60 years of cooking - and still loving it

Plated: A lifetime love affair with food by Tina Duncan is out now. Photos: Supplied
Plated: A lifetime love affair with food by Tina Duncan is out now. Photos: Supplied
When she was 7-years-old, Tina Duncan could turn out a perfect batch of scones. By the age of 10, she was confident enough in the kitchen to turn out a full roast dinner.

Now, after a lifetime of cooking for others, Duncan still loves it. That’s just as well since she says people are often afraid to cook for her.

“Everybody wants you when they know you love food," she told RNZ's Kathryn Ryan.

"They want you to do the food. They want you to look after them, they want you to cook for them. It's just my love language, really.”

Tina Duncan is a self-taught cook, caterer, cooking school tutor and now author of a new book Plated: A lifetime love affair with food.

With thousands of recipes to choose from, she wanted Plated to reflect not only her catering experiences but also her culinary upbringing on the family farm in Canterbury.

“There’s things there from my grandmother, my grandmother’s brawn recipe because I adore brawn… it’s got my mother's shortbread, it's got cinnamon oysters that my mother always made, there’s lots of lovely things from my childhood as well as things moving in through my years.

“My mother was an extraordinary cook, and you know, you grow up in a family and you don't know how wonderful your mother was until you go to other places and realise that not everybody was eating what you were eating at home.

“We ate beautiful meats. We had the most extraordinary vegetable garden that my father grew and [my mother] was really happy to teach me. I just found my place in the kitchen with her, and she was wonderful.”

When she left school Duncan became a dental nurse but left that career to travel overseas.

“What you did when you were doing your OE, the easiest thing to do was to slot into a restaurant somewhere. That's what I did when I got to London, I went with my sister and I worked in a restaurant, and then I just carried on with that pattern.

“When I came home, we bought a service station in the North Island. I was always having dinner parties. And then eventually when we moved south, I worked in a cafe because we were farming, and farmers weren't making money in those days. So I worked in a local cafe and did catering, and then I kind of got sucked into a catering company in Christchurch and in the end I bought it.”

Over the years, Duncan and her White Tie Catering team – which has included her four daughters – have provided food for thousands and thousands of events.

“One night we did a huge dinner in Christchurch, in Hagley Park and there were 11 cabinet ministers there and the Prime Minister and I remember the head chef turning to me and saying, ‘Tina, we could bring the country to its knees tonight!’”

Duncan struggles to recall a total catering disaster, but in the book she does share the story of a wedding cake that nearly wasn’t.

“It was a big deal, this wedding cake, because I had three meetings about it, and it was supposed to be me making it. There was a red carpet down the middle of the Great Hall in Christchurch with the cake at the end. And I hadn't made it. At 10 o'clock in the morning, I realised that it had to be in place at 2pm.”

Duncan rushed off to buy some cakes and then got busy icing them. In the rush, she put the wrong size cake on the bottom.

“I got the 10-inch cake, and then I put a 12-inch cake tin over the top of it and iced the tin, then carried on layering up the cake. I said to the supervisor that day, ‘you make sure when the bride and groom cut the cake, they cut into the middle, not into the tin!’. But I did it, I pulled it off.”

When it comes to cooking at home – especially for others – Duncan says many people put too much pressure on themselves.

“I think very often they try and try too hard. I want to be having fun when I have people for dinner, I do not want to be slaving in the kitchen.”

Her secret weapon for a dinner party is doing things in advance.

“I like to be completely prepared. If you're coming to my place for dinner, by midday I'm done. I probably got a dessert in the freezer for starters because it's probably done a week prior.

“I always blanch my greens in advance, so if you're coming for dinner, in the morning I might do the asparagus or the brussels sprouts or whatever my greens are, are always blanched in very, very, very salty water for a couple of minutes until they’re tender, then put them into ice cold water to set the chlorophyll so they’re lovely and green. Then at nighttime, there's two ways: you can either plunge them back into boiling water very quickly, or you can pop them on an oven tray, drizzle olive oil over them and into a hot oven.”

The secret to perfectly cooked meat, she says, is using a meat thermometer and taking the meat out of the oven before it reaches the desired temperature.

“For example, a fillet of beef, I would take out at about 48 degrees C if I was wanting it medium rare, and then I cover it in tin foil and tea towels and just leave it quietly for half an hour. And by the time it comes to 50-54 degrees C, it's perfect.

“I'm so used to cooking 250 steaks for somebody. If we're doing a wedding in a paddock on a Saturday, on Friday I've partially cooked all the meat and it's chilled, and then I'm taking it and then just reheating it. You can sear off your steaks and then have them in the chiller, then take them out and then bring them up to room temperature into a really hot oven and just bring it up to eating point.”

Over her long career in food, Duncan has experienced plenty of trends and changes. She credits the celebrated chef Peter Gordon with opening New Zealanders’ eyes to new spices and flavours.

“Growing up, I’d never eaten chilli in my life. I went to London and the first thing that my flatmate made was a chilli omelette, I'll never forget that.”

Duncan’s daughters have all worked in her catering business – “we had instant staff!” – and followed in her culinary footsteps, which brings her great joy.

“I cry about that often. Sitting around the table with them, that is just one of the highlights for me.

“I don't think I was a particularly good teacher, which sounds ridiculous because I run a cooking school, but not with the children. I think it was quicker for me to do it myself because I was really busy. But they're all very good cooks and they say they've learned by osmosis. I gave them all a Stephanie Alexander Cooks’ Companion.”

  • Plated: A lifetime love affair with food by Tina Duncan (Camberdown Press), is out now.