growth, the Pheasant Farm Pate is currently available in just under 2000 retail outlets across Australia, but it certainly hasn’t been all smooth sailing. When you rely on produce sourced in season you are completely dependant on the weather and its lack of predictability; fire, flood, pestilence, we’ve had it all. Even though it’s been tough at times, I love it. I have never been someone who is governed by convention, so I am always looking for another way of doing things.
You are much more than a humble cook, now a successful author, television presenter and businesswomen. What caused you to create and grow? Did you ever think your work would be such a hit?
Moving to the Valley and being surrounded by ever changing seasonal produce has always been my greatest inspiration, and that in turn has allowed me to learn my craft by trial and error and I’ve gone along from one idea to the next.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Superior seasonal produce is key to everything I create. Living in the Valley has certainly taught me a great deal about the rhythm of the seasons, how to delight in fruit and vegetables picked ripe and at their best, and how to maximise the potential of not only what can be grown here, but what is available in the wild too. There is nothing more engaging for a cook than to work closely with the freshest of fresh produce. It continues to be my inspiration and starting point for any new product that comes into the range.p
What are your goals for the future?
Given that I love what I do and have more ideas than I have time in life to fulfil them, my quest is simply for a bit more time for myself and my family and friends.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to follow the same path as you?
Be tenacious, have a point of difference, think laterally and be prepared to work like the blazes!
Isabelle is a writer who has a hundred-and-one side-splittingly funny stories about growing up at an all-girls boarding school, with a chocolate habit that requires constant monitoring. Follow Isabelle on Twitter.