Donna’s Hay Day

donna hay

Donna Hay is a household name in kitchens across the country. The leading food editor and bestselling cookbook author talks to BeanScene about barista appreciation, the beauty of the European coffee scene, and making history with QR codes.

Like so many Australians who spent months in lockdown, Donna Hay has a newfound appreciation for her local barista. Thanks to the grab-and-go coffee phenomena that has become part of people’s daily exercise regimes, Donna says baristas have taken on a whole new role throughout the pandemic.

“A good barista is worth their weight in gold. People didn’t see their friends in lockdown, but they saw their local barista. Our baristas have been through it all with us. They’ve taken on an unofficial psychologist role, checking in and asking if we’re OK as they hand over our latte,” Donna says.

For her, that daily check-in came from local barista Sondra of hole-in-the-wall hot spot Bru Coffee in North Bondi, and Rocco of Rocco’s Café in the Sydney suburb of Vaucluse. But much of the time, Donna craves a morning coffee from the Breville Oracle coffee machine sitting in her studio office.

“People come to our studio for a meeting just so my colleague Hannah can make them a coffee – she’s very good. She’s also made some cold brew which is perfect to have with a splash of sparkling water in the warmer weather, and iced coffee in the afternoon as the days get longer,” Donna says. 

“We have a rule in the studio where you don’t count how many coffees you’ve had. It’s a day-by-day scenario and if people tell me I’ve had too much, I say ‘it’s just enough’.”

Donna’s fascination with coffee didn’t develop until later in her career when she embarked on her first big trip to Europe. Immediately, she was mesmerised by the way it was celebrated like a scene out of a novel.  

“I remember thinking how chic the streetside Parisian cafés looked with all these beautiful men and women dressed up having coffee out of little espresso cups with little lumps of sugar in them. Then in Italy, people would be rushing to work but would still take a minute to stand at the bar and have a quick espresso. I was captivated by the style and beauty of it, as well as the aroma,” Donna says.

“I wanted to embrace the local culture and coffee drinking was definitely a part of that. After that trip I became obsessed with coffee – the ritual, technique, precision. There’s so much more to coffee than just sitting with beautiful Parisian women and men and chic Italian businessmen in suits in an espresso bar.”  

Donna says she can confidently find good coffee in most foreign cities she frequents for work, but when it comes to coffee quality, there’s no place like home.

“Coffee is just part of the Australian culture,” Donna says. “For some reason we have found many occasions to enjoy coffee: as a morning routine, straight before work, when we’re on the run, as part of our morning exercise regime, or to connect with friends – there’s so many reasons why we love it.”

In Donna’s case, her coffee intake is high as she talks with BeanScene the day after launching her latest cookbook One Pan Perfect, dedicated to all-in-one meals that are easy and bursting with deliciousness. 

“This cookbook is really timely. We’ve seen a lot of people come to cooking that would have never of joined the tribe of cooking before [lockdown]. We call them the ‘zero to sourdoughers’ because maybe they went from a takeaway home delivery service to making sourdough. So many people have found a love of cooking and want to continue but the fatigue of cooking in lockdown or when we’re busy means people want to create really simple, tasty meals. One Pan Perfect delivers all that with the ingredients mixing and simmering together in one pan,” Donna explains.

“I’m the prime target audience for this book because I have two teenage boys that are always starving after I come home from a full day in the kitchen, so most of the recipes in this book have been tested by simply feeding my boys, including the Tray Tacos which we love.”

The other prime audience is Generation Z who, like some of Donna’s colleagues, have admitted to not owning decent cake tins to Donna’s dismay. With them in mind, Donna has created fun recipes like an Upside-down Pavlova so there’s never any accidents in its transportation, and a Skillet Cake that’s baked in the fry pan.

In an Australian first, the cookbook features more than 20 QR codes that brings Donna to the kitchen as a personal cooking coach through exclusive video content on set recipes.

“We were always looking for ways to bring the books to life and now we have. Users just scan the code with their phone like they do when they ‘check-in’ and they see a video of me showing them tips and tricks. It’s like I’m cooking alongside you as an extra boost of confidence,” Donna says. “It’s really exciting and so easy because everyone knows how to use QR codes now – my mum included.”

Donna grew up in a “vegetable forward household”. She credits her mother and grandparents as wonderful gardeners who ensured the family home was well stocked with an abundance of fresh produce.

“My mum was ahead of her time. We had an alfalfa sprouter on top of the fridge and she would make many things from scratch, including her own yoghurt,” Donna says. “I grew up with a nice base understanding of healthy food and loved spending time in my grandparent’s garden when I was little. They had a huge vegetable garden with a big strawberry patch, and I would climb up the mulberry tree with a bucket.” 

A bit too timid to take on a chef’s apprenticeship, Donna says she instead found a home economics degree at East Sydney College that attracted budding Australian designers.

“It was such a creative place to learn. The course was half basic chefs skills with food writer skills and food science thrown in, which I found so fascinating,” Donna says.

With few job prospects, Donna committed to breaking into the food writing industry with a motive she still swears by today. “I said to myself, work really, really super hard. Put your head down and go for it. Be the best you can, and that’s what I still do today,” she says.

Donna was appointed food editor of Marie Claire when she was 25, at a time she says publishing was “exciting and opulent”. In 2001, she launched Donna Hay magazine, which remains the highest-selling food publication on the app store in Australia.

“The world was my oyster. I could touch on a classic, update it, create something inspired from your childhood with beautiful produce or go on a whimsical fantasy with an Alice in Wonderland theme,” Donna says. 

“My rule for each cover [image] was that people had to be able to identify what the item was pretty quickly – and that it made your mouth water as soon as you looked at it.”

Donna’s point of difference has always been the fact that she’s not a trained chef. As such, she’s always written recipes from a home cook point of view, even with the sharp rise in consumers’ advanced skillset, the high volume of cooking equipment they own, and interest in plating thanks to the MasterChef sensation.  

“My test kitchen only has domestic appliances in it because I know it’s what people are using at home. A chef might think chopping an onion is quick and easy but it may take someone at home 10 minutes. There’s lots of configurations that makes writing for home cooks a little bit different,” Donna says.

Also different in 2021 was Donna’s approach to cooking tutorials. Each Thursday at 4:30pm she would host an online kid’s cooking class, which at one point received 12,000 registrations for Taco Thursday and Cook your Parents a Dinner Party class.

“Watching kids cook is just hilarious and the messages we got from parents who were fatigued from home schooling saying it was the highlight of their week, was so heart-warming,” she says.

Donna is proud to enthuse the next generation of home cooks, but even more important, she says, will be learning to cook more sustainably.

“When I look at food as a whole, it touches on so many climate change issues along [the food supply chain] from the minute a seed is planted to the raising of animals, chemicals used on crops, and how food is transported. There’s a lot of education to be done and a lot of recipes to be re-written to make an environmental shift,” she says.

Change doesn’t bother Donna. She’s proven time throughout her career that she’s not afraid to challenge herself, whether that’s by planning Oprah Winfrey’s ‘Welcome to Sydney’ party or sailing in the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. But when she’s in the kitchen, Donna is instantly reminded why she fell in love with food in the first place. 

“It’s like a mad science,” she says. “You can mix things together and it can be magical, it can be a huge disaster, which is also fun, but it’s that creative process that draws me back in day after day after day. I just love it.” 

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This article appears in the December 2021 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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