Tell Dame Alison Holst she’s a Kiwi legend and she looks a tad disconcerted.
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” she says. “I’ve just shared advice on how to cook really, and come up with ideas.”
That may be an accurate summary of what she’s done for nearly 50 years, but she is being extremely modest. This is the woman who taught several generations to cook, and provided the inspiration for us to feed our families. She became New Zealand’s best-loved cook thanks to her television shows, and has sold over four million copies of her books. Her latest, Everyday Easy Bread Machine Recipes, co-written with her son Simon Holst, has just been published, but don’t ask how many books she has now published.
“To be honest, I stopped counting after 100,” she says without any trace of egotism.
Last year, she was number four on the list of most trusted New Zealanders, behind Sir John Kirwan, Willie Apiata and Richie McCaw. In 2010, after already receiving a Queen’s Service Medal and being made a Companion of the British Empire, she was made a dame in the Queen’s New Year’s honours. She may downplay her iconic status, but there is no denying that Alison (76) is one of our most loved personalities.
Now nearly half a century after starting her career as New Zealand’s best known TV cook and food writer, Alison is stepping out of the limelight.
While she’s not exactly hanging up her apron, she’ll leave devising recipes, writing cookbooks and then publicising them up to Simon (47), who has been working alongside her for over 20 years.
She’ll still be acting as a consultant – “she’s too good a resource not to use”, chips in Simon – but it’s time to ease back on the day-to-day work, and this is likely to be the last interview she ever does.
“I will still be helping Simon, but I will be behind the scenes,” Alison assures us.
When the Weekly spends an afternoon with her at a photoshoot and interview, it is easy to see why she holds such a special place in the hearts of Kiwis. Warm, charming and very down-to-earth, nothing is too much trouble for her, even strolling along a beach in a blustery wind. She’s certainly one of the most gracious celebrities the Weekly team has ever worked with.
Much taller than you’d expect, with her hair now a flattering shade of grey, Alison appears effortlessly elegant. Although she looks a little different to the Alison from her TV days, she still gets recognised.
“Actually, I think it is the voice that people notice and remember,” she says. “I possibly still sound the same.”
Members of the public often tell her about recipes of hers that have become family favourites over the years. She’s often thanked for giving people new ideas about what to feed their families every night.
“And a surprising number of people say to me that when they were kids, they used to set up cardboard boxes as a kitchen and pretend to be Alison Holst!”
She describes how she is occasionally stopped by people in the supermarket who will show her the food in their trolley and ask, “What do you think I should make with this?”
“I don’t mind,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to help.”
Alison was first asked to share her culinary expertise back in 1965. When television started in New Zealand, Graham Kerr – who went on to international fame as the Galloping Gourmet – was our first on-screen chef, but viewers found the dishes he made too complicated.
So New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation staff asked the Department of Home Science at the University of Otago if they could recommend anybody to present a cooking show.
“And they suggested me,” says Alison. A young mum of one, she had a bachelor’s degree in home science from Otago and was lecturing in the Foods Department as well as teaching night classes.
“I was surprised when they asked me. But I suppose it was because I was doing very basic recipes, which was what they wanted. I’m a home cook, not a chef, and my food has always been suitable for families.”
Alison smiles as she recalls those early TV shows. “I was quite nervous initially but that passed. For that first show I made meatloaf, but I put hardboiled eggs in it, which was unusual. People thought that was wonderful.
“I just did things the way I would if I was teaching – it was fairly straightforward. I was miked up, but the microphone was attached to a long cable and somebody had to sit under the table, where they couldn’t be seen, and feed the cable out as I moved around the kitchen. It was very different in those early days of television.”
The following year, a publishing company asked Alison to write a cookbook. And so began a flourishing career.
Alison helped to introduce “new” foods to Kiwis, such as garlic, soy sauce and filo pastry. She popularised muffins and although she doesn’t have a signature dish, one of the recipes she got the most comments about was her “lazy lasagne”.
“That was something I worked out myself. You don’t precook anything – you just put it all in the dish and cook it together. People really loved that, I think because it saved so much time.”
When new kitchen technology was introduced, Alison was often at the forefront.
“When microwaves came out, I was given one, which was very exciting,” she recalls. “Then I had to figure out how to use it so I could teach other people.”
She says she never had any disasters on her TV show – although there was one small fire that was quickly extinguished – and any dish that didn’t quite turn out as expected was simply adapted with quick thinking.
There’s no food she won’t eat – “even offal doesn’t scare me”, and she can’t name an absolute favourite dish. “Although I do love oysters, which are delicious with a squeeze of lemon – of course, they don’t actually need cooking.”
One of the best things about her 48-year career has been the opportunity to travel around the world and explore international cuisine. “I’d come back with ingredients like star anise from Hong Kong, and then figure out how to use them in dishes that people here would eat.”
In the late 1960s, Alison’s husband Peter, a doctor and lecturer in medicine, went to San Francisco for his postgraduate studies, and Alison and their children Kirsten and Simon lived there with him for two years.
“The food there was very different to anything we had here in New Zealand and it was exciting,” recalls Alison.
“I learned about using artichokes and tortillas. I went to cooking classes in Chinatown, which was a wonderful experience. I was very lucky.”
Simon, now a dad of two himself, says his mum would try recipes out on the family.
“There was no point in getting used to any particular dish because chances were you’d never get it again, or at least not an identical version!”
Food was a huge part of his life growing up but he thought that was normal. “I was brought up in a house where people talked about food a lot. It wasn’t until I went to university that I realised not everybody’s world revolved around it.”
Interested in food but with no inclination to follow in the illustrious footsteps of his mother, whom he calls by her first name, Simon did a bachelor and a master’s degree in botany, then worked as a food scientist.
“It was a great job but it wasn’t very creative. When I was at university, I worked with Alison on her book Meals Without Meat during the holidays, and I really enjoyed it. I realised that was what I wanted to get into, and obviously I had a huge foot in the door.”
Smiling fondly at his mum, Simon says, “I’ve been so lucky to work with Alison – she is a great teacher.”
He’ll continue to ask her advice and says, “I don’t think she’ll ever stop dabbling – she won’t be able to help herself. But I’ll be doing the grunt work when it comes to the books – the editing and the proofing.”
Alison could even get a break from cooking altogether, as her husband Peter is spending more time in the kitchen now he’s retired. “He was always too busy before. It’s nice, I get to have a rest. But he never makes any of my recipes – he likes to do things his way!”
She’s looking forward to having more time for her two favourite pastimes, painting and going for long walks. And it will be nice not to find herself waking up at 4am with a bright idea for a recipe and having to get up to write it down.
“There have been a lot of challenges along the way – it’s not easy coming up with hundreds of new recipes for books,” she says. “But I’ve absolutely loved doing it. It’s been a pleasure.”