Food stylist and entrepreneur
Born in: Sydney
Home Town: Sydney
When celebrity socialite Liz Hurley name dropped Donna Hay as one of her "favourite cookery writers" to her 300,000 followers on Twitter, the cook book queen wasn't overly surprised.
"I actually knew she was a fan from a trip she did to Australia years ago when I signed a bunch of books for her, so I was pretty pleased she publicly outed herself," Hay tells The Power Index.
It's hard to imagine Shane Warne’s fiancée in a kitchen, but Hurley is the perfect Donna Hay candidate: a time-poor mum who wants to whip up something easy, which tastes delicious and looks great, for her family.
Not that everyone in the food industry appreciates the Donna Hay cliche. "She’s like the Nigella of Australia, she likes things to look good," one prominent food writer tells The Power Index, claiming that "the recipes are shit".
"I just think she’s a stylist. She dumbs everything down."
But whatever the food snobs think, Hay has sold four million copies of her cookbooks worldwide. Add in her bimonthly magazine, her MasterChef appearances and her recent Foxtel series Fast, Fresh, Simple and it can be hard to escape from the prolific food stylist turned food writer and cook.
Style comes second to the food, says Hay. "I've always wanted to make the food the hero and the aesthetic followed on from that," she explains. "I like things that are simple, clever, and elegant but also have a sense of whimsy about them. That's what has informed the aesthetic."
And Hay's got high-profile supporters. Renowned book publisher Julie Gibbs from Penguin calls Hay "the queen of what she does". Hay is "the stylist par excellence," declares Gibbs. "She has been incredibly influential in the way we present and view food."
Fellow cookbook author Jill Dupleix agrees: "The style is so consistent with how Australian food is seen; it's light, it's fresh, it's drenched with sunshine, it's full of fresh leaves and fresh bright, ripe tomatoes and all the things that we think we do so well,” she says. "She's made it her own, but by making it her own and by selling so many books and through her television appearances, she's made it ours as well."
That visual focus comes partly from her long history of food publishing. At just 25, Hay became food editor of Marie Claire. Shortly afterwards became food editor at Marie Claire Lifestyle as well. In 2001 she launched Donna Hay magazine, which celebrated a decade of publishing last year. There's a Donna Hay range of homewares, which can also be purchased at her retail shop in Woollahra, Sydney
So is Donna Hay the person different from Donna Hay the brand? "The brand represents my philosophy on life (albeit a very idealistic one), so I would say the two are quite complementary, really," Hay tells The Power Index.
Managing an empire means long hours and Hay says no two days are the same. "I might be picking up tools and styling in the studio one day, testing recipes the next, planning a new issue in the afternoon or attending one meeting after another the day after," says Hay.
"Those days when we're testing brownie recipes, one after another, are a killer!"
She says putting herself in front of the television camera is "a pretty confronting experience and not one I enjoyed", mainly because of the public scrutiny.
Hay may be powerful, particularly in the way our food is styled these days, but she’s a polarising figure in the food industry.
She has a reputation as a control freak and her interactions with The Power Index echo those rumours. Due to a packed schedule, Hay would only answer questions via email. One question asked how she’d changed as a manager and employer since a controversial article in The Sydney Morning Herald back in 2004 which discussed a mass exodus of Donna Hay magazine staff, labelling the workplace "toxic".
After seeing that question, Hay refused to cooperate. When it was re-worked to "how would you describe your management style", Hay was happy to answer.
Her reply was honest and fair: "I started my own magazine because I was miserable going to work," says Hay. "I wanted to create a happy work environment that people actually look forward to being in. I've also worked hard to create a space for creative and passionate individuals -- we're a pretty eclectic bunch and that's just the way I like it. There's loads of enthusiasm, creativity and ideas in our space. We challenge each other, motivate each other, inspire each other and we work hard but we also know not to take life too seriously. That's what I've tried to foster as a manager."
Hay’s been hearing the "stylist not a chef" debate for decades (and The Power Index heard it often enough when Hay’s name was mentioned in conversation). "I never wanted to be a chef," she says. "I have formal qualifications in home economics and food science and I know how to write, test and cook a recipe but I've always regarded myself as a home cook, cookbook author and food stylist."
Dupleix doesn’t agree with the all style, no substance slander against Hay. "I'm a big baking fan, and I've said right from the start that I trust her because she really knows how to bake," says Dupleix.
And yet there's one baking job Hay's not interested in. On the subject of Liz Hurley’s upcoming nuptials, she quips: "Here's hoping she doesn't put a request in for a wedding cake -- I'm terrible at them."