Name a more high-profile, self-made Australian business woman. Others may have earned more money but when it comes to public confidence, few outrank the self-taught cook, who recently won the Vittoria Coffee Legend Award in The Good Food Guide 2020. Not bad for an early school-leaver with a skill for typing.
To know Maggie Beer is to love Maggie Beer, whether you know her or not. Possibly you watched her alongside Simon Bryant on the ABC series The Cook and the Chef. Maybe you own one of her dozen cookbooks or you've sworn off her burnt fig, honeycomb and caramel ice-cream in the name of fitting through the front door. The home cook has charmed generations with her easy, warm approach to food and passion for local, seasonal produce. But there's another side to the Barossa-based food personality.
The Maggie Beer you don't see and probably don't know was born Margaret Ackerman in Sydney's outer western suburbs, who was made to leave school at 14 when her parents lost their business. "I was offered a scholarship to stay on at school but my parents, who really believed in me and loved me, also believed I was just a girl and it would be wasted when I would only go on to get married and have children. Why not become a receptionist instead?"
The range of jobs Beer has entertained over the years is amazing. She began as a receptionist in a textile and carpet company. Then there was the cooking job at a sailing school on Scotland's Loch Earn, where she was fired after clearing out the larder, meant to last half a year, in a matter of weeks. There was the position as an assistant to a geophysicist for British Petroleum in Libya. And the brief stint at British United Airways, where she was hired as an air hostess but didn't get past the initial training because she hated it so much.
Back in Australia in the late '60s after her spell overseas ("it was a very exciting time – swinging London and the rest of it – but I was a conservative girl"), the young traveller found herself working as assistant to the general manager at Ansett aviation. Back then, she reckons you could get into jobs on attitude and adaptation. "I've always found if you have gumption, perseverance, a willingness to learn and a positive attitude, you can do a lot."
It was around that time she met Colin Beer at a party, and married him a few months later. When they moved to the Barossa Valley in 1973 to start a pheasant farm, the lights went on for her. Suddenly, she was plugged into the very thing she'd always loved but didn't realise could be a career – cooking.
I've always found if you have gumption, perseverance, a willingness to learn and a positive attitude, you can do a lot.
Maggie Beer has always been able to adapt to her circumstances. It's that element of her nature that's seen her create an award-winning farm-to-table restaurant off the back of a humble backyard operation and then turn that into a multi-million dollar food business.
In February, aged 74, she sold the last 52 per cent of her company, Maggie Beer Products, for a cool $10 million. That business, which started so modestly, is now one of the most recognisable food brands in the country, with her name on the label of a large range of ice-creams, fruit pastes, jams, sauces, oils, vinegars and verjuice.
Despite the sale, the Order of Australia recipient has very little chill time. Her work with the Maggie Beer Foundation, focusing on improving food in aged care facilities, keeps her incredibly busy. It's also one of the reasons she turned down a role as a judge on the new season of MasterChef.
But when she's at home on the farm, she prefers to turn up the golden-age jazz and turn down the external noise. "You know, I'm very good with rolling with things, so long as I get lots of private space. And being in the country you can, you see."