When it comes to entertaining, celebrity cook Jo Seagar has a simple message. “The most important thing is getting people around the table to share in the pleasure of food. Make one fabulous thing and don’t worry if you buy a ready made dessert, or serve a salad from a bag. No one is going to be marking you with a clipboard.”
Perfection is not something to aim for, she adds.
“It doesn’t matter how great your clothes are – having dark circles around your eyes from crying over a ruined flambé is not a good look with any outfit.”
In her latest book, Jo Seagar Cooks, just released by Random House, Jo shares all the short cuts, techniques and words of wisdom she has learned over 25 years in the food business. “This is a book from the heart – full of recipes I really use and love. There are lots of old classics, just like mum used to make, but with a new interpretation, and a modern twist.”
Jo also promotes the use of pre-prepared ingredients. “I love to cook, but if I am faced with a bag of onions to chop up, I am happy to share the love. Convenient, pre-prepared foods make cooking so much easier. There is nothing wrong with having a jar of crushed garlic or chilli on hand, or buying chopped vegetables. I make a great roast pumpkin salad at least one a week, and buy pumpkin that has been pre-chopped for soup. It’s perfect for the salad and anyway, who wants to chop pumpkin?”
While her latest cookbook is more comprehensive than her previous themed books, it offers all the same reassurance – that the recipes will be easy to follow, will work, and won’t have difficult to find ingredients. “They’re not full of pomegranate molasses or other ingredients you can’t buy at the Timaru or Oxford Superette,” Jo promises.
As well as featuring over 100 recipes, the book includes atmospheric shots of the Canterbury countryside near the Seagar’s new home in the small North Canterbury township of Oxford, where Jo and husband Ross have transformed a tired, abandoned, purple supermarket building, into an English-style country café, cook school and kitchen store.
It is the middle of the afternoon in late winter on one of several trips I have made to Seagars at Oxford.
Just like previous visits, cars line both sides of the street outside the café – where inside, the atmosphere is buzzing. A group of ladies linger over the last remnants of a leisurely lunch, an elderly couple chat over a cup of tea, and there is a steady stream of customers picking up a coffee or bite to eat. “It’s always like this,” says Jo, dressed casually in black, but resplendent in a string of her trademark pearls. “We served 150 meals in the café the day we opened, and it hasn’t let up since. It’s really great.”
With her wonderful sense of humour, and ability to impart sensible advice, visiting Jo is like spending time with your favourite aunty. As we sink into comfy couches beside the café’s cosy gas fire, Jo says the venture is the realisation of a long-held dream for the couple. “So many people wait to throw a six to get on with their one day plan, but Ross and I decided to do it now while we still have the energy.”
With a successful business, book launch, and new 12 part television series (also called Jo Seagar Cooks) in production for CTV, Jo needs every ounce of that energy. “It is a busy life, but I’m in a place where I’m very happy to be Jo Seagar, and very happy to be here in Oxford, in a part of the country I absolutely adore.”
Jo says the move from their rural property at Clevedon, to the small South Island village, nestled against the foothills of the snow-capped Southern Alps, a 40 minute drive from Christchurch, has been great for the couple’s teenage children, Kate and Guy, who board at schools in the city. “We’ve been able to get to lots more school things and sports games, and spend more time together as a family. Kate and Guy help out in the business too – sometimes we’re all rushing around, working together – it’s quite neat.”
The Seagars have employed a large team of local people in the café, which serves a breakfast, brunch and lunch menu – “the type of food people want to eat”, says Jo. “Our philosophy is to provide great food, in an unpretentious country atmosphere. We want our customers to feel really welcome – just like they’re visiting our place.” Jo doesn’t just pay lip service to her philosophy. If she is not teaching classes in her fabulous cook school kitchen, she can be found chatting to diners in the café, giving chef Phil Keen a hand in the kitchen, or helping customers select from the huge range of kitchen gadgets, home-wares and gifts for sale in the kitchen store.
Students are lining up to join Jo’s cooking classes – the cook school already has bookings through to 2007.
“The classes are for small groups of eight to 10 people wanting some great recipes to add to their entertaining repertoire, and who are keen to learn all the sneaks and shortcuts,” she says.
Lunch and Learn courses are underway; as well as specialty classes including sausage making, cheese making and wine appreciation. “A lot of blokes are coming along to classes – especially men in their 50s who have always left the cooking to their wives. They don’t want to become gourmet chefs – they simply want to learn how to do the basics, but put a pretty fancy dinner on the table.”
Jo also teaches Aga cooking on the shiny new Aga range that takes pride of place in the cook school.
There are even etiquette courses for men whose social skills need a bit of polishing up. “There’s no poncy nonsence at the cook school. It’s all about having fun – eating, drinking some good local wines – and learning a lot along the way,” she says.
The Seagars are currently redeveloping accommodation units at the rear of the café and cook school, which will eventually house course participants.
The new business hasn’t left time for Jo to renew her contracts with The Warehouse, Chelsea Sugar and the New Zealand Women’s Weekly. She does, however, continue to work voluntarily for Hospice New Zealand as its ambassador – spreading the word about the amazing work hospice does, while helping to fundraise for the organisation which she says is “appallingly funded” by government. “What many people don’t realise is that 90% of hospice work is done in patient’s homes. The running costs are huge – we always need more money for things like petrol for the district nurses’ cars. We don’t just put the money into bricks and mortar.”
Ask Jo what she thinks about her food being described as “naughty”, and she says it is a common misconception. “I think the perception grew because I made the kind of food people love to eat on my original TV series. I did make creamy seafood chowder, and wonderful chocolate cake – but the media seemed to pick up on that over everything else. One headline said ‘Easy peasy, but too greasy’, just because I used butter in shortbread.”
Jo uses lots of healthy, natural ingredients in her recipes, and the new book has “lots of lovely vegetable things,” she says. “I think because I am a large person the minute I slosh in a bit of cream it provokes a reaction. Jamie Oliver can cook with a litre of cream, and no one blinks. It’s all about balance. I use butter when I think the flavour is important, but always spread Olivio on my toast.”
As we finish our chat, Jo laughs as she quotes one of her favourite foodie sayings. “I believe all food should carry a health warning. The sheer act of eating is detrimental to your health, but not eating is always fatal.”
Aga Cooking – Just like Granny used to make
At her new cook school, Jo Seagar teaches the intricacies of cooking with her “dream machine”, the Aga oven – a range that has no dials or knobs, and is never turned off. It stores radiant heat in its cast-iron shell, and is always ready to use.
While the Aga is often thought of as quintessentially British, it actually began life in Sweden more than eighty years ago – invented by Dr Gustav Dalen, a blind Nobel Prize-winning physicist, who was appalled that his wife and maid had to constantly tend to their old-fashioned range. He designed a modern cooker, the Aga, which is now widely acclaimed as a design icon.
Jo’s Aga has four oven compartments and two hot plates – with each maintaining a different constant temperature. By using the hot plates and ovens in combination she has every level of heat she needs for every kind of cooking.
A batch of scones cooks in the hot oven in just seven minutes, which is also perfect for pizza and crispy pork crackle. Jo says the slow oven is ideal for jam preserving, raising bread dough, or oven drying tomatoes. There’s a simmering plate for stocks, soups, poached eggs and pikelets, and a hot plate for searing steaks.
“Cooking with an Aga requires a more intuitive style of cooking – a skill our grandmothers took for granted, and one that I am excited to help my cook school students achieve.”