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Maggie Beer is The Australian Women's Weekly Christmas cover star: "Any celebration is based around food"

Maggie tells Michael Sheather about her childhood heartache, the love of her life and how she built her dream life.

By Michael Sheather

It was Mother's Day, 1984. Eighty customers were seated in the Pheasant Farm Restaurant on Maggie Beer's farm for an à la carte lunch. It's a day Maggie will always remember.

"As it was Mother's Day, we had a big crowd and my daughters, Saskia and Elli, wanted to be with me, but I had to be in the kitchen," recalls Maggie.

"They were only eight and 10, and the only way they could be with me was if they were in the restaurant, too. Saskia got in the sink [restaurant parlance for doing the dishes] and Elli went on the floor with her father, Colin, to wait tables.

"Elli has a magic memory and we have a competition in the family to see who can take orders for a table without writing it down. Sass prefers to be out the back. It was such a perfect day, the family working together like that. It was full of adrenaline and everyone moving quickly, but it was the essence of us as a family."

Maggie with her daughters Elli (left) and Saskia, who are carrying on the foodie tradition.
Maggie with her daughters Elli (left) and Saskia, who are carrying on the foodie tradition.

Maggie Beer would appear to have a perfect life. She is one of the country's most beloved cooks. She runs a high-profile and successful business. She is widely acclaimed for her warmth and charm, and she lives in idyllic rural beauty among the orchards and vineyards of South Australia's Barossa Valley.

However, the truth is that Maggie's life hasn't always been picture-perfect. In fact, she has been through a lot of personal hardship and heartache.

Her childhood dreams were shattered when her family fell into financial ruin, sweeping away her ambitions for a university education and setting her on a divergent path. She spent years pondering what her direction in life should be before finally realising she had known all along.

"I spent years wishing I knew where I was going and what I should be doing," says Maggie, now 73. "I had to leave school early when our family lost all their money and that affected my self-confidence. It took me until I was 34 before I finally realised that food was my calling. But for all that there was never a grand plan."

Yet that calling was the making of Maggie Beer. It was her passion and her determination that created her idyllic life and her success – and a lot of hard work and love from her family and friends.

"I wouldn't have been able to do any of that without them," she says. "My success, if you call it that, is as much theirs as it is mine."

READ MORE: How to make a tarte tatin just like Maggie Beer.

Maggie says that she would not have been able to create her success without the love from her family and friends.
Maggie says that she would not have been able to create her success without the love from her family and friends.

A crushing blow

Maggie Beer was born Margaret Ackermann, the only daughter of Ronald, a businessman and manufacturer, and Doreen, a homemaker. She was the middle child, with an older and younger brother, Robert and Peter. They were a reasonably well-off, middle- class family. Ronald had invested in a factory in Lakemba, in Sydney's west.

"It was something of a barren industrial desert at the time," recalls Maggie. "Of course, it's much more cosmopolitan now. But we moved there when I was about four. We lived in the factory that Dad had invested in. There was a residential block at the front and the factory at the back. My father made kitchenware, glazed pots and pans from aluminium."

Maggie attended nearby Bankstown East Primary School and, later, Wiley Park Girls High in Punchbowl. She was an articulate girl with plenty of academic ability and a penchant for achievement.

The family's world fell apart in 1959, when economic conditions tightened and Ronald became caught in a credit squeeze that pushed the business to the wall. He declared bankruptcy and lost his business, the factory, their home, even their family furniture. It was a crushing blow.

"It had a huge impact on my family and on my father in particular. He became very ill, mostly because of the emotional stress of it all. I had to leave school [at 14] because we needed income. My brother and I went to work to help provide for the family, to put food on the table," she says.

WATCH: Maggie Beer on MasterChef teaching contestants how to skin a chicken. Post continues...

"I had an amazing aunt, who was very close to us and she rented a house for us in Lakemba so we were able to go on with our lives. There was a great stigma about all of that then, probably much more so than today. But we just got on with what we had to do to survive."

Maggie's first job was as a receptionist at Jeldi Manufacturing, a carpet and textile company in Bankstown.

"I hated it," she recalls, "but my parents made me stay there for at least a year to prove my mettle. As soon as I was allowed, I left and I was a temp for an agency for the next few years."

Maggie became the agency trouble-shooter because she could type 100 words a minute and was versatile.

"They never told anyone how old I was and because I was very mature for my age I was always able to get away with it," she says. "It was a great grounding for me, really. It gave me great strength because every situation was different and I had to learn to adapt to each one. It helped teach me that you could do just about do anything if you put your mind to it."

Those days of change and scraping by left their scars, though.

"I think I was the lucky one in the family, to tell you the truth," Maggie says. "I was the middle child. I wasn't as affected by what we went through. My older and younger brother had a much tougher time of it, I think, adjusting to the way our lives changed. Food became very important to us – getting it, making it, ensuring that everything found a use and nothing was wasted. It changed all of our lives."

Both Maggie's parents instilled a love of food within her.
Both Maggie's parents instilled a love of food within her.

Gradually, Maggie's father recovered both physically and emotionally from his experience. He and Doreen started a catering business for RSL and Leagues clubs in western Sydney.

"Mum and Dad would take over the kitchens and order in the food," Maggie says. "Mum was an excellent cook and my father had an excellent instinct for food. He would have aged fillets of beef hanging in the cool rooms. In that respect, he was far ahead of his time.

"He developed an instinct for quality that paired with his natural aversion to waste. It was all about quality produce, but it was all very simple. That was the nature of the times. There were no exotic ingredients. It was all about fresh fish, beautiful beef, well hung. It was about understanding how to choose a ripe vegetable. It became an intrinsic part of my life, using every part of the animal – making brawn, using pig's ears. Everything had a purpose and could add flavour."

READ MORE: The Weekly's best traditional Christmas recipes.

It was, says Maggie, a good life despite the financial hardships.

"Through good times and bad, we had great food," she says. "My mum had green fingers and she grew a cottage garden to help feed the family, another learning opportunity for me about the importance of fresh herbs and spices, and again about maximising flavour.

Weird and wonderful jobs

Yet, for all her passion for food and flavour, Maggie was unsure where her future might take her. Like many young women in the 1960s, she longed to see the world. She took up nursing, which allowed her to save, and then began a series of overseas trips to countries near and far.

She picked up odd jobs along the way to supplement her savings. In Auckland, New Zealand, for example, she was a lift operator in a department store. Her peripatetic existence led her, like so many others, to London and more odd jobs.

She travelled north to Scotland for a time, where she became the cook for a sailing school during the English summer.

"I got the sack because I used the entire larder after just six weeks," she says, laughing. "I was supposed to make the food last the whole season, but I've always been a very generous cook. I don't think any of the sailors minded, but management wasn't impressed."

Back in London, she scanned the newspapers for other jobs.

"Back then, the London Times was full of ads for the strangest jobs," says Maggie, who was resilient, independent and always travelled alone.

"It was quite a thing, especially for young Australians. There were whole pages of these weird and wonderful jobs all over the world. I found a temporary position acting as the assistant to a geophysicist in Libya for British Petroleum. That's probably the strangest job I ever had, but it only lasted a few months and I was off again somewhere else. I just wanted to see what the world was like."

Whirlwind romance

Eventually, though, her wanderlust brought her back to Australia and Sydney. She took a job as the assistant to the head of Ansett Airlines' General Aviation Division, based at Bankstown Airport in western Sydney.

"I suppose I was always looking for a place to fit in," says Maggie. "Yes, it was all an adventure and lots of fun, but at the same time, I hadn't really found my direction in life. I did a million things, but I was always searching."

In the summer of 1970, Maggie went to a party and struck up a conversation with a funny, laconic young man named Colin Beer.

"Colin had trained as a commercial pilot in New Zealand, but when he came back to Australia, he couldn't get a job," explains Maggie.

"So he and his mates had taken jobs on the ski fields at Mt Buller in Victoria. I was a keen skier and had been skiing in Europe every year before I came back to Australia, so we struck up a conversation about skiing and aeroplanes. We talked and talked, and we were never apart again from that moment."

Asked what had attracted her to Colin, Maggie says, "He made me laugh. He's always made me laugh and here we are, 47 years later, and he's still making me laugh."

As for Colin, well, he's still not sure.

"I dunno," he says. "I suppose it was aeroplanes. I'd never met a girl who could talk about aeroplanes like Maggie, so I suppose that was it."

Colin is straight-faced as he speaks, but there a gleam in his eye and a hint of a smile that makes you think he's pulling your leg.

Maggie with her husband Colin.
Maggie with her husband Colin.

Their whirlwind romance landed them at the altar 16 weeks later. They set up house together in Sydney for the next three years.

"My family was there," says Maggie. "Mum and Dad by that time had been able to buy a little asbestos cottage in Auburn and Mum had made a home of it.

"I came back to Australia because my father was ill. And I was happy to be in Sydney after we married because he wasn't well for a long time. He died at 51, young even for the time and I think it was because of all the stress. It had taken its toll."

Colin yearned to return to the Barossa Valley, where he had grown up on a farm at Mallala, 60 kilometres north of Adelaide. He wanted to farm pheasants and he wanted to do it in the Barossa.

"Colin didn't like the city," says Maggie. "He had this vision to farm pheasants. Nobody else was doing it and he thought it would do well in South Australia on the right bit of land. So we did it."

READ MORE: 8 reasons why South Australia is the ultimate holiday destination for foodies.

They moved to the Barossa in 1973 with the intention of buying a property straight away. But the search for the ideal spot took longer than either of them ever imagined.

"We spent so much time looking for a property that the local real estate agent offered me a job," says Maggie. "I was pregnant with my daughter, Saskia, at the time. It was the best thing that could have happened because I got to know all the properties."

That is how Maggie discovered Pheasant Farm at Nuriootpa, 44 years ago. It was a working vineyard.

"It already had a lovely house on it and a river flat," says Maggie. "It was just right. It was 50 acres of heaven. It was just right and it is still just right. It's my favourite place on earth."

Pheasant Farm is Maggie's favourite place on earth.
Pheasant Farm is Maggie's favourite place on earth.

Foodie epiphany

Five years later, Colin won a Churchill Fellowship to study game-bird breeding in Europe. In the wilds of Scotland, Maggie and Colin found their inspiration.

"We had this epiphany in Scotland, at a turkey farm," explains Maggie. "We saw exactly what we wanted to do, which was to open a farm shop where we sold every part of the bird that we were raising."

Maggie was 34 when they opened their farm shop. It was all about selling products from their pheasants, but as Maggie and Colin soon discovered, they needed something more to bring their customers back.

"People would come and buy the pheasants, but they didn't really know how to cook them, so we weren't getting repeat orders," says Maggie. "I've always known how to cook them. So I just began cooking and that was the finding of myself."

What she discovered was something that had been staring her in the face almost all of her life. Food was the one thing that set her passions alight. She instinctively knew how to create flavour, how to marry texture, taste and consistency with innovation.

"It was all about pheasants and terrine and quail and quail eggs, at first," says Maggie. "Later, we added a quince orchard and from that came the quince pastes and then, later, the verjuice from the grapes we grew. As a city girl who went to the country, with this love and innate knowledge of food – instinct rather than knowledge – it was like, 'Hallelujah!'"

From that was born the Pheasant Farm Restaurant. With Maggie at the helm cooking and creating, and her girls and husband managing the seating and service, the Beer name became synonymous with fine food and hospitality.

In 1991, this tiny country restaurant won the Gourmet Traveller Remy Martin Award for best restaurant in Australia, a monumental feat. It was, as Maggie says, a dream come true. However, it was a dream with a cost.

"They were exciting years," she says, "but we worked incredibly hard. We worked every weekend of our children's lives. We didn't open at night until they were 10 and 12.

"Sometimes Colin and I look at each other and we think, 'My God, how did we do all that?' I just love it – and I am a touch obsessive because I am doing what I love. But it was the satisfaction you get from learning all the time, being challenged all the time."

Maggie considers family to be the most important thing.
Maggie considers family to be the most important thing.

Winning the award brought fame and many more customers – and a lot more work. Within two years, Maggie was burned out. At Colin's urging, they closed the restaurant, to focus on making fine food products.

Despite her success, Maggie says she has sometimes wondered what might have been. "I spent years regretting the fact that I didn't have the opportunity to go to university," she says.

"I was offered a scholarship to stay at school when my parents lost everything, but they wouldn't let me stay. I have never blamed them for this, but I've also never forgotten what happened. The headmistress and a teacher brought my parents in to tell them they wanted to give me a scholarship and – I'll never forget this – I remember Dad saying, 'She's just a girl. She'll get married, so she should just go and be a secretary'.

"When I think about it, my life has been so much more fascinating because I finally found exactly the right thing for me to do. When I was at school, I was headed for a very different kind of world. I may well have gone on to do law at university. And for many, many years, I felt that I had somehow missed out. I carried around a scar for years. I had an inferiority complex because of missing out. But when I finally found what I was meant to do with my life, I was able to leave that behind. I finally realised that there are different kinds of universities and they can all help you find success.

"The thing is that, as I see it, success is doing what you love, being loved and having a purpose. I think now the greatest thing for me is having a platform to do what I think is important. That's success – not money, or fame or any of that. It's about doing what you think is important."

In her time off, Maggie devotes time and energy to the Maggie Beer Foundation, which aims to improved aged care through better food and nutrition. Of course, what's most important to Maggie these days is family. Saskia and Elli have partners and Maggie has her six grandchildren to dote on.

"Both my girls are involved in the hospitality business, so it's lovely there is a sense of continuity," she says. "Elli has a function centre and pulls these amazing threads together for big functions all over the valley. Saskia inherited my instinct for food, which I inherited from my father. Her knowledge of farming to cooking is amazing."

Maggie's grandchildren's age range from 20 down to two, and "any get-together is chaos," she says.

"Any celebration, any reason, is based around food. The thing is, my girls try to boss me around. There's a competition as to who does something best. But that is all about creating flavour. Our family is a very flavour-driven family."

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