Donna Hay has a very busy life: she's a food styling pioneer, the author of 18 cookbooks, a MasterChef judge (in her native Australia), editor of her own magazine and a homeware designer.
I met her to talk about everything from how to make food look good to the wonders of Australian ingredients, and barbecuing in the rain.
You started out as a food stylist aged 19. In what ways were you different to everyone else?
When I first started, food photography was all about how many peripheral props you could shove in the background. ‘More, more, more!’ was the ethos, and I just didn’t get that – why would you want to detract from the food? Besides, there’s so much fresh produce in Australia that I didn’t think you needed anything else.
So I stripped all that away. I didn’t need mounds of napkin rings or great big goblets in the background. By having really simple food styling, you can see how easy the food is to actually cook because it’s right there in front of you. And the point of photographing food is, after all, to make people want to cook the recipe.
How well did the world respond to your modern take on food styling?
Terribly! The whole white-on-white, very clean thing was so different, that most people reacted badly against it. It was a Marie Claire book and the French thought it was cold and terrible – they didn’t even want to publish it in Paris. But I knew something had to change, and that people would get bored of ye olde food styling eventually.
Are there any secret tricks of the trade you use to make food look good on camera?
Absolutely not. The food is all eaten afterwards, or shared among people’s flatmates. We pay our couriers off with food! The extent we go to is to put salad greens and herbs in ice water to keep them fresh… but that’s it. So, in theory, when you make my recipes they should look exactly like the photo. There’s nothing we do outside of good, standard cooking.
Everyone’s taking pictures of their own food nowadays. Have you any tips for amateur photographers?
Well, it’s a tough ask to know a lot about both photography and food styling. My skills lie with the latter, and I’m sure my photographers would be horrified if I started to take my own photos!
But what I do know is that you need to consider the direction of the light, the reflections, the composition… make sure your food is never in the shadows. As for food styling, I could go on for a week about how to do that and we still wouldn’t cover half of it.
Taking your own pictures of food without any formal training? Very ambitious.
You’ve just launched a new range of kitchenware with Royal Doulton. Do you use the pieces for your own food styling?
Yes! That was really the driving force behind designing them in the first place. The Royal Doulton designer sat in my prop room with me, and I pointed out bits and pieces of beloved kitchenware that I already owned. So together we’d put together the foot from this, the colour from that… and create something new.
I gave my plates a slight foot, because then they will lift off the table nicely and you’ll get a lovely shadow underneath.
What kind of home would your new Royal Doulton range suit?
I didn’t really have a particular home in mind when I designed it – more a set of food circumstances, from everyday to entertaining. You can choose from the Modern Classic, Modern Nostalgia, or Pure Blue set, but I like to mix the pieces up.
The point was to design a range of multi-purpose and very versatile kitchenware. Just like my recipes, I’d like the tea cups, plates, cake stand or whatever to be used all the time. So the cake plate could be used as a cheese board instead, for example.
Fast, Fresh, Simple
What is your food philosophy?
The same as the title of my latest TV show: Fast, Fresh, Simple. Start with a few fresh ingredients, and keep the cooking simple. And don’t worry if something goes wrong – there’s this notion that if you make a mistake, half the world will collapse into a spinning vortex of doom! How disastrous can it be?
Does that mean that you don’t have any time for complex recipes, or Michelin restaurants?
Well actually, great restaurants play a very important part in my life. I love going out for a fancy meal, as long as the food isn’t too tortured. You know when you go to a restaurant if the chef is a really great cook – that will always shine through.
But for my career and my work life, it’s all about getting people to cook at home – that’s my thing.
Women in the kitchen
You have two young sons, aged six and nine. Are they into cooking yet?
Oh yes, I can’t keep them away from the kitchen. One of them is an exceptionally good eater; the other one is OK. I think some foods can be really strong and confronting for young palates – even everyday items like broccoli. When you’re young it has such a strong taste. I don’t push them to eat anything, because I think that’s wrong. But they love sushi and sashimi, the quality of which is incredible in Australia.
A recent survey says it's women who still do most of the cooking at home in the UK. Is it the same in Australia?
Cooking is not seen as a ‘woman’s job’ back home. It’s very much shared, especially among younger couples. It’s cool to be able to cook. In fact, regardless of gender, if you don’t have a bit of a repertoire in the kitchen, then you’re considered very unfashionable – which is great for me and my book sales!
Conquering the UK
You’re very big in Australia. Do you have any interest in conquering the UK, too?
Well I’m firmly based in Sydney, that’s for sure. I don’t really think of it as conquering, I just like people to cook and cook well, wherever they may be in the world. Although I wouldn’t mind hearing more of the English accent – very proper.
What do you think of British food?
For me, it’s all about Eton mess and pudding! And on the savoury side, I’d far sooner think of fish and chips, pies, or bangers and mash than curries. I’m afraid I love my fresh seafood though, so Australia comes first for me.
We Brits love a good barbecue. You must know a lot about that style of cooking! Have you any tips?
I know, a wink of the sun and you guys are running for the barbecues, even if it's raining! The thing about barbecuing is that it’s exactly like cooking inside. If you want to cook a steak inside, you’d make sure your frying pan was scorching hot, right? So in the same vein, you would need to pre-heat your barbecue until very hot before cooking any meat. And make sure you keep the barbie really clean, like you would your frying pan.
Donna's top tips for…
Cooking spaghetti: Make sure the water is boiling and salted, and that there’s plenty of it. The most important thing is to quickly get your water boiling again after you’ve added the spaghetti (to keep the pasta from sticking together).The easiest way to do that is to put the lid back on the pan once the pasta is in.
Baking a sponge: Fairy fingers, as we call it back home. It’s all about keeping the air trapped in the sponge, so you have to have light fingers to whisk those eggs up really light. And always sift your flour three times.
Cooking vegetables: I put them in ice water after cooking if I’m eating them as part of a sald, just to keep the colour. If served hot, steam your veg and take them off the heat just before they’re ready, because food is hot and will keep on cooking.
Crackling: Turn the oven up to as high as it will go (250, even), then dry the crackle, salt it (all the usual things) and blast the meat for 10 or 15 minutes, until you see it all bubbled and crackled. Then turn the oven right down to 120/140 to finish the meat off.
A 3-course menu from Donna Hay
All food images takes from Donna Hay - Seasons.