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Donna Hay Interview

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By Malcolm Jolley

Donna Hay's iconic food styling composed of white plates, and minimal adornment emphasizes food - good food. Now the Australian food media queen (magazines, TV shows, a website and, a newly opened "General Store" in Sydney) is shifting gears and embracing motherhood. The result: No Time To Cook, which offers her distinctly elegant recipes in an even more stripped down, no fuss way so that time at table with family, friends and real food can be enjoyed. Malcolm Jolley caught up with Hay on a recent trip to Toronto.

Gremolata: Well, I'm not surprised that No Time to Cook is a beautiful book. That's what you do, right?

Donna Hay: That's what I do.

Gremolata: How did that start? How did you become a stylist?

Donna Hay: All the hard questions today! Well, I kind of fell into food styling out of developing recipes and wanting them to look nice.

Gremolata: For yourself?

Donna Hay: Yeah. And a lot of the jobs, when I was coming up through the magazine industry were assisting other food stylists, cooking for them. So, you'd see lots of different food styling, and back then it was pretty crazy: lots of flowers and napkins, and napkin rings and bread baskets.

Gremolata: And mashed potatoes for ice cream?

Donna Hay: Hmmm, we don't tend to do that in Australia. We're not fakers - you can't go anywhere and buy fake stuff, which is good. But, anyway, there was lots of extra props and the emphasis was never on the food.

Gremolata: So how did you develop your style?

Donna Hay: Well, in the late 80s and early 90s everybody seemed to be into take-away mode, with pre-packaged food. Cooking was not so cool - very not cool. So that's when I started my more modern approach. But I had quite a job on my hands: a) I had to convince people that it was easy to cook and b) that it would taste great and look better. So I think that's where my different style came about.

Gremolata: OK, but I want to trace your career trajectory. How you become The Donna Hay with the magazine, the TV shows and this truly signature style?

Donna Hay: I did a lot of free lance work - I was always a freelancer until I got my own magazine, which was my first real job. But I guess my real break was when I was 24 I became the Food Editor for Marie Claire Magazine. And Marie Claire had not started: it was the launch issue, for Australia. So it was a new title coming in and the Editor said to me, "You can do whatever you like, just don't run the deadline."

Gremolata: So what was your first layout?

Donna Hay: White plates! I remember it to this day, the first thing that I did was grilled balsamic chicken with grilled limes. I put it in my first cookbook, because it was such a great recipe. And because it was the one recipe that people came up to me and said they tried it "and it was so easy." Brown sugar, balsamic vinegar and lime juice - it really is easy.

Gremolata: And it looks good!

Donna Hay: And it tastes great! You've got all these big, bold flavours.

Gremolata: And that started it.

Donna Hay: I have sort of left with free reign over the pages - it started with two or three, then five, then Mairie Claire Lifestyle Magazine. It just grew and grew. And after awhile I'd mix it up a little bit, and do interior styling and a bit of lifestyle, catalogue work, as well as food. The mix of the two was really interesting to me. Food, locations and people. Not just working on a table top, but having food on someone's lap. You know, what colour was that going to be?

Gremolata: so, what's the conceptual process for these shoots? Do you imagine the scenario?

Donna Hay: Yeah. First thing, I make up a little story, scenario or who they are. Or how we want it to feel. Still, to this day in the magazine, when we talk about an issue it has to have it's own feel and story behind it. I think that there has to be some sort of connection and warmth and vision as well.

Gremolata: Does the recipe come first, or does the story come first?

Donna Hay: Oh, it's different. Different, always. There might be a great location we want to use, then we'll think about what kind of recipes we'd want to eat there. Or it could be mythical story. We did an issue with an Alice in Wonderland there, so we played with the scale and volume of food.

We just came back from New Zealand. I was there doing a food show. Some of the guys discovered we'd be near a great trout fishing river. We knew we'd have a campfire and that's about it, so some of the recipes were pretty basic. Apple dumpling and things like that.

Gremolata: So do you just show up with a larder and improvise?

Donna Hay: [Laughs.] No, no. We planned all the recipes before we arrived. There's a fair bit of preparation that goes into everything. It costs a lot to photograph that day, when you're on location. You don't want things t go wrong. Like, "Oh look at that: the trout's all burnt."

Gremolata: Now, what about No Time To Cook. By the title, it sounds like a cheating book.

Donna Hay: If it's a cheating book, I guess that says more about my home life, than my work life. That's where the recipes are coming from. I still love having my friends over, but I haven't as much time to cook.

Gremolata: This is because you have a young family.

Donna Hay: Yeah. And I have lots of things to do, as well. Cooking will always be part of my life, but I'm not going to spend all day in the kitchen if you're coming on Saturday night. And then, my friends might pop by, if their husbands are out of town for work. I'll say, "come for an early bird dinner tonight," leave work early, throw something in the oven and they'll come over with their kids. Just do really easy stuff, because it's kind of nice to catch-up with your friends in that way. When you're working really hard it's good to have down time with your friends and share a laugh.

Gremolata: So you don't have to whip up a dish with ten ingredients?

Donna Hay: No, and the other thing I hate is when there are dirty pots and pans stretching across the entire kitchen. It's late and your left with what looks like the aftermath of a mini war. That's why [No Time to Cook has] so many one pot, one pan dishes. It's more about feeding people and eating than washing up.

Gremolata: And everything looks beautiful.

Donna Hay: Got to make them cook! That's what's behind it - to drive you to the recipe, so you start salivating as soon as you look at the picture. Then you read the ingredients and think, wow, I've got all these.

Gremolata: Are there tricks? Or is it realistic to think I could recreate the way these dishes look?

Donna Hay: Absolutely! I might twirl my pasta with tongs - I just turn the plate an tongs so it spirals on itself. But anyone can do it. But there's no "tricks". a water spritzer and a brush of olive oil is about the furthest I'll go, if things get a little dry. But it's more about moving things around the plate. Seeing how things look.

Gremolata: So, it's just that good food looks good?

Donna Hay: I think that good fresh food looks good. There's nothing like starting with good fresh veggies: it always looks great.

Gremolata: Is there any chance that you're next book might feature, I don't know, bright red plates?

Donna Hay: Not much chance. No. [Laughs.] But in the magazine I get to play with a lot more colour and texture, so that's kind of my outlet.

Gremolata: Your look seems timeless now, and is so well adopted, but did you get any resistance at first?

Donna Hay: I did. I do remember - and I quite like telling this story now - that my first book was published under Marie Claire. So, they had to send a copy to the French and they sent back an email saying they had never seen a more cold, austere, terrible looking book, and they were disappointed to have the Marie Claire name attached to it. I was quite young too. I remember crying on the way home, thinking it would be a total flop and I'd see it in bargain bins everywhere. I guess it's really not their style, AT ALL. I guess it really freaked them out. Anyway, that books sold more than a million copies on its own, in something like five languages. So, I guess I had the right vibe.


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