She is the most celebrated cook in Australia and has made a fortune espousing her dazzling take on fusion cuisine. She's also picked up the odd enemy along the way. Is that why Donna Hay shuns the limelight? Claire Scobie meets one tough cookie

I was in a supermarket checkout queue and overheard these two girls talking. "I'm doing a Donna tonight," said one. "Oh yeah, which Donna you doin'?" "The chicken Donna," replied her friend. Donna Hay shrieks in amusement. "And here I am in my jogging pants hoping they don't notice me."

I was in a supermarket checkout queue and overheard these two girls talking. "I'm doing a Donna tonight," said one. "Oh yeah, which Donna you doin'?" "The chicken Donna," replied her friend. Donna Hay shrieks in amusement. "And here I am in my jogging pants hoping they don't notice me."

Donna Hay is Australia's most popular cookbook author with close to seven million people - that's a third of the population - reading her weekly newspaper food columns. Her clutch of award-winning books have sold over two million copies worldwide and her eponymous bi-monthly magazine sells 97,000 copies an issue. She is a mate of Jamie Oliver and was offered a job by Martha Stewart. Yet, curiously, in Hay's latest book, The Instant Cook, there are no photographs of her. Nor is there a television series.

"I just don't have a gimmick. It's 'sexy Nigella', it's 'knockabout Jamie', and I realised a couple of years ago, 'Oh, my God, I'm gimmickless,'" says Hay in her sugary Australian lilt.

We are sitting in a glaring white studio in the Donna Hay Magazine's office-cum-kitchen in Sydney. Natural light pours in through large windows; drapes of material, bone-china cups and props are stacked in a corner. Three food stylists chop, whizz and stir ingredients which Hay occasionally tastes - "The peanuts need more chopping, too much soy." She seems remarkably laid-back but you sense, glinting under the toffee-brown eyes, a will of steel.

It's 2 November, Melbourne Cup Day, when most Australian offices grind to a halt for champagne lunches and it's traditional for the women to wear posh frocks and hats to work. I had expected Hay to be dolled up, but she's dressed in baggy trousers, a limp black sweatshirt and white sandals. Her hair is pulled back roughly in a ponytail; a single large diamond ring and matching earrings are the only nod to vanity, and wealth.

Since Donna Hay, the brand - a "synergy" of newspaper columns, the magazine and a new range of home-wares - was launched three years ago, Hay's become a publishing phenomenon. Her name is synonymous with a style of New World cuisine that looks like a work of art but is quick and easy to prepare - and tastes delicious. Hay's approach to food has influenced cooks including Delia Smith, and has been copied by rival magazines. As early as 2001, the New York Times published a story - "Look Out, Martha Stewart: A Rival From Down Under".

Nonetheless, Hay's ascent has not been without a few tears in the pavlova. The "food Nazis" (her rivals in the food industry), according to Hay, criticise her for being "all style and no substance". Then there's the backlash from former colleagues, in particular from Vanessa Holden. Her former best friend, who jointly launched the magazine with Hay, tells me, "Donna at her core is a control freak."

Hay herself admits she can be "tough" and is a "perfectionist" but says, "In food publishing, if you aren't a perfectionist, then you'll have a short life span. If you're writing recipes, God help you..."

And it's precisely for this reason that Hay, Queen of Simple Cuisine, has made her mark in such a crowded market. The Donna Hay Magazine has subscribers around the globe. In Britain, foodies who can't wait until the latest issue hits the shelves of Harvey Nichols, Harrods or WH Smith, get their copies air-mailed express. And you can understand why. On a cold winter's day, Hay seduces with recipes infused with sun and surf, not to mention fresh tuna and a kilo of prawns.

The jacket of her latest book, The Instant Cook, is the colour of pistachio ice cream and feels like a breath of tropical Australia. Filled with classic Mediterranean and British dishes, fused with Asian flavours and then pared down to the essentials, it is, Hay tells me, "about cooking at home, getting a meal on the table for you and your family, or you and your partner, and enjoying time together."

Hay insists on short cuts. She offers a "cheat's Béarnaise sauce" and doesn't bother making pastry (buy puff, she insists). She loves variations on a theme - so tomato pan sauce with veal cutlets can also be whipped up with haloumi and fennel for a vegetarian guest. It's an approach she believes encourages people to be more adventurous.

"As Australians we have created a new way of looking at ingredients, food and cooking in one little bundle. The introduction of all the Asian flavours into that traditional British cuisine is what set everyone alight - that food can have so many levels of flavours - so you can mix lime with chilli and lemongrass," Hay says. "People in the UK get so excited when the sun shines; and Australian food is like sunshine."

The British love-affair with Australian food began as early as 1992 when Sir Terence Conran hired Australian chef John Torode to work at his Le Pont de La Tour restaurant (Torode now runs Smith's of Smithfield) and fellow Antipodean Martin Webb, who became head chef at Quaglino's.

Since then, the wave of Australian chefs heading to Britain has become a tsunami. There's Shane Osborne at Pied à Terre, David Thompson at Nahm and Christopher Behr who opened Mju. Last year, Christine Manfield opened East@West. And the duo Ben O'Donoghue, head chef from the Atlantic Bar & Grill, and Curtis Stone, now at Sir Terence Conran's Bluebird Club, have had a successful BBC television series, Surfing the Menu. But in the 1980s, when Hay started her career, cooking was, "Daggy. So not in."

Hay had grown up by the beach and "playing in dough and cake mix" while her mother, who never liked cooking, cleaned up after her. When her parents retired and took off in a little van around Australia, Hay, by now a teenager, cooked for her two older sisters. Home was the middle-class Sydney suburb of Sutherland Shire, "A freaky place where people don't leave."

Hay escaped to study home economics at college before becoming a freelance food stylist for magazines, books and television, and learning the discipline of perfection - "Sorting through 5,000 ice-cream cones to find 10 perfect ones."

Back then food styling was fussy but Hay took an almost Zen approach. "Most people didn't know how to cook. They'd grown up with working parents, so how on earth were they going to chop the chilli unless you showed them?" she says. "So the style was instructional but also clean and modern."

Hay's break came when she was 24 and began work as food director on Marie Claire Australia , when the magazine was launched. She fetches some cuttings of her early Marie Claire recipes. The style's evolved but Hay's signature is obvious from the beginning. There's the same simplicity you see in The Instant Cook.

By the late 1990s, Hay was travelling backwards and forwards between Australia and the UK working for Food and Wine magazine, Marks and Spencer, as well as Marie Claire, under whose name she wrote four cookbooks. "There was real excitement in the way Australian food was photographed and styled," she recalls.

In 1998, at the launch of her second book to be published in the UK, Entertaining, Hay met Jamie Oliver for a drink and realised that she didn't have what it takes to live the life of a celebrity cook. "Everyone gawped. People were listening to our conversation, whispering so they could hear us," she recalls.

In early 2001, she received a call from the producers of Martha Stewart's television show. They invited Hay on to the domestic diva's programme. Hay's eyes blaze as she recounts the story of being taken to Connecticut and meeting Stewart who had, "Everything just the way she wanted it, and the money and the power to do it." (She dismisses Stewart's fall from grace - she is currently in jail after she was prosecuted for insider dealing - as "ludicrous, all about the knives turning".)

While preparing for the show, says Hay, "I was a bit nervous... And then I just felt like someone had opened a door, but no breeze." Hay arches her back. "I just felt this peculiar presence in the room and I'm not joking, I've never felt it before or since, and as I turned around, she was there. She just has this amazing presence... She's very driven and knows what she wants."

As does Hay. "She's always had a thing about Martha," says Vanessa Holden, who is now creative director for Real Simple magazine in New York. "Donna wants to be her, absolutely. Donna is one of the best food stylists, incredibly hard working, but she doesn't have what Martha Stewart has."

Hay declined a subsequent offer to work for Stewart - "too many rules", and besides, her partner Bill Wilson, "is a farmer, so it wasn't as if he could move and find a new farming job in Manhattan".

Back in Australia, she and Holden negotiated with News Corp to launch Donna Hay, the magazine. By November 2001 the first issue was on the newsstands.

In the vein of Hay's successful cookbooks, Off the Shelf and Modern Classics Book 1 and Book 2, Donna Hay was an exquisitely photographed publication that looked more like a book than a magazine. "It was unlike any other food magazine because there were only recipes, no restaurant reviews or brand names," says editor, Jana Frawley.

What began as a dynamic team with a family atmosphere in the office, says Holden, ended in a divorce when, after a blazing row between the two women, Holden resigned in July 2003. "Donna was never my boss and that's what drives me crazy. It is a perpetual re-invention of who she is," says Holden. "There is a list of people at least as long as my arm who she has burnt her bridges with."

"I'd like to see the list," replies Hay. "I get busy, I lose contact with people. Vanessa and I worked really well together, but I couldn't change that this was the Donna Hay Magazine, and not the Donna and Vanessa magazine," she adds.

After Holden's departure, says former copy editor, Lucy Tumanov-West (who also left), "The magazine became bigger than Ben Hur [as] did Donna's ego." Amidst all this Hay gave birth to her first son Angus, cutting short her maternity leave and returning to work after eight weeks with her son, and the nanny, expressing milk behind a board in the studio.

Now, Hay hopes those day of working such "horrendous hours" are over, and says that she plans to have more "time for me".

And the fame she has worked so hard to avoid is dogging her every step. Her name is a brand. Does that ever freak her out? "I don't think about it. Sometimes it hits me, usually when I am on my own."

Hay's voice softens again to caramel. "I'm just your average girl who had a big dream. And when you have a dream you've just got to work out what's stopping you. Is it you that's stopping you? Is it finance? You can get there in the end if you try."

'The Instant Cook' by Donna Hay is
published by Fourth Estate priced £20.
To order a copy for £18 (including post and packaging) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

Crispy Chinese chicken

Serves 4

4 chicken breast fillets
11/2tsp sea salt
21/2tsp Chinese five-spice powder
1tbs peanut oil

Sprinkle both sides of the chicken with the salt and five-spice powder. Heat the oil in a frying pan over high heat. Place the chicken in the pan and cook for 4 minutes each side or until cooked through. Cut into pieces and serve with steamed snow peas (mange tout) tossed in hoisin sauce.

Asian pork soup

Serves 4

2tsp vegetable oil
1tbsp grated ginger
1 large red chilli, sliced
1 star anise
1 stalk lemongrass, finely chopped
6 cups (21/2 pints) chicken stock
350g (12oz) pumpkin, cut into small slices
375g (13oz) fresh egg noodles
300g (10oz) pork fillet, sliced
1/4 cup basil leaves

Place a large saucepan over high heat. Add the oil, ginger, chilli, star anise, lemongrass and stock and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the pumpkin, cover and simmer for 4 minutes. Pour boiling water over the noodles and allow to stand for 3 minutes before draining. Add the pork to the soup and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes or until tender. Stir through the basil leaves. To serve, place the noodles in bowls and pour over the soup.

Toasted pine nut and sweet
potato salad

Serves 4

3 sweet potatoes, peeled, sliced lengthwise
4 roma tomatoes, halved
Olive oil
Sea salt and cracked black pepper
1/2 cup pine nuts
150g (5oz) baby spinach leaves
1 avocado, sliced

Dressing

3tbsp honey
2tbsp red wine vinegar
1tbsp olive oil

Preheat the oven to 200C (390F). Place the sweet potato and tomatoes in a baking dish lined with baking paper and toss with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. Bake for 25 minutes or until the potato is golden and soft. Sprinkle over the pine nuts and bake for a further 2 minutes or until the pine nuts are golden. To make the dressing, whisk together the honey, vinegar and oil. To serve, place the spinach leaves and avocado on plates and top with the sweet potato, tomatoes and pine nuts. Pour over the dressing and serve.

Chilli and tomato fish

Serves 4

1tbsp olive oil
1 onion, sliced
1/4tsp chilli flakes
4 x 180g (6oz) firm white fish fillets
Sea salt and cracked black pepper
3 ripe tomatoes, cut into thin wedges
2tsp grated lemon rind
2tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley

Heat a frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the oil, onion and chilli and cook for 3 minutes. Sprinkle the fish with salt and pepper and add to the pan. Cook for 4-5 minutes each side or until just cooked through. Set aside and keep warm. Increase the heat to high, add the tomatoes and lemon rind to pan and cook for 3 minutes or until just soft. Stir through the parsley. Place the fish on serving plates and top with the tomato sauce.

Lamb baked on figs and fennel

Serves 4

4 baby or small fennel bulbs, sliced
6 figs, halved
2tbsp olive oil
Sea salt and cracked black pepper
1/4 cup (2fl oz) white wine vinegar
2tbsp brown sugar
2 x 6-cutlet lamb racks, trimmed

Preheat the oven to 200C (390F). Line a baking tray with baking paper. Place the fennel and figs on the tray. Combine the oil, salt, pepper, vinegar and sugar, pour over the fennel and figs and bake for 10 minutes. Sprinkle the lamb with salt and pepper and add to the pan. Cook for a further 20 minutes or until the lamb is cooked to your liking. To serve, place the fennel mixture on serving plates, slice the lamb into cutlets, place on the fennel, then spoon over the pan juices.

Simple rhubarb tart

Serves 4

8 thin or 4 halved thick stalks rhubarb
2tbs caster sugar
1 sheet ready-prepared puff pastry
1 cup ricotta cheese
2tbsp icing (confectioner's) sugar
1tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 200C (390F). Place the rhubarb on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Sprinkle with the sugar. Bake for 20 minutes or until soft, then allow to cool. Trim the edges of the pastry and place on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Place the ricotta, icing sugar and vanilla in a bowl and mix to combine. Spread the mixture over the pastry, leaving a 1cm (1/2in) border. Top with the cooked rhubarb and fold over the border edges to form a crust. Place in the oven and bake for 12-15 minutes or until the filling is set and the pastry is golden. Serve warm or cold.

Root vegetable fritters

Serves 4

1/2 cup plain (all-purpose) flour
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup grated parsnip
1 cup grated carrot
31/2 cups grated sweet potato
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
Sea salt and cracked black pepper
Vegetable oil far cooking
200g (7oz) soft goat's cheese or fresh ricotta cheese

Place the flour in a bowl. Add the eggs and whisk until smooth. Add the parsnip, carrot, sweet potato, Parmesan, parsley, salt and pepper and mix to combine. Heat a large non-stick frying pan over medium heat. Add a little oil and 2 tablespoons of fritter mixture. Flatten the mixture and cook for 2-3 minutes each side or until golden. Repeat with the remaining mixture. Sandwich fritters together with the goat's cheese or ricotta and serve with rocket.

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