Many struggle with balancing their busy days with eating well. Melody Tan speaks with TV Chef Anna Gare, who has a solution
In the 1980s, she was part of an all-girl band called the Jam Tarts and was even inducted into the Western Australian Music Industry Hall of Fame in 2004. Western Australian audiences may also know her from television shows such as Perth at Five and Nuts and Bolts, where she presented her own cooking segments in the early 2000s. Anna Gare, however, is perhaps best remembered as one of the judges on Junior MasterChef Australia and more recently, as the vivacious co-host of The Great Australian Bake Off.
The difference between cooking at home and cooking on TV (besides the amount of cameras and lights), Gare says, is not having “children and husbands lingering around looking for all of the crispy bits to steal. But you do have a big camera crew to feed at the end, and they always gobble everything up.”
It may seem like an odd juxtaposition—musician and chef—but Gare always had cooking in her sights (and one cannot help but feel that being in a band with a food-related name was not a coincidence).
“I grew up in the ’70s and I had lovely parents. [They told me to] ‘follow your passions, do whatever you like,’ and cooking was mine,” Gare tells me over the phone. “I basically took over the kitchen. By about the age of 11, I was pretty much cooking most of our dinners.”
One might think her parents may have influenced Gare’s passion in the kitchen, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Her mother, in Gare’s own words, is a terrible cook, which turned out to be a blessing.
“She’s proud that she’s a terrible cook. She’s into women’s lib. She used to burn her bra—and the toast!” Anna says, laughter tingeing her voice. “[But because] my mother wasn’t into cooking, that left a lot of space in the kitchen for me to get in there, and she just totally supported me.”
Gare speaks with an easygoing charm and it’s like I’m talking with an old friend. Our conversation meanders from being homesick due to work commitments, the hippy movement of the ’70s, her support of the Fremantle Dockers AFL football club and of course, her passion, food.
As we speak, Gare is on the way from Sydney to Canberra as part of a tour to promote her latest cookbook, Eat In: The Best Food is Made at Home. The book is a bright and happy affair—not unlike the voice I hear on the other end of the line—and has a simple philosophy: cooking doesn’t need to be a chore and getting fabulous, hassle-free results is simply from using fresh ingredients.
While the recipes are ones that Gare herself uses at home, sharing them in a recipe book was a strangely personal experience. “I was too scared to go on to Facebook, because people can have a look into your life, and I’ve produced this book with every single thing I’ve eaten in the last year!”
At a time when interest in food and cooking is virtually at fever pitch with a lot of focus placed on presentation or preparation techniques, Gare is quick to point out that good food is not about what’s trendy or trying to do something because of preconceived expectations.
Often, it’s the fresh, simple foods that are the tastiest—and most nutritious. It’s also a concept that many time-poor families can adopt as Gare believes food doesn’t have to be complicated for you to enjoy.
“Good, simple cooking is definitely how you can balance busy days and eat well,” she says. “Just using good produce, and spicing things up with some spices or fresh herbs, and lots of fresh food . . . can make life more simple and delicious.”
According to Gare, because of the deluge of pre-prepared food available in supermarkets, “Food has gone far from the truth.” She also believes it could be the reason behind the increase in food-related disease and health issues. “But when you cook the food yourself, you have complete control over the food that goes into your body.”
When it comes to eating well, Gare places a lot of emphasis on freshness and warns against pre-packaged and canned foods. “Having said that, I do use tinned tomatoes and chickpeas. But eating well for me is cooking from scratch and keeping it simple and healthy. And colourful food; you know you’re eating well if your food is colourful.”
Gare has a simple strategy to ensure all members of her family have access to all the colour available. “I’ve never been one to plate up,” she says. “I usually make two or three things and put them in the middle of the table; a variety of food so everything goes together. I’d shave some fennel and do a quick fennel salad, and perhaps a green salad or a roasted vegetable cous cous so everyone is happy and can take what they like."
“I’ve always loved food being the centrepiece of the table. Everyone can help themselves to as much as they need and it’s just a nicer way of eating. It feels like a celebration.”
Everybody loves a good cook and a good cook loves to cook for others. Gare is no different and doesn’t reserve sharing her generosity and hospitality just for the weekends.
“I do love interrupting the week and inviting a few people over and turning an otherwise normal work day into a nice fun day with some nice food,” she says. “You always feel like you are stealing from the week—that kind of nice but naughty feeling.”
It’s not just the eating together that creates a community and develops bonds, however. Back home in Fremantle, Western Australia, Gare often involves her four teenage children in the cooking process. It’s also, she believes, an ideal place to discover their secrets.
“It’s the best place to get information out of them, at the kitchen table doing a bit of prep,” she says, almost conspiratorially. “They often come from the other side of the table and help me peel potatoes or onions, or chop stuff. I do stuff with my kids—we’ll go watch them play sport or go and watch their performances—but when you’re cooking and doing something together, you chat. And it’s just such a lovely place to chat with them.”
Gare also believes it’s a good idea to get children acquainted with the kitchen and cooking from a young age, as it gives them a better relationship with food. And of course, our discussion inevitably led to her stint on Junior Masterchef, a show that wowed audiences on the one hand but also attracted much criticism about exploitation of young children on the other. Gare is quick to dispel those criticisms.
“Because of the competition element, people go, ‘Oh, how terrible, you’re putting the kids through all this stress,’ ” she says. “But [the children] absolutely loved it. They were all put through psychological tests before they went on the show, so we made sure every kid was fine and we had a child psychologist on site."
“Having them cook in that cooking competition was amazing for them because they were extending themselves above their own belief. You could tell by the way their little ponytails were swinging when they came to deliver their dish, [they were thinking] ‘Look what I’ve made, and I can’t believe it!’ The kids came up with great stuff. It was really inspirational working with them.”
When it comes to inspiration for her own cooking, Gare likes to eat out (she acknowledges the irony of her statement with a laugh) and look through cookbooks.
“I get totally inspired by pictures, and that’s why we’ve got lots of pictures in my cookbook, as it’s a really important part of inspiration and cooking,” she says.
“And I hope people use my book loosely as well; I hope they take my recipes and make them their own and add bits to them. And I’m sure they will!”
Speaking with Gare, one soon understands that food doesn’t have to be complicated. All it needs is to be healthy and come from the heart.
Eat In: The Best Food is Made at Home, by Anna Gare, is published by Murdoch Books (Crows Nest, Australia, 2013).