It’s hard to imagine Maggie Beer working in any industry other than food, but this Aussie food icon actually started out with a string of jobs connected solely by a love of adventure. Maggie’s story is one driven by necessity and instinct, of a girl who left school at 14 to support her family, travelled the world then moved from city to farm for love, where she fell in love with food. We spoke to Maggie from her Barossa Valley farm about her colourful career.
It may be surprising to learn that one of Australia’s most celebrated restaurateurs, food authors and producers, Maggie Beer, never had formal culinary training and learned her craft out of necessity and instinct. But that sums up Maggie’s approach to life and business as well as cooking. Her career, and her brand, is one born from intuition, hard work and an appetite for adventure.
MAGGIE, THE ADVENTURER
Sometimes, career paths follow a certain ‘recipe’ for success – following a laid-out method, step 1) complete school, step 2) proceed to university or further study, step 3) start at the bottom in your industry and progress to middle management, then maybe, for the very few, step 4) claim the seat at the top of the company. For Maggie, her ‘recipe’ for success has been less methodical and more like her cooking style – intuitive.
Born in Sydney as Maggie Ackerman, Maggie began her working life at just 14 years old after her parents lost their catering business. It was 1959, and despite 14-year-old Maggie being offered a scholarship to stay in school, her parents needed Maggie and her older brother to work. “I never thought anything of it other than, ‘Well, let’s get on with it,’ quite frankly,” says Maggie.
“I had no real career aspirations at 14,” Maggie admits. “If I had, I might have pushed more for the scholarship. But it was a time when it was just expected that a girl would just be a secretary, get married and stop work.”
Her first job was as a receptionist at a textile company for one year, then various other jobs until, at 19, she travelled to New Zealand where she worked as a lift driver in a department store. “It was my first taste of travel,” recalls Maggie. “After that, I came home and worked three jobs to have the money to go off to Europe a year and a half later.
“It was in the sixties, I was in London and Europe, and I got jobs on sheer drive and adventure,” tells Maggie. “I got a job in Benghazi in Libya for British Petroleum; I got a job in a Scottish sailing school as a whiskey bar maid; I got accepted by British United as an air hostess; it was just one thing after another. I was even asked to get a job as a German translator, which was crazy because I knew no grammar at all. It was all one big adventure!
“I’ve always been a risk taker and a loner,” shares Maggie. “Not that I don’t need people, far from it! But I never worried about doing things on my own. I mean, after finishing my job in Benghazi, rather than take what was a first-class airfare back home to London I asked for the fare in money and I went by native taxi, over land, into Egypt.”
“The idea was, in South Australia, I would do Oenology (winemaking) but I never did because food got in the way!”
MAGGIE, THE RISK TAKER
At 24 years old, after 10 years spent working, exploring and travelling the world, Maggie returned to Australia. In 1970, while working a ski season at Kooroora Chalet in Victoria, Maggie met Colin Beer. Colin had just gotten his commercial pilot license but couldn’t get a job in the aircraft industry so was pulling beers at Mt Bulla. They married 16 weeks later.
In 1973, the Beers moved to Barossa Valley, South Australia, to pursue Colin’s dream of farming game birds and growing grapes. For Maggie, with a colourful collection of careers in her pocket, discovering food and farming was “serendipity”.
MAGGIE, THE COOK
“It was Colin’s vision to farm pheasants. Because I’d lived in the country in Scotland, I was very happy to come to the country; because I came from the Western suburbs of Sydney, it was very easy to leave,” she laughs. “I’d had very high-pressure jobs in Sydney, and the idea was, in South Australia, I would do Oenology (wine making) but I never did because food got in the way!”
Customers didn’t know what to do with pheasants, so Maggie began cooking them out of necessity. From this, the Pheasant Farm grew from a shop into a restaurant with a country-style menu and a wholesome ethos – follow the seasons and respect the animal by using every part of it. The Beers expanded their farm to include quails, quince and olives. Maggie’s cooking, all self-taught, wasted nothing; she made pates and terrines, which became so popular she began selling it outside of the farm. In 1984, forced to find a use for a surplus of Rhine Riesling grapes, Maggie made the first commercial batch of verjuice.
“We were two risk takers; when two risk takers get together, anything is possible!” says Maggie. “Colin’s got a great head for figures and he always believed in me before I believed in myself. We were never glitzy, we were just real and seasonal and local, driven by flavour and the excitement of the produce.”
In 1991, the Maggie’s country restaurant had well and truly caught the attention of the culinary world. The Pheasant Farm Restaurant was named restaurant of the year with the Gourmet Traveller Remy Martin Award. Fame and fortune followed, at a relentless pace, with Maggie anchored to the stovetop. By ’93 Maggie was burnt out and at Colin’s insistence, they shut the restaurant at the height of their popularity and focused on food manufacturing.
MAGGIE, THE BUSINESSWOMAN
From 1996 to 2019, Maggie and Colin continued building on the food items they manufactured, expanding production to include jams, pastes, sauces, chutneys, ice creams and even non-alcoholic wine, among many other items.
As with any farm or business, there were good times and bad times. “The greatest challenge was not having anyone to learn from, to scale up my ideas,” reflects Maggie. “I also don’t take shortcuts so I had to learn by trial and error which can be difficult in business. I couldn’t just import someone into the business that had the skill, that would do things as pedantically as I would.
“Like many businesses, we tried to do everything ourselves. There comes a stage and a size of the business when that’s no longer possible. There’s always that cart before the horse; you need the very strong management team before you can afford it, always, in business.”
In 2016, Maggie and Colin sold 48% of their business to an ASX-listed investment company. Then in 2019, they sold the remaining 52% stake to the same company. In July 2020, the investment company changed its name from Longtable Group to Maggie Beer Holdings.
“It’s not easy to step away,” admits Maggie, of the business she spent 40 years building, “but it’s as easy as it could possibly be because I trust the management team, I trust everyone in the Barossa, I trust that the ethos, the philosophy, the skill, the care…”
While Maggie has bid farewell to the 70-hour work weeks, she remains fiercely protective of her brand. Maggie Beer Products was named so on the advice of a business consultant, a decision Maggie still questions. “We built such equity in the brand, but I also now have to spend my life protecting it, because it’s my name.”
“We were never glitzy, we were just real and seasonal and local, driven by flavour and the excitement of the produce.”
MAGGIE, THE EDUCATOR
During Covid-19 closures, many Australians tuned in to Maggie’s Instagram videos to get some tips in the kitchen from one of the best. Her goal is to spread a love for cooking and understanding food and produce.
“Food knowledge is so important,” says Maggie. “There is real joy from being responsible for a beautiful meal, cooked from seasonal ingredients that you share with family and friends. It’s sharing your table. And it can be simple, it never needs to be complex, but it does need to be cooked with love and knowledge and flavour.”
MAGGIE, THE ADVOCATE
After being named Senior Australian of the Year in 2010, Maggie researched the aged care system and, knowing the emotional and physical benefits of good food for people at every stage of life, saw great opportunity to support the residential aged care homes to improve food offering. In 2014, she established the Maggie Beer Foundation to improve the food experiences of older people in aged care and also in the community.
In July this year it was announced that the Maggie Beer Foundation would partner with the Australian Government Department of Health to deliver a National Congress on food, nutrition and the dining experience in aged care.
“There are people working so very hard in aged care and no more than right now [during a global pandemic]. We really need to support them,” offers Maggie. “This Congress is everyone under the umbrella contributing and deciding, ‘What are the things that are really going to make the difference to those in aged care?’”
MAGGIE, THE LEGACY
Looking back on more than 60 years working and 40 years building a food empire, what does success look like to Maggie? “Success is being involved in life. Really involved.”
As for her legacy, Maggie continues to live her philosophy and inspire others. “I always want to make cooking feel approachable so I can share the joy that I have with others. I love that part of my life. I’ve tried, and will continue to try, to do everything I can to give a good food life for those unable to look after themselves.”
To browse Maggie’s recipes and pantry, go to www.maggiebeer.com.au. To cook with Maggie, find her on Instagram with a new #cookwithmaggie segment every Friday at 4pm ACST (4.30pm AEST).