How Donna Hay made everyday food easy

Her books have sold millions worldwide and her cleanly presented recipe style is unmistakable. So, what’s next for Donna Hay?

Where we have Nigella, Australia has Donna Hay. In the two decades since her first book The New Cook hit the shelves in 1997, Donna has had dozens of cookbooks, her own magazine, TV shows, cookware collections, and even a range of bake-at-home cake and pancake mixes to her name.

She has also appeared regularly in YOU’s food pages over the years. With her signature fresh, mouthwatering style, emphasis on quick, light everyday dishes and knockout photography, Donna has made cooking at home not just easy but appealing. ‘I’ve always wanted to motivate people to cook,’ she tells us at her harbourside home, not far from Sydney’s Bondi Beach. ‘I love seeing someone who hasn’t really cooked before absolutely nail a new dish, then share it with others.’

Donna’s 27th cookbook, will be the first of her titles (which so far have sold a combined six million copies) to be published at the same time around the world. It is lusciously photographed, as always, but it’s also jam-packed with delectable baking ideas, across a whopping 440 pages, covering everything from classic brownies (given new nutty twists or turned into a trifle) to a new lighter take on banana bread. All with Donna’s clever cheat’s tricks and fast fixes thrown in.

Hugh Stewart

NO MORE MUD PIES
Donna grew up south of Sydney, encouraged in her love of cooking as a child by her grandparents, who kept a bountiful kitchen garden, and by her mum, a nurse doing shift work, who was more than happy for her youngest daughter to take over the family meals when barely a teenager (she cooked her first Christmas dinner at 13). ‘I used to play with my two sisters in a playhouse Dad built for us in the garden, and we’d fill up the cups of a tin tea set with sand, but when I had the chance to go into the kitchen and cook with my grandmother, it was no more mud pies, it was the real thing, and I thought it was wonderful,’ she remembers. Nowadays, with two sons of her own, Angus, 15, and Tom, 12 (with former partner Bill Wilson, a butcher and farmer), encouraging children to cook remains close to Donna’s heart.

From the very beginning, Donna mastered the art of simplicity in both writing and photographing recipes. Following a degree in home economics – ‘it was very science based, perfect for recipe writing’ – she began freelancing for TV, advertising and magazines.

START-UP SUCCESS

‘Generally, I don’t take many things in life too seriously, myself included, but back then, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else, so I had this real drive to succeed.’ After a
spell as food editor of Australian Marie Claire, and four successful cookbooks, she was offered the chance to start a magazine of her own in 2001. ‘With just eight weeks to get the first issue out of the door,’ she recalls. It was a sellout from day one, read in 82 countries. Right up to the recent landmark 100th issue, an estimated 10 million copies sold in its 17-year lifetime. Fans loved the combination of doable recipes with a pioneering modern graphic style which remains the gold standard for food photography today.

BAKES FOR ALL
Next for Donna? Well, first, there’s Modern Baking. ‘I’ve broken each of the five chapters – across chocolate; caramel, toffee and coffee; sugar and spice; fruit and berries, and milk and cream – into what I think everybody needs,’ she explains. For a modern baking book, ‘It was important to me to cover not only great new recipes – they’re definitely not a collection of your grandma’s old favourites – but also quick fixes with only four or five ingredients for when you’re seriously low on time. I’ve also included healthier alternatives, using ingredients such as raw cacao, natural sugar replacements and whole grains. After all, there are times when I like to make something really decadent, gooey and indulgent, especially for a special occasion like a friend’s birthday. But for my boys to take to school in their lunch boxes or just to have sitting in a cake tin on the kitchen counter, I’ll make something a little healthier. There’s a time and place for all of them, don’t you think?’ says Donna.

PRIDE OF THE GALLEY
At 48, she seems blessed with enviable (and apparently boundless) energy. ‘I think that’s why I have to get up in the morning to run [she averages 15km at least three or four times a week]. Not only do I love that time of day – it’s so beautiful and it really clears my head – but I get to the end of the day and feel as though I haven’t wasted any precious moments.’ That same steely discipline and love for the outdoors led her to take part, the Christmas before last, in the famous three-day Sydney to Hobart yacht race, when she cooked on board for a New Zealand crew. Much to her surprise, not once did she feel scared. ‘Going as fast as we were, in the pitch black with the howling winds and the waves so big, I just felt so free,’ she remembers.

ON A SCREEN NEAR YOU…

We’ll see something of that inspiring Donna spirit in the UK this autumn as two of her series are coming to UKTV. She’ll also be here in person for a series of appearances and events, including the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen.

So get ready for her breezy Aussie directness, quickfire humour and infectious relish for great, easy everyday food. Forget fancy restaurant-style fare. ‘I’m not a chef, I’m a cook,’ Donna emphasises. ‘I love nothing more than having eight people over for a long Sunday lunch and a good laugh or inviting some girlfriends around for coffee and cake. For me, food provides the threads to my life and bringing people together,’ she says.

Go to donnahay.com.au where you will find a revealing video Q&A, a peek at Donna’s home in Sydney and more