Aussie culinary icon Maggie Beer is no stranger to success having released a range of acclaimed cookbooks; starred in MasterChef, and her own TV show, The Cook and The Chef; and been awarded honorary doctorates, Senior Australian of the Year, and Member of the Order of Australia, to name but a few. However, she ranks the Maggie Beer Foundation as among her proudest accomplishments.
Established in 2014, the aim of her eponymous organisation is to “improve the food experiences for older Australians, particularly those living within aged care homes”, through specialist training for chefs.
“Gosh, it’s just so important to me,” she says over the phone from across the ditch, “and it means so much that I’ve been able to bring in so many amazing people with amazing knowledge to help me. It can’t be done with one person. We’ve shown that we can make a change—but there is still a lot more to do.”
Maggie was inspired to establish the foundation following her Senior Australian of the Year win, and visiting various aged care residences to give talks afterwards.
“People work so very hard in aged care, but not always with the support, budget or training that they need.” the chef laments. “You really do need specific skills for this industry, it’s not just about being a cook or a chef.”
Maggie worries that the older generation is a silent group of people that has for far too long been far too ignored, been forgotten. Thanks to their perseverance, the foundation now receives some government funding, and in February will also be filming online training courses to enable an even greater educational reach. I ask her if chefs in the industry too have felt frustrated by the historical lack of investment.
“Absolutely,” Maggie says. “It is very rare to come across anybody, in any industry, that doesn’t want to improve things. But they need assistance, they need to be better paid and to be afforded greater respect. They’re making huge differences for people in the later stages of their lives, and they should be celebrated for it.”
The foundation works with a whole team of experts such as dieticians and nutritionists who advise on the most vital minerals and vitamins for the older folk. They must also consider such things as medication and the loss of taste that comes with advancing age.
“This all informs everything we do,” Maggie continues. “It’s a very complex set of circumstances. Our work is evaluated by Flinders University to ensure all of the necessary ingredients are there. But of course, it’s also essential that there are great flavours that create joy, otherwise the food won’t get eaten!”
One of the things that has most thrilled Maggie throughout this journey is the excitement that the residents have shown, and their willingness to try new things—eviscerating the myth that the elderly can be fussy eaters.
“There has just been such a positive response,” she says. “Never underestimate the power of exciting people at any age. Who doesn’t like having things better?”
Any favourite dishes?
“The comfort food generally, you know, things like soup made from real chicken stock that’s full of real vegetables. It’s full of protein and antioxidants. Dairy is important too, for the calcium.”
What’s more, feasting on quality meals encourages residents to sit down to eat and socialise together even more.
“When the chef gets the chance to have that immediate connection with the person that they’re cooking for, it gives them a greater sense of purpose and pride,” Maggie says. “It’s really important because then it’s not just about a plate, it’s about a person.”
In this age, she says, there is no place for “institutionalised food”. The foundation has helped raise awareness, bring the issue to the attention of the wider public.
“Everyone understands now that we need to make changes,” says Maggie. “We need to use good people as benchmarks. Everyone deserves the chance to enjoy great food. To experience the pleasure of fresh, real ingredients. But not everyone has the ability to cook, or even look after themselves. Everyone needs something to look forward to.”