One of the most recognisable faces on Australian TV belongs to one of its best loved cooks and food personalities.
With a passion for fresh produce and for her Barossa Valley home, Maggie Beer has prepared, presented and inspired audiences on programs including The Cook and the Chef, The Great Australian Bake Off, and next year, Maggie in Japan.
She has been the subject of Who do you think you are?, has authored best-selling cookbooks, was 2010 Senior Australian of the Year, and was recognised as a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2012.
At 71, she could let someone else do the cooking and take a well-earned rest. Instead, she wants to improve the lives of people no longer able to cook for themselves – those living in aged care homes.
Rosemary Desmond asked Maggie to share her thoughts on food, life – and her ideal dinner party guests.
Where does your passion for food come from?
Being born into a family where food was always important, my eyes and ears were wide open when I first arrived in the Barossa. I learnt quickly 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 what can be grown here and what is available in the wild. As a city person, sharing in a community was particularly special, but to find myself in a place so devoted to my own passions – food, music and wine – made it seem that it was meant to be.
What is the Maggie Beer Foundation and what prompted you to set it up?
In 2010, I realised just how many passionate people working in aged care are trying to bring about change with very limited resources. It is complex to manage but I hoped to bring together specialist aspects of science, research, nutrition and management under one umbrella to help this industry provide nutrient-rich, flavoursome food to everyone, regardless of age or dietary requirements. The vision of the Foundation is to educate and facilitate – I truly believe everyone deserves to enjoy good food.
How would you improve the lives of people in aged care and nursing homes?
The Foundation focuses directly on the lives of residents – things like making meal times more social, growing fresh vegetables and herbs on site, allowing more autonomy of meal choice. With staff, we do hands-on cooking demonstrations to share recipe ideas and ways of incorporating simple things like fresh stock, real butter and fresh, rather than frozen, veggies. These may seem small things, but from experience we know that changing someone’s food choices can take only a slight shift in perspective.
Do governments have a role to play in this?
Most definitely. Governments can play an active part in legislation but essentially I believe the greatest impact will come from those who are making the day-to-day choices about the food offered to residents – those cooks and chefs are the people we most want to inspire.
What do you say to the operators of homes whose first priority may be keeping to a budget, with food taste and nutrition given a lower priority?
First, I would say ‘I understand’! Having worked with food for most of my career, I absolutely appreciate having to work to budgets, but my intention with the Foundation is to bring new thinking to such stumbling blocks. It takes considerable skill to plan and execute menus that are varied, culturally diverse, familiar, flavoursome yet within budget, and those skills are sometimes lacking in aged care facilities.
This is exactly why we have established Creating an Appetite for Life, a workshop especially for cooks and chefs working in aged care to provide a hands-on approach to nutritious ingredients, budgeting, supplier relationships, aged care-specific recipes, menus and dining room management.
Many older people live alone. How would you advise them to maintain a healthy diet?
It is absolutely important to stay active and eat well as we age, all the more so because we face extra health challenges when the body doesn’t bounce back as it once did. Fresh fruit and salads are an easy add-in to anyone’s diet and that’s what I think is the best ‘secret’: just keep adding in the good stuff rather than get too worried about being overly restrictive.
If you could have any three people, living or dead, at a dinner party, who would they be?
Colin (my husband), Ella Fitzgerald and Dame Joan Sutherland. What a sing-along that would be after dinner!
What would you serve them?
My family’s favourite, roast chook. I could cook it with my eyes closed – all the more time to talk!
For more information on the Maggie Beer Foundation, visit maggiebeerfoundation.org.au
This article by Rosemary Desmond originally appeared in the December/January 2017 edition of 50 something magazine.