My parents lost their business and went bankrupt, so I left school at 14. It meant I had totally unformed ideas of what I could do, so I tried a million things. Back then, ingenuity and quick brains could get you into all sorts of positions. So, in my 20s, I talked myself into jobs as an assistant to a geophysicist in Libya, a cook in a sailing school and an air hostess with British Airways. There was nothing stopping you, because there were so many options. They just needed bright young people.
I hungry for experience, and didn’t want to just sit behind an office desk. So I went to New Zealand and worked as a lift driver in an Auckland department store: “First floor: travel goods, menswear. Second floor: luggage and ladies’ lingerie.” Then I took a job in a sailing school at Loch Ern in Scotland, and used the pantry’s whole three-month provision in six weeks. I went into nursing. I got a job as citizenship law clark for the American government in Sydney. I managed the Women’s College at Sydney University.
On a whim, I rang up Kooroora Chalet in Victoria and asked, “Is there any snow there, and have you got a job?” They said, “Yes! Come and make sandwiches in the café.” Within a week, they’d sacked their house manager and I took that on. There, I met a man named Colin, who’d just gotten his commercial pilot license in New Zealand. But because there was a recession, he couldn’t get a job in the aircraft industry, so he came pulling beers at Mt Bulla. We met during the ski season. Four months later, we married.
We were 25. We were both risk takers. Both of our parents owned small businesses, so we knew that risk was a part of life. We married on a Saturday, had a three day honeymoon, came back to Sydney and neither of us had jobs. We rented an apartment at Kirrabilly for $20 a week, threw a dinner party for our closest friends, and sat on our mattress in our bedroom because we had no furniture. I cooked chicken and grapes and almonds for mains, and a pavlova. I remember having some leftover the next morning, because we both had a hangover.
When I was pregnant with our first daughter, Saskia, we came to live in the Barossa Valley. It was 1973. We bought a vineyard, Colin farmed pheasants, and my whole interest in food just skyrocketed; I was in this beautiful countryside with great produce and great neighbours. I got a job selling land, but then the recession hit. After I had Elli, our second daughter, we went abroad. When we came back, we decided to start the Farm Shop, and I never thought anything of it: “Well of course! I’ll cook.” But it opened all sorts of doors, not to mention my imagination. That’s when I realised: I was finally doing what I wanted.
People in their 20s have got to take time out to have confidence in the kitchen. A good food life is going to add to everything: your personal life, your health and your business life. There are so many people who don’t have confidence in the kitchen because it hasn’t been handed down to them. They don’t know how to make chicken soup, roast a chicken, stuff a chicken, or how to make beautiful vegetable dishes. All things that are so simple, but you actually have to learn them somewhere.
It took me 20 years to be an overnight success. You have to have goals and be willing to do the hard yards to get there. You must love what you’re doing, and have drive, energy and a strong work ethic. There’s no such thing as an eight-hour day in your own business; you’ve got to live it, breathe it, then find how to get it up and going. Be prepared to work for what you want.