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Jo Seagar at 60: "It's perfectly ok to be yourself."

She’s established herself as one of the country’s best-loved foodies with her no-nonsense approach to cooking and life. Jo Seagar talks to Nicola Russell.

Jo Seagar celebrates turning 60.
Jo Seagar heading into her seventh decade with grace, acceptance and hair-dye.

Jo Seagar isn’t daunted by the prospect of turning 60 this month. Her celebrations will be enhanced by a trip to meet the Governor General to receive her 2015 Queen’s Honour for services to the community, which include 15 years helping Hospice New Zealand, and a successful and diverse career – first as a nurse, then as one of the country’s best-loved cooks.

Now that her children, Kate, 26, and Guy, 25, have flown the nest, the Oxford-based personality wants to free up more time for herself, as well as for her adored grandkids, Leroy, three, and two-year-old Lucas. She plans to sell Seagar’s, which includes a café, bed and breakfast and cook school, to carve out a new, more flexible lifestyle.

Jo shares her thoughts on her milestone birthday, reflect on her past, and reveal her exciting plans for the future.

Happy Birthday! How will you celebrate the occasion?
Later in the year, in lieu of both our birthdays, my husband Ross and I are going to Prague and Budapest on a Danube cruise, which will be rather lovely. On my actual birthday there will be a gathering of my kids, my grandees and a few close mates for dinner – Christchurch is full of gorgeous new restaurants and we will try one of those.

It must be daunting for chefs when Jo Seagar comes for dinner?
I don’t think so at all; I am always so terribly easy to please! I’m there to enjoy, so I don’t get the clipboard out – and when you have gorgeous friends and family around you, it doesn’t matter if you are having bread and water.

Jo, aged about six months, with her mother on the day of her christening.
Jo, aged about six months, with her mother on the day of her christening.

Sixty is not your only milestone this year – at New Year you were awarded a Queen’s Honour…
Isn’t that a trick! I got the letter the day of my mother Fay’s funeral and I thought, ‘Oh, isn’t that lovely – the Governor General is writing to offer condolences!’ It came out of the blue and so it was a great surprise. It was a splendid funeral and a day of celebrating Mum’s wonderful life, and I had that private moment knowing she would have been very proud of me.

What is the best thing about turning 60?
It is nice to be at an age where I don’t care what people think. I say what I mean, and there is a nice sense of knowing myself. I am quite excited about the next few years, I am fit and well, and the important job of getting my kids on their way is done. I can now re-evaluate my goals for this new phase.

Jo’s mum Fay taught her daughter the importance of gratitude.
Jo’s mum Fay taught her daughter the importance of gratitude.

Can you tell us what those goals are?
Professionally, this time will be about doing fewer things better. I’ve run Seagar’s lovely cooking school, café, shop and bed and breakfast for 10 years now and it has been wonderful, but that was my 50s and it is time for someone else to take over now. I’m certainly not retiring though; I imagine that happens at 80. I’m planning on doing a lot more food writing, I’ll also continue teaching – I think at 60 you are quite a wise old person and there are lovely things to hand on. I’d like to run etiquette classes – I don’t mean learning how to use a dinky little cake fork, I mean ‘may I refresh your drink’, rather than ‘do you want a top-up?’ – which is what you do with a diesel vehicle!

Personally, I’ll be taking up some things I didn’t have time for with kids. I would like to learn to play golf and do more fly-fishing and flying – I have a pilot’s licence and I love old aeroplanes and gliding. I’ve done a couple of hundred hours so far and I would like to do more. There will also be more travelling. I just adore the international culinary tours I take – I have four trips to Europe planned this year.

From top left: Jo in her early 20s, after flying a Harvard – she’d had her pilot’s licence for a couple of years. 
Jo and husband Ross, mid 1980s. The family in 2000, when daughter Kate was 11.
From top left: Jo in her early 20s, after flying a Harvard – she’d had her pilot’s licence for a couple of years.
Jo and husband Ross, mid 1980s. The family in 2000, when daughter Kate was 11.

What other places are on your bucket list for travel?
I think rural northern Japan would be a wonderful area to explore and I would like to do a lot more travelling in the States. I quite fancy the idea of Christmas in one of those big lodges, wearing a sweater with reindeer on it. But although some people reach 60 and go on the big OE they always dreamed of, Ross and I are lucky to have done some splendid travelling before our kids were born.

Has the meaning of 60 changed for you over time?
Yes, people say 60 is the new 40 and I feel like it is in a way. I am very fond of the author Nora Ephron, who said there are two words that make our experience of ageing different than our mother’s and grandmother’s – hair dye – and she was quite right. It used to be when your hair turned grey you were an ‘old person’ and you had to pop on your pearls, tweed suit and have your hair done in a blue rinse.

What are your thoughts on surgery?
I think this is a nice age to grow into yourself [naturally]. I am not against surgery, but I am a confident person and I have always accepted myself as unique and different, and I have always believed that your smile is your best make-up.

A 1999 TVNZ publicity shot (left). Jo and husband Ross, mid 1980s (right).
A 1999 TVNZ publicity shot (left). Jo and husband Ross, mid 1980s (right).

What is the most important thing your mother taught you?
Gratification – it’s now trendy to have a gratification diary, but I was always taught to count blessings and to find and comment on the good things in life.

My parents also taught me to be myself. They told all of us [children] that we were unique and beautiful and the answer to their prayers, and that we didn’t need to be ‘ordinary’ and ‘normal’ or look like everybody else. That is a powerful feeling and a really wonderful thing to give a child.

Finally, the women in my family all have quite nice skin and my granny bought me my first Elizabeth Arden cream when I was about 10 years old. Mum always said to me, “You have to look after your skin and your teeth,” and that once you have moisturised your face, use the rest on the back of your hands, because they show your age – I reckon mine aren’t too bad now!

What do you know at 60, that you didn’t when you were younger?
To see both sides of a situation – I know now you are not born a winner or a loser, but a chooser. I feel that quite strongly. And now I am quite proud that I can entertain another point of view without accepting it. You can agree to differ – that wisdom comes with age.

When I was younger I was a bit rip shit and bust with the joints – I broke arms and legs skiing and dislocated knees on the tennis court. We were the generation into jogging, violent jazzercise and trampolining; in hindsight I would have looked after those joints a bit more.

The couple circa 2005 after Ross received his volunteer fireman’s training
The couple circa 2005 after Ross received his volunteer fireman’s training

What are you most proud of?
That my kids have left the nest and gone well-armed into the world – they know how to earn a dollar and are nice people.

I’m proud of being a New Zealander – I am a sixth generation on my mother’s side and I am proud of the pioneers who went before and the strength of determination that has come through my lines.

And I’m proud of my career – for years as a nurse I worked on the British regional heart study and it’s now written about as the study of British men. I loved nursing; it was a great time of life – especially my work in obstetrics delivering babies. And now I’ve come full circle with my work with Hospice. I also loved being on television – they said “We will never have a food programme in prime time,” and then, hello, it was the highest rating show TVNZ had ever made!

Aged 21, at her nursing graduation at Auckland Hospital in 1976.
Aged 21, at her nursing graduation at Auckland Hospital in 1976.

What is your secret to success?
Total acceptance that it is actually perfectly okay to be yourself; I have never tried to be someone I’m not. I think I appeal as someone with arms wide open rather than someone way up there – I’m just a normal New Zealand girl and I like the fact that I am everyone’s cousin, aunt and godmother.

How have you changed since your 20s?
I don’t think I have changed a lot. No one has ever seen a false me – I am just really happy to be Jo Seagar. I love my husband, kids, grandkids and I have wonderful friends. I’m a little bit more ‘what will be, will be’ now... but that’s probably just a lack of oestrogen.

Words by: Nicola Russell
Photographs by: Jae Frew, Todd Eyre and courtesy Jo Seagar

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