Donna Hay on designing recipes: 'You look at the picture, your mouth starts to water'

You know that clean, white, minimalist look in so many food photos? How the dishes lure you out of the jumble of your life into a perfect world?

Those are the mark of a woman some call a conceptual genius. Donna Hay, author of Fresh and Light, is Australia's one-woman food, publishing and lifestyle powerhouse. Her design sense influences food publications worldwide.

Short, simple, well-written recipes: 'That was my hook'


Dorie Greenspan
: Everything I read about you and that I see refers to your recipes as design-driven.

Donna Hay
Donna Hay (Photo: Gary Heery)

Donna Hay: Strong words: design-driven.

DG: They are strong, and I see them often. Where did they come from?

DH: Working in publishing, in one dimension, it's different to sell people your recipes and your food.

My thing is that I've always written books for people to cook at home and to encourage them to cook at home. I don't have a restaurant; I'm not a chef. It's not like you can come to the restaurant and what you are ordering appears in front of you. You can see it, you can smell it, and then you taste it -- you're totally sold.

What I've got to get you to do to go to the kitchen is look at the picture, your mouth starts to water. Then you go to the recipe and you realize that you possibly have some of those ingredients already in the kitchen, or you know where to buy the remaining ones. You look at the method: It's quite short, it's really well-written and it's really simple. That was my hook.

Design-driven doesn't mean that I'm thinking about the plate before the recipe. I want to design the recipe so that your mouth waters, you know you can achieve it and I'm going to get you to cook.

DG: But there is, in all of your work, an aesthetic that I find very beautiful. It's pure, it's light, it's focused on the food. Was this your aesthetic from the beginning? Is this your personal style? It's totally yours.

DH: Yes, it is. When I branched out on my own, this is what I wanted to do. I wanted it to be clean and light. I wanted it to be a celebration of the food, the produce and the beautiful freshness. I didn't want it to be about flowers, napkin rings, glasses and whatever else was in the shot back in the day when I was first starting out. It was hard for some people to take when I first started doing it.

Paper Parcels
Hay's recipe: Paper Parcels (Photo: Fresh and Light)

DG: Now we look at it and we see the food. I don't miss the glasses and the flowers. But it's interesting to understand how you thought about this and what you were really aiming for.

DH: When I was growing up and I first started in the food world, writing recipes, assisting stylists and really getting my feet on the ground, my friends worked in fashion as fashion assistants, interiors assistants, beauty assistants -- they had very glamorous jobs. But the thing we were missing was that we were the first generation of dual-working parents. My friends had spent no time in the kitchen; their moms weren't really home. We were just a different generation, a new time.

When I started cooking, we had all moved out of home -- we had our tiny, little apartments and we were making do. I would invite them over for dinner and I would cook quite basic things like a roast chicken, some lovely couscous or a pasta dish. They would be constantly asking me how to do the recipes: "How do you do that? How do you roast a chicken? What temperature?" They had absolutely no cooking skills.

When I decided to pare back the photography and the styling, it also had another really, really important angle to it. When I say to chop the chile or shred the basil, you can actually see it in the picture because it's all about the food. Instead of having to do quite monotonous step-by-step photography, when the pictures are clear and crisp it's another driver to get you to cook.
 

 'I'm the flavor thief'


DG
: You have a knack for scooping up the best from around the world. Your recipes incorporate global flavors. You use ingredients that come from all over.

DH: I'm the flavor thief. I think there are really great flavors that are really worth their salt that you can take from different cuisines without having to do traditional things with them.

Like preserve lemons, for example -- it's so much more complex than just lemon rind. It has that more rounded flavor. But it doesn't just lend itself to Middle Eastern cooking and Turkish cooking. That's a great flavor that goes with basil, with lots of herbs, it's great on the barbecue.

I don't want you to have to go out and shop for too many ingredients. I really like to hook on to those ingredients that are really punchy. They're a fabulous base to start with when you're writing a recipe.

DG: What are five ingredients that we should all have in our pantries that will just brighten up dishes?

DH: I'd probably take shortcuts because I am really, really reliant on my fabulous friendships. I'm always inviting people over. But what I really want to do is share some food and maybe a glass of wine with them and have a good old long chat and a laugh or two. I try to have things in my pantry and especially in the refrigerator that if I invite someone over on a whim, I do have some really good flavors.

Depending on what cuisines you like to cook, there's some great Asian chile jam paste, miso paste, mirin or some sort of Chinese cooking wine. All of that in the Asian genre is fabulous to have on standby. I even have kaffir lime leaves in the freezer because I think shredding those up and just putting them through a grain vegetable stir fry makes it so vibrant and so tasty.

Then I have the other end where I have a great mustard in the fridge, my preserved lemons and then a big wedge of Parmesan just for that other spectrum of more Mediterranean-style cooking.

I'm always saved by having some herbs of growing quality, which aren't always great -- I'm not the best gardener. But I always try and keep some sort of herb going in the garden just as a little backup savior.

DG: Just something fresh on the top.

DH: Something to stir through to give it some vibrancy.

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