Maeve O'Meara: Every Meal is a Cause for Celebration
Whether on screen or in person, Maeve O’Meara has dedicated her career to connecting Australians with the flavours of the world.
Pictured (above): Maeve with chef Andrew McConnell
In my early 20s, I travelled through Tunisia where I spent time with a family in a small village,” Maeve O’Meara describes. “In a simple mud brick house, the women taught me how to cook couscous, and how to pound spices – it sparked something.”
It was this experience that Maeve credits with embedding a lifelong curiosity about food and its connection to culture and relationships.
Returning home to Sydney, Maeve embarked on a journalism cadetship, the beginnings of a successful 30-year career in food media. Work as a print journalist and on radio followed, as have many years as a television producer and presenter – Maeve co-created, presented and produced all five series of the acclaimed Food Lovers’ Guide to Australia for SBS Television.
The series introduced Australian TV viewers to local food producers for the very first time. It also took viewers into the home kitchens of unique Australians, celebrating cuisines brought to the country from elsewhere. Viewers were taken behind closed doors, invited into family homes to experience the food traditions and celebrations of multicultural Australia – Greek Easter, Lao New Year, Pi Mai, and a three-day ceremony at a Sikh temple, among others.
In 1998, she founded her food touring business, Gourmet Safaris, and was concurrently appearing weekly on commercial television as food presenter for the long-running series Better Homes and Gardens where she was in front of the camera for five years. She has also published 12 books along the way.
In 2006, Maeve premiered Food Safari, created and directed by her partner Toufic Charabati, now SBS’s longest running locally produced food show.
“The Food Safari series are journeys into the culinary worlds right on our doorstep,” she says. “The television series came out of my food tour business. I’d always have participants on those tours asking, ‘what ingredients should I buy, and what should I do with them?’”
The idea for her company, Gourmet Safaris, came when Maeve’s lower north shore mothers’ group asked her to take them on an adventure to a Lebanese restaurant in Punchbowl. “It occurred to me that people love exploring cuisines right here in Sydney,” she says. “But they like having their hands held, and they love being given an introduction.”
Celebrating its 21st birthday in 2020, Gourmet Safaris hosts a range of day tripping tours exploring Sydney and Melbourne’s most interesting culinary suburbs, as well as longer Australian food focused odysseys – Victoria’s King Valley, Tasmania (including a visit to chef Rodney Dunn’s Agrarian Kitchen), and Kangaroo Island. Overseas excursions are led by Maeve with accompanying chefs – Greek Islands with Peter Conistis (Alpha, Sydney) and Turkey with Somer Sivrioglu (Efendy and Anason, Sydney). Next year is Spain and Portugal’s turn, with Frank Camorra (MoVida, Melbourne) and Portuguese chef Fatima Barroso.
“It is a joyous thing to have created, and I can’t believe it’s been 21 years,” says Maeve. “One of the great joys of this business is the links with people so passionate about ‘their’ food. No matter the background or where they are from originally, it’s that passion that is the common ground for the relationships we’ve developed over the years.
“Great, great friendships with cooks so true to their food and their cuisines, it’s inspiring for me and for our guests. And of course, they’re great people to hang out with!”
Beyond our shores
Maeve tells stories of her overseas excursions, the popularity of her newest offering, Sardinia and Corsica, “We’re running two next year,” and the most popular tour with guests – the Greek Islands. I suggest that touring must mean very, very long days for her. “Joyous days!” Maeve corrects me. She is due to leave in the morning for the next Greek odyssey with chef Peter Conistis, with whom she’s been travelling to Greece for 20 years.
“Peter has been leading the trip with me from the beginning,” she says. “Every year we visit the market in the mountains near the island of Evia, and Peter hears the women say; ‘The Australians are back! The Australians are back!’”
“There is a longevity to this business; lifelong relationships forged in so many different parts of the world, which is something I am thankful for,” she says.
But, she adds, “Mass celebrations and festivals are things I avoid. I am after ‘money can’t buy’ experiences that go beyond the tourist boundaries. I want to introduce people to the third generation bougatsa maker in her kitchen.”
Pictured (above): Maeve joins Leilus Jerry Usuele and his family at their Samoan umu
Celebration occurs all day, every day on tour – on the island of Lemnos, groups are taken to lunch at a traditional taverna on the edge of the sea. “There is a sense of occasion and celebration just arriving at lunch,” says Maeve. “Live music is playing, the waitstaff carry huge trays above their heads, heavy with local lobster for each of us.”
Every activity and interaction with locals is a celebration of food and life and relationships, whether it’s a walking tour in Oakleigh, Melbourne, or a wander with Maeve and Somer Sivrioglu through the ancient bazaar of his hometown, Gaziantep, in south-eastern Anatolia, Turkey, the birthplace of Turkish baklava.
“There’s a moment on every safari when you put a local person who loves their culture and their food and wants to share it together with a guest who really wants to learn. In that meeting of interests, and that matching of two people from other ends of the earth, there is absolute sparkle,” says Maeve.
“They are the great moments, the ultimate ‘feel good’ experience for me,” she continues. “And they are moments of celebration because food is more than food in that moment – it’s a tool for connecting people. I’m just a bridge for people into other worlds, and that, to me, is gold.”
Images and recipes from Earth, Fire, Water: Food Safari by Maeve O’Meara, Hardie Grant, $60.