This time last year, Donna Hay, a young Australian food writer, defied the odds and won the prestigious Glenfiddich prize for Best Cook Book of the Year with her Marie Claire Flavours, the fourth in her series of beautifully shot, large, soft-backed cookbooks. Pundits had been betting between Nigella Lawson's indulgent How to Be a Domestic Goddess (Chatto & Windus) and Nigel Slater's weighty Appetite (Fourth Estate). Instead of limpid prose, Hay's book contained practical tips, appetising recipes and light-filled photographs. As usual there were detractors, whose mutterings implied that sparse wordage and luscious photography made Hay's book less deserving. Jamie Oliver, however, is eloquent in defence of Donna Hay's style: "Sometimes, you want to sit down with a cook book and be romanced into the recipes by the lovely use of alliteration, childhood memories and such like, and sometimes you just want your senses to be instantly hit by the recipes and what they look like. Donna Hay does the latter really well."
Hay herself is remarkably modest, considering that at 32 she has written eight cookbooks and sold more than 1.4 million copies worldwide. Six are available here; the seventh, Modern Classics, Book I, is due out this autumn and will be followed by Book II. She even has her own magazine, Donna Hay. Not bad for a girl who was told by her principal at East Sydney College that she would amount to nothing as a home economist.
"I'm not much of a scholar," she admits. "Writing is like pulling teeth for me, so I verbalise it and run off, and do what I'm supposed to do." In other words cooking, shooting and writing recipes that tempt even conservative cooks into the kitchen.
"Donna has developed an Asian Australian twist in some of her recipes which gives people a soft entry into that style of cooking," says Jamie Oliver. "She very cleverly combines the old familiar style of cooking with the new, like mashed potatoes with Thai marinated pork chops. It's not necessarily authentic, but it's good."
Perhaps Hay's homely attitude is coloured by her down-to-earth Aussie life with her butcher husband William Wilson. "I wanted to study physiotherapy, but just missed the grade, so I opted for home economy because I enjoyed cooking at home," she recalls, sipping coffee. "I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do. I just knew that I didn't want to end up as an in-store demonstrator."
Studies finished, she accepted a three-month stint in the test kitchen of iconic magazine The Australian Women's Weekly. "I'm not very good with rules and there were lots, but I met food stylists who wanted me to help on photographic shoots." Hay had found her forte. At 19, she thrived on 13-hour days shopping, propping, lugging equipment, cooking and washing up for the glitzy food shoots of Australian Gourmet Traveller and the visually influential Australian Vogue Entertaining.
Within four years Hay had become a fully fledged food stylist and began to develop her own recipes. "When I was assisting there would be everything from teapots of carnations to seven different types of napkin rings on the prop table." She realised she wanted to do it differently. "I remember when I saw Nigel Slater's first book, [The Marie Claire Cook Book, Mitchell Beazley], I just thought it was magical. The impact was of the food, rather than froufrou props." The chance to put this vision into regular practice came while she was working on her first book, At My Table (Barbara Beckett Books). Hay was offered the job of food editor of the soon-to-be launched Australian Marie Claire. "It was very bizarre," she giggles. "The editor said to me: 'I don't really like food, I'm in fashion and I'm always on a diet. I just want your copy and your pictures in before deadline.' Knowing my business-savvy skills, I probably didn't even mention money."
Tucked in the back of the magazine next to the horoscopes, Hay's pellucid white china on soft white fabric, filled with luminescent lobster claws, sugary almond shortbread or grilled lime halves instantly captivated the Australian imagination. Her pages doubled and with a small team she shot, designed and sold her first Marie Claire book, The New Cook (Murdoch Books) before her editors could blink.
Her subsequent books adopted the same clean and stylish format. The incredible freshness of Australian produce, the culinary needs of friends and beautiful props are her sources of inspiration, rather than chefs and cook books. Yet, I suspect that it is her ability to see how a dish might look that guides her recipe writing. It is a style that, according to Nigel Slater, has been much copied over here. "Her spartan, stylish backgrounds make her food look all the more yummy, wobbly and friendly," he says. Her recipes may be terse, but they work.
In 1999, Hay left Marie Claire and set up her own studio and test kitchen with a team of like-minded friends in Sydney. So far she has resisted the lure of endorsements and TV shows, choosing instead to write more books and set up her magazine. Will her food have to evolve to stay ahead of the cookery writing pack? Or is it enough to have such a strong instinct for what we want to cook, and to be, as Jamie Oliver says of her, "a really nice Aussie girl who is really good at what she does"?Reuse content