Abigail Donnelly: what I know now

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In the 12 years that Abigail has served as TASTE’s food editor, she has created, tested and styled over 2 000 unique recipes. She’s also won awards, mentored a generation, and eaten more than her fair share of raspberry jelly

When I was growing up in Zimbabwe I wanted to be an air-hostess. It was the eighties, and it seemed so glamorous.

My gran was English and an amazing classical cook. She would cook offal, rich rice puddings, bread-and-butter puddings, and dripping on toast. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents in the school holidays. I still remember shelling peas with her by the pool.

Beef mince tagliatelle bolognese

The first thing I cooked was spaghetti Bolognese. And when my younger brother had sleepovers, I would set the breakfast table before I went to bed. I think I’ve always loved beautiful things.

When I left school, there was no money for me to study, so I became an insurance broker. I met my husband, Terry, when I was 20, when he was doing his national service in Springs. We met in a club called Heaven in Hillbrow. I followed him to Cape Town.

My first job in the Woolworths building was on the sixth floor, doing insurance claims. All I wanted to do was to be one of the people wearing hair nets, preparing food in the canteen downstairs. Terry told me to quit, and for the first time, I had space to explore. I did a correspondence course in hospitality, and waitressed at a hotel at the same time.

I won a newspaper bread-making competition with my tomato-and-green peppercorn loaf. The manager where I was waitressing saw the article in the Argus, and he moved me into the kitchen. One day, the chef had a tantrum and the owner fired him. We had a wedding on the next day, and I remember doing orange segments and black olives with a fennel curl as starters. The owner thought it was amazing!

I ran a coffee shop called The Tea Pot in Long Street. We never made money, but we made beautiful things. Fairlady’s beauty editor used to come in to order food and after a big shake up at the magazine, I got the food editor job there.

I always wanted to work at TASTE. But when they were looking for a food editor Phillippa Cheifitz got the job. I was devastated. But then I was offered the position of Eat Out editor. I was terrified. I was there a month before I found out I was pregnant with my second child; then Terry was retrenched. It was a very difficult time. I was soon offered the TASTE food editor position, as well as the Eat Out job.

Curry marinated chicken and brinjal kebabs recipe

My waters broke on a TASTE brinjal shoot. We were in the Bo-Kaap with photographer Neil Corder. But everything worked out okay: Matthew is 11 and I still love brinjals!

Working with Woolies is an absolute luxury; we really are lucky. We have so much freedom on an editorial level. We have a small team, and their support is amazing.

When I was younger, Vogue Entertaining and Donna Hay magazines were my inspiration. Now it’s young people. Chefs inspire me, too. I remember when Margot Janse (chef of the former Tasting Room) made a beautiful piece of fish with a granadilla reduction. It was a complicated dish, but I was so inspired by the flavour that I developed a recipe for fresh granadilla dressing on a piece of hake.

We go to great lengths to get the best picture. There’s a lot of pressure to get it right. The worst was an infamous braai shoot. My editor had said to me that only Maranda Engelbrecht could shoot a braai, but I was convinced I could do better. I live in a little wooden cottage by the sea in Glencairn and we shot in my garden. I kept saying to the photographer, “I don’t want dead coals, I want the food to be bubbling.” I was bringing out a tray of prawns from the kitchen and as I walked outside, I saw flames licking the side of my cottage! We never found those prawns! I threw them and myself onto the fire. To get more flames, my assistant had thrown the whole bottle of paraffin into the fire and the flames had engulfed his arm and started to burn the house. I put it out with my body. It was crazy to think how ridiculously stupid we were. But that’s what you do to get the pictures.

Curry is my favourite food. I love going to the Britannia Hotel in Durban to have tripe and trotters, or bean curry.

I’ve always been known as the messy stylist, but it’s in a considered, contained way. It makes an emotional connection with the reader: if a cake is crumbly and the icing is smudged, they know they can do it, too. You’ve got to be brave to be messy.

We always have raspberry jelly in the fridge at home. And homemade miso mayo, Parmesan, lemons, sparkling water, and a lot of Asian ingredients. Anchovies are my salt.

Next, there are two cookbooks in the pipeline – a collaboration and my own. I now split my time between TASTE and Woolworths – I love it and it’s a challenge. It makes me to do better work and push boundaries. You need to challenge yourself and be scared again. I’ve been scared for the past six months!

Browse all of Abi’s recipes here.

TASTE Article by: TASTE

The TASTE team is a happy bunch of keen cooks and writers, always on the look out for the next food trend or the next piece of cake.

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