Chatting with Maggie Beer, a familiar face to the 'MasterChef Australia' fan
She’s the ever-smiling guest judge who the contestants cheer for the loudest, season after season. Even if you are not a follower of MasterChef Australia — a show she’s been an indelible part of ever since it rolled out more than a decade ago — Maggie Beer’s incredible achievements in the field of food will stare back at you in the form of innumerable entries if you happen to Google her name. At 74, Beer is not only a judge on The Great Australian Bake Off and a regular guest on MasterChef Australia, she’s a product developer of her own line of food, wine and kitchenware. The author of nine books, she heads the Maggie Beer Foundation that raises money to improve care for the aged. In the Australia Day Honours of 2012, she was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM), “for service to the tourism and hospitality industries as a cook, restaurateur and author, and to the promotion of Australian produce and cuisine”.
In a chat with The Telegraph from her home in the Barossa Valley in south Australia, Maggie spoke about her MasterChef Australia experience (catch Season 11 of the show on STAR World, Monday to Friday at 9pm), her food idol and what inspires her love for cooking. And yes, her India experience!
What is it about MasterChef Australia that makes you come back season after season?
Oh, the absolute delight of the contestants. Their dedication to make a change in their lives through the show is remarkably inspiring. They put themselves in the most stressful positions because they want to grow and often they want to change their lives to do what their dream is. That’s something I really, really love about the show.
I have never lost the joy I get from sharing. I love food… and I thrive on positive energy and it always inspires me that they are so incredibly creative and they learn so quickly. I am inspired by their dedication to their journey. I never stop learning. Part of my business involves making ice creams commercially. They are very high level and we export them to various countries like China. Sometimes on MasterChef, I get an idea for a flavour that I have never tried before. So I am always open to learning. One day, I will bring my ice creams to India (smiles).
Given that you have been involved with the show from the beginning, how have you seen it evolve?
It’s an amazing show, one which has become an indelible part of the food journey of Australia. For 11 years, people have watched the show globally and talked about it in a way that, in commercial television, was a big first for me. When I think of the three hosts — Gary (Mehigan), Matt (Preston) and George (Calombaris) — I marvel at how they had such complementary skills as well as great respect for each other. I think the show evolved with the way their friendship and respect evolved over the years.
When it started out, no one thought MasterChef Australia would scale the heights it has. It’s truly become a phenomenon, a real game-changer. When I look at the MasterChefs (formats) from all over the world, I immediately realise that the Australian version has something special. To me, it’s never lost its edge.
We will all, of course, be missing the three judges next season onwards, given that they have decided to bid adieu to MasterChef Australia…
Well, who knows what’s going to happen?! (Laughs)
One thing that stands out in every season of MasterChef Australia is the rock-star reception you get from the judges, contestants and the audience. What do you attribute this popularity to?
Honestly, I don’t know (laughs). I think what works is the positive energy I very strongly believe in. I love being with people, I love bouncing off ideas all the time and they all treat me like a rock star (smiles). I think they love the fact that I show my love for food and wear my passion for it on my sleeve all the time.
What is it about food and the experience of it that you love the most?
I have been a passionate cook all my life. I took to it from a very young age. One of my biggest joys with respect to cooking is sharing the table with people… I love to cook for my family and friends. There has not been one day in my life when I haven’t wanted to cook (laughs). For me, food is everything. It defines me and defines my life.
Is there an impactful food memory from childhood that set you off on this path?
I remember I was seven when I cooked my first dish for my family. It was chicken liver in a pan. Even now as a cook, I love to taste what I am making and I remember my father telling me: ‘Stop picking at the food. There will be none left for us!’ I am so driven by flavour and that’s something that has defined my cooking all my life.
You are known as Australia’s ‘Kitchen Queen’. Is that a description you wear proudly or awkwardly?
Awkwardly, awkwardly! (Laughs) There are so many who are much better. It does make me feel good, but I am awkward for sure (smiles). I am always embarrassed when I read about it.
The world has a lot to say about Maggie Beer’s culinary achievements, but what would you pick as your top moments in the kitchen?
When I was a lot younger, I owned a restaurant for 15 years that was adjudged the best restaurant in Australia in the year 1991. That was pretty significant but it also burnt me out, you know. From then on, I built my export kitchen business. I think my top achievement has been to take something that I wouldn’t normally use in a restaurant kitchen and use it in a commercial product… ice cream, for instance. But making it without resorting to shortcuts… making it traditionally with eggs and cream and the ingredients that are always top-class. In other words, scaling up from restaurant to commercial and yet keeping it top quality. I am proud of that. I also make pate, plant-based meals, dessert pots and in everything that I do, it’s the scaling up which is most difficult and yet what I love the most.
What do you think has been the best thing to have happened to the food industry globally in the last 10 years?
The food industry has separated into those doing top quality and then you have the others who are a mess, and nothing much in between. Top quality restaurants in Australia, in my opinion, are the best in the world.
Who have been your food idols?
My food idol would definitely be Stephanie Alexander. She was so significant in the Australian restaurant trade for so many years and also as a food writer. She has this amazing vision and has taken her food journey into the initiative called Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation where she takes in more than 2,000 schools in Australia. She’s been my first food idol.
Do you cook Indian food?
I love spice, but I can’t eat chillies! (Laughs) I love fermented food so your dosas are a big favourite. I love tamarind, I love samosas…. I also like cooking with lentils and chickpeas, so dal is a big favourite. Because I am a produce-driven cook, I am very Mediterranean in my cooking style. I love cooking with everything I have around me.
Have you ever been to India?
I did when I was 21… I am now nearly 75. So it was a really long time ago! It was chaos (smiles). I was in New Delhi on the way to Europe in a boat as everyone did in those days. It was supposed to be a two-year working holiday in Europe which turned into four or five. I remember the chaos of traffic in Delhi… I can only imagine what it will be now. I always wanted to go back to India and attend your literary festivals. I have friends who have gone to these festivals and they come back with wonderful stories.