Celebrity

EXCLUSIVE: Maggie Beer on her proudest moment to date

As Australia’s most lovable (and busiest) cook prepares to turn 80, she’s launching a TV series to mark a decade of transforming food in aged care homes.

Maggie Beer is in the kitchen of her Barossa Valley home, making coffee. She’s just approved a batch of hot cross buns with her team in the adjacent office – it is Maundy Thursday – and there is a bustle of activity outside as handymen work on the property and gardeners tend to the produce.

When we finally sit, Maggie sets two pieces of cake on the table – she will later pack one for me to take for my mum. “I’m just going to have a little bit of yours because I’m not a sweet tooth,” she grins cheekily, then sighs; it’s been a busy morning already and it’s only 10am.

In fact, it’s been an extremely busy year. Maggie has just flown back from Perth, where she’s been filming her new TV show Maggie Beer’s Big Mission, while juggling meetings with her Foundation and government stakeholders in various other states, amid dealing with the day-to-day running of her business.

Maggie is always on the move, but 2024 seems to be one of her busiest years yet: She celebrates 10 years of the Maggie Beer Foundation, is releasing an updated version of her book Maggie’s Recipe for Life, is launching a new TV show – a culmination of her decade-long campaign to transform food in aged care homes – and all of this as she prepares to turn 80 next January.

Maggie Beer in a navy blue dress.

She’s a self-described “farmer, cook, restaurateur, food producer and writer”, and spreading the word about good food and nutrition for all – regardless of age or health restrictions – has been Maggie’s life mission. Now she’s focusing on aged care. It is no surprise her shift in focus is to nutrition and fitness for the elderly, as she is on the precipice of becoming an octogenarian herself.

“I am acutely aware of the ageing process, I’m not frightened of it,” Maggie says defiantly. “My only concern is that I keep my physicality and my mental acuity. You have to work more on that than when you are younger, there is no doubt about that. I had a bad fall when I was filming and I’m only just over it. And that was six months ago. So I know that strength has got to be worked at when you’re older. I can’t take anything for granted in terms of physical strength.”

To keep up her physical health, Maggie works with a physiotherapist on strengthening exercises for a recurring knee issue, and regularly works out with a personal trainer for strength training. And she is passionate about walking, both for her physical and mental health. Every morning she tries to walk for 40 minutes to clear her head and enjoy the spectacular scenery around her Barossa Valley home.

“It’s got to be hills, I’m very bored walking on the flat,” she says. “I just love it – I feel trapped if I can’t walk.”

As she nibbles a piece of cake, I ask how she copes with being so busy and wonder where she gets the energy to sustain all her commitments.

“I am run a bit ragged at the moment because sometimes in life, everything comes together at the same time – which is positive, because there’s an energy where one feeds off the other,” Maggie admits circumspectly.

“But sometimes I think smelling the roses one day a week might be nice! And I’m working towards that. Sometimes you take on things and you have to just grab them while you have the opportunity, and that’s what it is now.”

That “now” is the launch of Maggie Beer’s Big Mission, which airs on the ABC next month, a transformation-style social experiment run over four months that aims to overhaul an aged care home in Perth – from the dining experience to the gardens to, most importantly, the health and wellbeing of the residents.

It is a holistic approach: It begins with health experts assessing the mental and physical state of the residents while Maggie looks over the food on offer and gardening expert Josh Byrne sets out to see what he can do with the dining and garden areas.

By the end of the series, as the menu and entire dining experience has been transformed and carers and chefs have been upskilled, the residents are all reassessed with surprising results.

Maggie’s goal is to create a better model to share Australia-wide and set a new standard for some 200,000 residents who live in aged care, which is in crisis across the country.

Maggie Beer with women from an aged care home.

A recent study of aged care services in Victoria revealed that 68 per cent of residents were either at risk of malnutrition or were malnourished. Poor nutrition in aged care relates to falls, fractures, pressure injuries and unnecessary hospitalisation.

“The statistics are dire and it’s totally unacceptable,” Maggie says.

Maggie was “floored” by the low expectations and mental health state of many of the residents she got to know while making the show, and at the often-depressive thinking they had developed while in aged care.

“I got to know the residents, eating with them, talking with them, understanding that their expectations weren’t high, which really floored me,” she says. “It’s very difficult not to have institutionalised thinking creep in.”

Transforming the kitchen – from the planning to the plate – was a huge but ultimately rewarding undertaking.

“To turn the kitchen around was very hard, there is no doubt about that,” Maggie says. “The problem we have in the whole of industry for both hospitality and aged care, is there are not enough skilled staff. Aged care is not the most sexy place to work – that is until you understand what you can get out of it, which is this wonderful feeling of doing something so special.

“But at the moment with executive chefs across Australia, there’s so much admin, they’re torn between several homes. It’s a complex arena in one way because of all the dietary needs of those with dysphagia, the inability to swallow, which happens with cognitive decline.”

The biggest challenge for Maggie and her team was developing menus for scores of residents for five meals a day (three meals and two snacks) that are healthy and full of vital protein, suit various dietary needs and are cost-effective.

“It’s a difficult thing to fix because there’s no specialised training – except for what we do with our foundation’s online modules for aged care. But in another way, it’s really simple because it’s beautiful home cooking. But beautiful home cooking for a hundred people, six times a day is very hard.

Maggie Beer in a white outfit and yellow cardigan.

“But then having the joy of giving something to the residents that makes their eyes light up and they empty their plate is just wonderful.”

Maggie has been on a mission to transform aged care food for quite some time. Back in 2010 it was, oddly, a conference that would lead to an epiphany for Maggie.

As the then Senior Australian of the Year, Maggie had been asked to make the keynote address at an aged care conference in Tasmania. Her speech to hundreds of aged care CEOs was a stark awakening about the state of their culinary offerings.

Needless to say, her words were received with a lot of defensiveness in the room. It did spark change, though. One CEO from Noosa returned home and immediately changed their food offerings, while Dr Stephen Judd, then CEO of HammondCare, the largest dementia care facility in the country, invited Maggie to speak with their board in Sydney. The seeds were sown.

Four years later, Maggie established the Maggie Beer Foundation with the vision to be a “vibrant, influential and an authoritative charity that will improve the food experience and quality of life for current and future generations of older people”.

Last year the foundation received $5 million from the federal government’s Department of Health and Aged Care to begin to improve the nutrition in the approximately 2700 aged care homes across Australia. As part of this funding, the Maggie Beer Foundation Aged Care Cook and Chef Support Program was born, a free program to deliver education and training for cooks and chefs to improve the dining, food and nutritional outcomes for residents in aged care. It was launched last year by the Aged Care Minister, Anika Wells – who also features in Maggie Beer’s Big Mission – and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

“Can I thank you, Maggie, for being such an inspiration? Your compassion, your skills, your knowledge you are bringing to assist older Australians,” Albanese said. “This is something you’re doing out of your commitment, it certainly isn’t a commercial opportunity, and it just says so much about who you are and is just one of the reasons why Maggie Beer is one of the most respected of Australians.”

Maggie Beer and Anthony Albanese.

Over a decade of work has earned Maggie some of the highest of accolades – in 2022 she was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in part for her mission to improve food in aged care. And while
the foundation’s work continues, the new TV show will introduce Maggie’s biggest mission yet to the masses via the ABC.

“This is a pivotal moment and I’m so proud of what has been done,” she says. “With the care and respect and kindness, as well as knowledge and information that comes out of it, what this will do is open it up to other homes that can see the difference you can make.”

I ask if it’s the proudest work she’s ever achieved?

“Without a doubt,” Maggie says. “Senior Australian of the Year gave me a platform. It took me a while to get my act together, but I did it. If you have a platform, you have a responsibility, and I care so much about it.

“You know, my life is about beautiful food every day – has been every day of my life – and I know what that does for me and does for everyone. Sharing the table, the gardening and good, simple, beautiful food should be everyone’s right.”

Maggie’s story from growing up in Sydney’s Bankstown to growing older in the Barossa is a familiar yet fascinating one: She inherited her passion for food and strong work ethic from her parents, who ran a catering business. Maggie left school at 14, got a job in a chenille bedspread factory, but left after a year. Her father famously told her “you must stay for at least a year otherwise you’ll be a flibbety jibbert”. She left after a year to the day.

“I suffered from inferiority for a long, long time because I didn’t have an education, but I got over that eventually,” she recently told the ABC podcast Conversations.

Growing up, Maggie became very close to her aunts Rita and Gladys, who helped with her education. Gladys was a headmistress and kept Maggie educated through books, while Rita had a soft spot for comics and one magazine – The Australian Woman’s Weekly.

“I’d have dinner with them every week and Rita would give me books that I should read and I was very, very close to her. So every single week I’d visit and Aunty Rita had in the bottom of her closet every issue of The Australian Woman’s Weekly!”

A passionate fan of music – Maggie still regularly sings in a local choir – a little known but fun fact about Maggie is that she once met The Beatles while being on the same flight during the height of Beatlemania in 1964.

A few years later, at 25, Maggie met Colin Beer in Mount Buller and four months later they were married at an RSL with Maggie’s parents catering the wedding breakfast. They moved to the Barossa in 1973 with the dream of setting up a pheasant farm, and the rest is Australian culinary history as the Maggie Beer business was born.

Next January the couple celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary. With just two days between it and Maggie’s 80th birthday, they’re planning a joint celebration. While food is her passion, family is everything to Maggie. In 2020 she lost her eldest daughter, Saskia Beer, who tragically died in her sleep just as the world went into lockdown for the COVID pandemic. Four years on and Maggie still carries her grief heavily.

“Sassy is always with us,” she told The Weekly last year. The family honoured Saskia’s legacy by founding the Saskia Beer Churchill Fellowship, awarded in 2022 for the first time to Melbourne chef Sascha Randle.

Today, Maggie’s eyes light up when she talks about spending time with her family, especially her grandchildren. This past Easter she was preparing a pasta feast for the family – daughter Elli and the grandchildren – ahead of spending the long weekend at her favourite beach house with Colin doing her favourite things: “Sleeping, eating, reading and walking.”

In fact, her 80th next January will include a triple celebration along with her youngest granddaughter, Darby Saskia, who turns 10 at the same time.

“I’m thinking that I want a lunch at home, but I can’t do a lunch at home for as many people as I would want to invite. So I’m actually thinking of two parties with plenty of music and food – isn’t that terrible?!” Maggie giggles.

While she is planning a big party, Maggie is acutely aware of her need to slow down. The foundation is seeking the funds to recruit a CEO, as well as specialised support to take over more of the day-to-day operations so that Maggie can pare back her workload and have more time for herself and her family. She’ll still stay involved in the mission.

“I have promised Colin that from this July I’ll start to slow down,” she says. “And slowing down for me will be doing four days a week. And then next year, perhaps three days.”

She smiles, then corrects herself before stealing the last crumb of cake. “Well, you know, three to four!”

Maggie Beer’s Big Mission airs on the ABC on July 9. The updated Maggie’s Recipe for Life cookbook is out now. For more information about the Maggie Beer Foundation, visit maggiebeerfoundation.org.au

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