Jo Seagar spills the beans

21:19, Aug 29 2012
Jo Seagar
Jo Seagar entertained 130 women at the Picton Boat Club in a Hospice fundraiser

Jo Seagar spills the beans on a life less ordinary.

Recipe for success

There's more to Jo Seagar than sugar and spice and all things nice. On top of running Seagars at Oxford, the café and cook school that have put the rural township on the map, and publishing more than 10 recipe books, Jo is a nurse, a grandmother, a television personality and the patron of Hospice New Zealand.

When Avenues met Jo in Oxford, she had not long returned from leading a Kiwi tour group around Italy and through her cook school in Eggi, two hours north of Rome. Jo's home kitchen smelt of slow-cooked lamb shanks and mutton as, desperate for respite from pasta, basil and tomatoes, she was satisfying cravings for hearty, meaty meals.

Italy has struck a chord with Jo. She feels an unexpected sense of belonging when she's there. Before she started La Cucina Italia, Jo considered herself more of a Francophile, having completed an advanced cooking course at La Varenne cook school in Paris in 1979. Today, however, she embraces the simplicity of Italian life and fare. "It's food born out of poverty and frugality, and I quite like that sort of idea."

Jo's introduction to Eggi and the beautiful villa that has become her base there stemmed from her relationship with Hospice New Zealand. Having used hospice services, the villa's owner wanted to give something back to the organisation and contacted Jo to arrange a charity fundraiser. "It kind of grew like Topsy from there."  

On Jo's first research trip to Eggi, an interpreter mentioned her mother, Fenisia Vittori, was a great cook and today "Mamma" is the head of the class, sharing her home cooking with groups of 15 or so pupils, "the youngest has been 22 and the oldest 79".

The three-week tours led by Jo include a week at the Villa Campo Verde, where the travellers learn how to make pasta, bread, pizza and more, experience opera in its homeland, and fossick through antiques markets, before flying home with an extra handbag or two.

"It makes my winter quite nice in New Zealand, because I have these two gorgeous trips, and it's just really keen, like-minded people who love eating and drinking and exploring," Jo, dressed in classic black garb, with a large pearl necklace, matching earrings and a bright, red watch, says.

In Italy, Jo and Mamma have laughed about how fashionable it has become to only eat food sourced locally. Being a locavore isn't a trend there; it's a way of life.

"Mamma said to me, 'Look, we've had a word for this for years, and it's called peasant'. And it's actually right, when you think about it. It is peasant food. Peasants don't import things from anywhere else; they eat locally."

Jo trusts New Zealand's farming practices enough to view exclusively organic diets as expensive and unnecessary. Instead, her home menu is influenced by the seasons. "I can't wait for the first asparagus, but by the end of the asparagus season I'm over it. I'm quite pleased to say 'goodbye strawberries, hello rhubarb'."

Those who presume Jo has a sweet tooth are mistaken. "There's no food I don't like, but I'm not mad for [sweet things]." Jo's favourite snack is frico - parmesan cheese crackers with fennel and cumin seeds.

The media is quick to contact her for comments when products such as butter rise in price, "as though I might be more affected than asking you what you thought", she says bluntly. "There's a perception 'you're a foodie, you must love sugar, and quite a good baker, so you must eat cakes all the time'."

While she loves baking, Jo finds hors d'oeuvres most satisfying to make. She wistfully lists perfect flavour combinations, such as pear with pecorino cheese and a drizzle of honey, and apple with blue cheese, and says her favourite nibbles are those with just one or two ingredients, but maximum impact.

However, comments about the cream content in Jo's recipes have made her question herself in the past. One day she went through her books and counted up the recipes with cream, finding only about four per cent featured the decadent dairy product. Jo Seagar's style of cooking is more about timeless recipes involving minimum effort.  

Clear logic and a matter-of-fact attitude appear key to Jo's approach to more than just food. The shrewd businesswoman is quick to highlight the café's success and the onsite bed and breakfast, and she keeps a close eye on staff as she talks. Jo is professional, resilient and worldly, yet down-to-earth and motherly, too.

Jo recently became a grandmother and talk of grandson Leroy prompts a flurry of flicks on the iPhone to show him off. Daughter Kate's blue-eyed, blonde baby boy was born this year and his arrival heralds the return of old traditions to this year's Christmas.

Kate and her partner, Sam, live in Oxford, and brother Guy lives in Christchurch. Jo and her husband, Ross, adopted Kate and Guy as babies, and the pair, both now in their 20s, share a strong bond - as well as an appreciation of good food. While food is not their passion, both can cook - Kate knows a frozen chook can make three meals and Guy makes teriyaki chicken sushi at home, Jo says.

Jo is frustrated by the lack of basic cooking skills in our communities. She is keen to produce a television series to counter the decline of these necessary skills and recalls working for a food bank when a 2kg packet of mince was returned with the comment "we don't have a cat".

"Everyone has to eat, so everyone needs to cook," says Jo, who adds that a meatloaf would have kept a family fed for much longer than the quick-fix chicken nuggets requested.

Cooking came naturally for Jo. "I never remember having to learn how to make a pavlova. I kind of had it in my DNA" and today, at 57, she still loves making great food. "I get very sick of the cleaning up, and I'm very happy to share my love around when there's a sack of onions to chop, but I do actually love the process."

She keeps up to date by researching food, trying new things in the kitchen and reading plenty of cook books. Ross shares Jo's love of reading, and Jo shares his of opera, although Katie Melua, Lady Gaga, Sting and Italian language CDs play on her stereo, too.

Jo enjoys "picking, planning and planting" - but not weeding - gardens and has a pilot's licence and fondness for vintage aircraft. She will join Ross, a keen skier, on trips up the mountains, but only to "hold the bags", as a knee replacement rules out taking to the slopes herself. It hasn't stopped her love affair with fishing, however.

This year Jo tried game fishing after a group of women from the North Island attended one of her cooking classes and encouraged her to join their team for the Marine BOISC Reel Ladies' 2012 competition in the Bay of Islands. The team claimed the grand prize with a 106.8kg striped marlin. "We won a Kenwood mixer each!"

Jo grew up in the North Island, as her family left Christchurch when she was a baby to run a family farm in Hawke's Bay. She completed nurse training in Auckland, before moving to England in 1977 to complete a five-year epidemiological study with British Regional Heart Research. She attended world-renowned cooking school Le Cordon Bleu London and enjoyed it so much she went on to Paris, where she continued her chef training at La Varenne.
When Jo returned to New Zealand, she became a charge nurse at the Princess Mary Hospital for Children (now Starship) at Auckland Hospital. "Then I decided to see the pilot light and get cooking." She describes leaving her medical profession as a controlled change of career - "I didn't leave school thinking I would wave my wire whisk on the telly and hold a conversation simultaneously" - and in 1981 she opened her own restaurant in Auckland with a business partner. Harleys Restaurant was named after Harley Street in London, where both nurse owners had worked. It was at the restaurant that Jo met Ross.

Ross, an accountant, flatted with one of the waitresses and decided he would cover her shift one day when she was ill. "I ran off with a waiter!" Jo laughs. "Here we are, married 25 years and not one argument," she jokes, with a roll of her eyes.

Jo's first on-screen appearance also happened while she was in Auckland. Jo decided the cooking classes she was running at the time would be ideal for television, teaching audiences how to build on basic skills and be inspired by food. "How hard could that be?" However, when she first approached Television New Zealand in 1997, she was told a food programme would never be aired in prime time and " 'how do we put this politely ... we can't see you hosting a food programme because we can't have a fat person as a presenter' ".  

"It's those sorts of storms that make the oak tree dig its roots really deep. Those are the things that shape you," Jo says.

Undeterred, she made some test tapes, left the idea to simmer and concentrated on publishing her first major book, You Shouldn't Have Gone To So Much Trouble, Darling (1997). It sold 40,000 copies and caught TVNZ's attention, although it was another 18 months before she secured her spot in front of the camera. Real Food For Real People aired in 1998 and ran for two seasons. "It was the highest-rating programme they'd ever had on TV One."

When advertising started to influence television programmes, Jo took a step back, not wishing to be restricted to certain brands and ingredients. She turned down an offer to be the Food In A Minute presenter and her programmes often go to more lucrative networks overseas, such as Foxtel in Australia or the Food Network in the United States. Her latest production material was lost when the CTV Building collapsed in the February 2011 earthquake.

When the children were little, the Seagars lived on a 24-hectare property in Clevedon, half an hour from Auckland. "It was really about kids hooning around on motorbikes and horses and having a creek to play in." However, when it was time to pick secondary schools, Jo and Ross decided to put the children on a plane to Christchurch rather than send them into a sea of pupils in an Auckland school. Kate boarded at Rangi Ruru and Guy at Christ's College.

But, it wasn't the children's education that prompted Ross and Jo to move to Oxford in 2006. It was the decision to "do less things better" and an opportunity to set up a business for themselves. Before the move, Jo was buying cookware for The Warehouse, running cooking classes and working for Women's Weekly and sugar manufacturer Chelsea. Ross worked for a corporate accounting firm.

Jo says Oxford had the right kind of infrastructure - mains, water and sewerage "which are quite a big deal with a food business" - and no-one was selling coffee there at the time. It was a place people drove through, yet it was close enough to Christchurch Airport to feed off food tourism.

The Seagars are now firmly entrenched in the Oxford community - Ross is a member of the Oxford Volunteer Fire Brigade, while Jo is a St John first-response officer - and intend on staying "forever".

"It's not just the next five years," Jo says. "People say 'are you going franchise or something?' But no. Less things better."

She is excited about Canterbury's development and recovery following the earthquakes. "My future is Canterbury, and it will be great. And, eventually, we will be the Dubai of the south, and people will look at the fantastic architecture in Christchurch."  

When Jo's tour groups stop in the real Dubai for a couple of days, she says Christchurch residents find it challenging going up to the observation deck of the Burj Khalifa - the tallest building in the world - and are often the ones looking for the exits and the structural strengthening.

Jo is starting a new tour next year that will encompass Northern Germany, the Baltic Sea, Scandinavia and St Petersburg, and includes cooking classes on a cruise ship and at a Copenhagen cook school.

"Scandinavia is quite a foodie place now. Of the top 50 restaurants in the world, the first four or five are in Scandinavia. Noma, in Copenhagen, is the best restaurant in the world at the moment," and the tour has already reserved a table, Jo says.

"I love the idea of travelling with a purpose, besides just being a tourist, and I think food is a great connection."

Back home in Oxford, a group of children file out of the cook school kitchen, having had their first lesson in the value of good food.

"Food does more than just give nutrients. It's about emotional, physical and social well-being," says the wise woman who has made a living from feeding the body, mind and soul.