'I'VE FINALLY LEARNT THAT IT'S OK NOT TO BE BUSY ALL THE TIME' Our cover star, Sarah Graham
Celebrity chef and cookbook author, Sarah Graham, talks to Julia Bain about growing up on a game farm, her TV show, and the importance of balance
Sarah, 37, grew up on a game farm and reserve in Zimbabwe, with her parents and her two siblings. She moved to Cape Town to study marketing at the University of Cape Town, graduating in 2004. In 2010, Sarah came across the concept of food blogging and started her own blog, AFoodieLivesHere, and her blog content was later adapted into her first cookbook, Bitten ( Penguin Random House). She’s since released three other cookbooks and created her own cooking TV show, SarahGraham’sFoodSafari, with its fourth season scheduled for 2019. In 2017, she launched her own range of healthy snacks called Nourish Power Balls. She’s also collaborated with a number of brands like Miele and UCOOK, and she’s appeared at food festivals such as The Good Food & Wine Show and Appetite Fest. Sarah lives in Bryanston with her husband Rob, 36, and their three daughters, Sophie, seven, Isla, four, and Emily, eight months.
I feel privileged to have had such a great upbringing. Growing up on a game farm is something so special. My parents used to take tourists on safaris so we did a lot of off-the-beaten-track travelling within Zimbabwe. We had horses we used to ride as well as quad-bikes. On the reserve, we had lions and giraffe, and my parents still have four orphaned elephants that are reasonably tame. Rob and I take the girls there about two or three times a year so they can spend time in the bush, away from big city life.
My love of eating came before my love of cooking. On a farm, it’s a down-to- earth life that revolves around the next meal. Your veggies come from the back garden and the milk from next door. It teaches you to appreciate your food because you know exactly where it comes from. I only got into cooking when I was at UCT. On the farm, only simple ingredients were ever used in the food I ate, so going to Cape Town opened my eyes to so many more exciting options. Suddenly, I had access to a wide array of new ingredients and dishes. The restaurant industry in Cape Town really sparked my culinary creativity too, and I was inspired by the strong stance on seasonality and sustainability.
My blog started with a casual email from a friend in the US. While working with my husband to start our own travel company, a friend sent me a link to Smitten Kitchen, a popular New York City food blog. I started reading it at my desk, enjoying the combination of food and words: two things I love almost equally. There and then I decided to start my own blog – where I could self-publish my ideas, almost like an online journal. In the beginning, I didn’t care if my mom and my husband were the only ones who were reading my blog (albeit forcibly!). It was my creative outlet to write about and share recipes. I loved the process of crafting every post. I didn’t start A Foodie Lives Here with any ambitions but, in the back of my mind, an idea was sparked and I knew it could be something more.
So much is moving from printed page to screen, but I did the reverse. I sent a proposal to turn my blog into a cookbook to publishers Penguin Random House. After a three-month wait, they got back to me, saying they wanted the book finished in 12 weeks. At the time, I was pregnant with Sophie and was also working full time: three months to produce a cookbook is very tight, especially when you have to write and triple test over 100 recipes! It was incredibly hard work but I did it and loved the entire process.
My TV show, SarahGraham’sFood Safari, started out as a fun side project. Soon after my first book had gone to print, a friend of mine – who works in the TV industry – suggested we do a pilot for a cooking show. We got a tiny crew together to shoot it and sent it to Okuhle Media in Cape Town. They took us on and we filmed my first season, SarahGrahamCooks
In the beginning I didn’t even care that my mom and my husband were the only ones reading my blog
CapeTown, in 2013. Filming the first episode was incredibly intimidating: there were two cameras in my face and 13 crew members watching my every move. At first I thought I’m not cut out for this but I learnt how to tune out everything and just get on with it. Since then, we’ve shot two more seasons of FoodSafari and we’re now broadcast in over 42 different countries.
For the next season, we’re looking at shooting in Mauritius in early 2019.
It’s a very long process to get a TV show off the ground – everything from finding a channel and sponsors, to the logistics of weather and location need to be taken into account. Then there is the planning that goes into each episode, like the premise, researching local food, and collaborating with chefs on the ground. Plus, each episode is about 14 hours of raw footage, which then gets cut down to just 24 minutes...
We came downstairs one Saturday morning and found Sophie and Isla watching my TV show. They’re genuinely proud of what I do and want to know when we’re going on our next adventure. While at Appetite Fest, they came on stage with me and helped me hand out tasters – I’m so lucky that they can, in some way, be involved in my work life. I think it’s so important to let them see that I can work hard and follow my passions, and be Mommy, too.
Sophie’s just learnt to read and she wanted to make cupcakes from a recipe in a kids’ cookbook.
She wanted to do everything from scratch by herself. It was so special because it was the first time she was able to do that independently. The kids love being in the kitchen and I definitely try to encourage it.
Isla is my fussy eater. I’m often filming her at dinner time on my phone because it’s like her own TV show; she is very vocal about what she does and doesn’t like. Sophie will pretty much eat anything and our baby,
Emily, is proving to be a very good little eater (we’ll see if that lasts), but Isla gives us the most entertainment. Sometimes it’s a sensory issue, but we persevere and get there eventually – there’s just often a lot of drama that comes with it!
As a mom of girls, it’s so important for me to teach my kids healthy eating habits. I never want them to obsess with weight – I want them to see food as nourishment. They’re already aware of where we can make healthy swaps, like sending them to school with yoghurt flavoured with home-made berry jam instead of sugary snacks. It just takes a few simple swaps to start – everything else will follow.
We’re all so besotted with Emily. She’s the sweetest, happiest baby, and because she’s the third child, I’ve been calmer and more relaxed. Seeing how her big sisters are with her just melts my heart. I thought they would be slightly inconvenienced by her arrival but they’ve been the opposite; they adore her. They often say how they can’t wait for Emily to walk and play with them in the park.
Rob is such a good dad and he genuinely enjoys it; it’s not a chore for him. Our kids can wake him up at 3am and he’s far happier to see them than I am. It’s a blessing to be a co-parent with someone like that. He wanted to have more kids – after two, I was ready to stop but now I’m so glad we had Emily. Would I have another? No, we’re in a happy place now, we’re done!
Our marriage goes through different stages but we have a good balance. Rob and I have similar values and we both love the work we do. He’s also an entrepreneur, which offers incredible freedom on one hand and significant challenges on the other. The fact that we both enjoy our careers means we make an effort to support each other and build our kids in and around that. Rob sees everything as a big adventure and never holds me back from anything.
For our 10- year wedding anniversary, Rob and I took a trip to Italy. We both love food so we just had to go to the markets and do some cooking courses. We ate pasta every day, joined various tours of the historic sights, and went sightseeing on foot because it’s the best way to take in everything. Italy really is incredible; there’s nowhere else I would rather have gone to celebrate our anniversary – it was magical.
Rob is a phenomenal cook and he’s in the kitchen a couple times a month, often when we have people round. He makes a delicious, slow- cooked lamb curry – and a huge mess while he’s at it! He’s brilliant with combining flavours; I often get him to taste-test my dishes and I get very honest feedback, which is helpful.
I love how food can bring people together. We entertain a lot but we don’t even lay the table; we all just sit outside with a glass of wine and eat on our laps. Friends came over the other day and we made a rich lamb ragu and panna cotta for dessert. Italian food is some of the best for sharing, it’s real family food. When I have free time, I love to read. Reading is my favourite thing to do in the world, especially books set in the World War II era. I can’t go to sleep at night without reading at least a chapter. I also have a great book club; we eat, drink wine, swap books, and talk about literature.
I’m already getting emails from my publisher asking when I’m doing my next cookbook. I want to do something a bit different and have a few ideas swimming in my head. I’m a little hesitant to get started because, for me, a book is a six-month project, with hundreds of hours of work; I really have to dig deep. At the moment I have plenty to keep me busy: I do Women’s Wellness events, which I love, where I talk about healthy eating tips, tricks and meal hacks. I’m also focusing on my Nourish snack range, seeing where I want to take it and if I want to add more products.
It’s taken me a long time to learn that I don’t have to always be busy. A few years ago, my work-life balance was very different and wasn’t necessarily healthy. I’ve realised that balance is so important for both me and my family. Unfortunately, many moms are tied to their desk and can’t see their kids until 6pm. I’m lucky that I have the afternoons to spend with my girls. I’ve worked hard to create this balance, and because of my super support system, I’m able to take my foot off the gas. Many people think that their value is directly proportionate to how busy they are; if you’re not busy, you’re not adding value – and that’s rubbish.
It’s taken me ages to learn that I don’t have to be busy all the time