Food & Culture

Maggie Beer on her formative childhood, the value of hard work, and pheasants

In her monthly column, Kylie Kwong celebrates some of her hospitality heroes and the individuals helping to grow a stronger community. Here, we meet cook, producer and restaurateur Maggie Beer.

I first met Maggie Beer 20 years ago at a fundraising dinner in Sydney, where we were both cooking. Her big heart, effervescence, delicious cooking and natural way with food made an enormous impression. White-cooked chicken was one of our Billy Kwong staples and being able to cook the classic dish using the best quality birds was essential to its success.
I met Maggie's family and began using her daughter Saskia's delicious Barossa Farm chickens on my menu, where they remained until we closed last year. Maggie has taught so many of us the importance of cooking with instinct and following the seasons. Watching Maggie cook in her country kitchen is one of life's true joys and her approach to food and flavour is timeless. - Kylie Kwong
Watch: Maggie Beer on the time Simon Bryant tried to feed her chillies.

Community x Kylie: Maggie Beer

With a career spanning more than four decades – and very much still going strong – Maggie Beer holds a special place in Australia's culinary landscape, introducing many to the joy of cooking with fresh, seasonal produce.
That seasonal approach is par for the course these days but 40 years ago, Beer was wildly ahead of her time. Speaking from her home in South Australia, Beer laughs when asked if she ever considered herself radical, before turning serious as she explains how moving to the Barossa Valley changed her life.
"The gift of coming to live here and what I learnt to value from the first moment that we got here was living the rhythm of the seasons. In the western suburbs of Sydney, I'd never seen that. Seasonality didn't mean as much because things were so limited," she explains.
"In the 60s, you didn't see basil. I'd never seen basil or zucchini. Coming here, it was all about the seasons. Our neighbour would bring down almonds, which he had picked and cracked that night. I'd never eaten a fresh almond."
Beer was 25 when she met and married her husband Colin, after a whirlwind 16-week romance. The couple were living in Sydney, where Beer had a series of high-flying jobs, when they decided to move south and take up pheasant farming.
Beer had originally planned to study oenology and become a winemaker when they moved to South Australia. Instead, pregnant with her eldest daughter Saskia, she found herself cooking pheasants to try and boost sales.
"No one would buy the pheasants a second time because they would use some old recipe book that had no relevance," she recalls.
With no formal training, Beer believes her instinct for food and flavour is in her blood. Her paternal grandmother was an excellent cook, she says, as was her father. "I inherited his instinct, definitely. As Sassy did mine. I can see the lineage.
"My first memories of food were always that even when we had no money, the food was good. We went through times of affluence and times of real hardship but the money for food was always put before anything else."
Those times of hardship included the family business going bankrupt, which led to Beer being withdrawn from school at 14. "That very hard childhood gave me a huge amount of grit because my older brother and I just went out to work. My aunt rented a house for us and we kept the family together. I suspect that's what made me such a driven individual. But I was always searching for what it was I wanted to do."
Beer spent 20 years in the workforce before realising she could turn her passion for food into a livelihood. After several years of struggling to sell their pheasants, she and Colin opened the Farm Shop in 1979, before opening Pheasant Farm Restaurant. Beer ran the kitchen, following her instincts and guided by the seasons, turning it into the country's leading restaurant – as declared by Gourmet Traveller in 1991, when it won Restaurant of the Year.
Two years later, Beer closed the restaurant at the height of its popularity, a move she repeated in 2009 when she ended her popular television series, The Cook and The Chef. "Walking away at the height of our fame was the best thing to do. Just as we had with the pheasant farm as well. You go out on such a high and there are no regrets."
That success has come from a classic combination of hard work and determination. "It's been a long journey over 40 years and it's been a great journey. It's just been one foot in front of the other. Hard work never scares you if you enjoy the work. It can be exhausting but if you're moving forward and if you're doing something that you love then hard work is just what is needed and you never think twice about it."
Introduction by Kylie Kwong, words by Joanna Hunkin.