From Basics to Brilliance Q&A 

You’ve had an incredible career, first starting as a food stylist, before taking on the position of Food Editor at Marie Claire, and shortly after, the role of Editor at your namesake magazine, Donna Hay Magazine. Have you always had a love of food?

Yes, I always cooked as a child, always, always. I’m the youngest of three girls, so I always cooked for my parents and my sisters. I was just a kid that was drawn to mucking around in the kitchen, and I was lucky that my mum let me cook whenever I wanted to, and she never made me cleanup which was even better. When my mum let me cook whatever I wanted in the kitchen, it was like a little girl being able to not do pretend mud pies anymore but the real thing, so I was extremely lucky that my mum let me make so much mess in her kitchen!

“In Australia and New Zealand the food is so fabulous, that I think it’s easy to be a food stylist.”

When you were just starting out, there was a much more ‘maximalist’ approach to food photography. What was the initial response to your modern approach to food styling?

It was a little bit mixed, as with anything that’s different, some people love it and some people don’t. It was looked on as very groundbreaking and very modern at the time. In Australia and New Zealand the food is so fabulous, that I think it’s easy to be a food stylist. I can style the same plate in New York but I would struggle because the food isn’t as fresh and it’s not as amazing. I wanted a minimalist approach to celebrate the food and how things are chopped and how you can actually get to the end of the recipe. It was not just a rebellious play at the industry to do white on white, it had more depth than that.

When I was growing up I was part of the first generation that had dual working parents, so a lot of my friends, actually most of my friends, couldn’t cook because they’d skipped that step with their mums. Having such a minimalist approach in the beginning, you could actually see how things were chopped and torn and cut and things like that so it had a two-pronged approach to it – you could see how things were done and it also looked beautiful.

What was food at home like growing up?

It was pretty standard family food, although there was a lot of emphasis on fresh. My grandparents had a huge vegetable garden so we always had lots and lots of fresh vegetables like beans and carrots and everything else that they grew in the garden. My mum was quite an early adopter of the big health movement back in the early eighties, so she was always conscious of cooking at home which meant no processed foods and no takeaway foods. I guess I was lucky in that way that there was always cooking to be done.

“We’re all about watermelon everything at the moment! Watermelon drinks, watermelon popsicles, watermelon granita…”

Where do you find inspiration for new recipes?

Gosh just about anywhere and everywhere! You can walk into a shop and see a mountain of beautiful spinach or beautiful fresh carrots, something as simple as that, and think ‘oh, they look amazing!’ I’ll take them home or bring them to the office, and we just go from there – whether it’s a really simple shaved pickled carrot salad, or roasted carrot soup. It’s hard to pick just one thing as where the inspiration comes from – it depends on the day.

As a busy mum of two, how important is cooking food that you can blend into other delicious recipes – if there are leftovers, of course!

For me I always have a little bit on standby. One of my boys is just eating truckloads at the moment, and he is always hungry, so for me, having food already in the freezer or half prepared in the fridge is really my secret to keeping things running smoothly at home. Right now I even have cooked whole wheat spelt penne in the freezer because my 11-year-old is so starving and so impatient!

What are some of your best tricks for pulling together a delicious meal when you’re short on time?

If I’m really short on time I’ll grab something that’s packed with flavour so I can eliminate chopping and mixing lots of ingredients. So something like a really good Asian chilli paste. Just throw that on some chicken breast or some salmon and chuck that under the grill, and while that’s cooking I can whip up a really quick salad. I do rely heavily on mustards and condiments and having things on standby but I always like to have a fair bit of fresh produce in the fridge ready to go as well, because my kids are really easy on eating salad or any kind of veg. I think just having a well-stocked pantry and things on standby ready to go is a real saviour.

Is there one recipe that you think really says, ‘Basics to Brilliance’?

It could be something as simple as the brisket, and the butterflied chicken has really great flavour variations as well – it’s a tough one! Everybody really loves the crispy roasted pork belly, I guess because it’s cooked a different way with the skin side down first, which makes it crunchy every time.

“I am always known for Sunday lunch at my house, and usually I have pavlova.”

What are some of the food trends that you expect we’ll see take hold in 2017?

I think health, especially luxe health is really on the rise, and I think finding alternatives for healthy snacks and healthy bite-sized things is really going to grow. Besides health we’re still seeing a lot about pickled and fermented foods, and we’re all about watermelon everything at the moment! Watermelon drinks, watermelon popsicles, watermelon granita…

How have you seen the food that you like to cook evolve over the years?

I guess the food that I cook has been able to evolve really because of what is now being stocked in supermarkets, which is so much different from when I started out. I used to have to trudge to one Thai supermarket to get anything from lemongrass to Thai basil, kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce; I remember you always had to buy that at a specialty store. I don’t know what the supermarkets are like in New Zealand, but there are Asian greens in the normal run of the mill vegetable section now, there’s an aisle dedicated to Asian grocery, there’s just so much more to choose and it’s available as you’re doing your weekly shop, so I think that’s really changed the way that I can cook at home. I don’t have to go out of my way to find so many ingredients as they are just so much more readily available which means we can cook so many more different flavours and cuisines.

If you were hosting a dinner party, what would your perfect menu look like?

I am always known for Sunday lunch at my house, and usually I have pavlova, because I can put it in the oven on Saturday night and let it dry out overnight – this is my trick – and then it’s ready on Sunday. I always choose on Sunday morning what I’m going to cook for lunch based on the weather. I’m a real weather cook, so if it’s going to be really hot then I’m going to do something on the barbecue, something like some nice salt’n’pepper prawns that matches the mood that you’re going to be in –  I’m such a last minute decider! If it’s going to be a little bit overcast then I might do some nice slow cooked lamb shoulder, something a little bit more warming.

What is your food philosophy and how do you like to incorporate this into your cooking and the recipes that you make in Basics to Brilliance?

I guess we go back to simple made special, or special made simple, you can say it either way, where it doesn’t have to be three pages of ingredients for you to be able to create something that tastes really great that also looks amazing. I think that it’s really important to understand how much time people have and the ability they have to go and shop for less than ten ingredients. I’m always mindful that some recipes are for the weekend, when you might want to challenge yourself and spend a little bit more time cooking because you’re entertaining, or you just want to do it because cooking is your thing, but there’s also a lot of shortcuts. In the show that’s what I try and do, slow down and show you all the tricks and shortcuts that I’ve learnt in my many, many years of cooking. From lining a tin really quickly and not having to cut out circles, things like that. All my little shortcuts and things that I do organically I’ve tried to slow down and put in the show.


See Donna Hay: Basic To Brilliance, Mondays at 8:30pm, on Food TV.