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It’s all in the recipe

Sally Cameron has more than 2000 cookbooks in her She Shed. The Otago University-educated food scientist has worked all over the world and been home in Tairawhiti for nine years. Sally, 49, talks to Sophie Rishworth . . .

One day Sally Cameron was reading a book about New Zealand chef and cookbook writer Annabel Langbein.

“I thought ‘she’s pretty cool, I like what she does’.”

Sally, in her early 20s, wrote her a letter (it was the ’90s). Annabel suggested they meet for a coffee since they both lived in Auckland.

Sally ended up working for Annabel for six years. She helped run the cooking school, put cookbooks together and worked with large NZ food companies to promote their products.

From that connection, Sally made another one — with Clare Ferguson (the sister of revered NZ cook Alison Holst).

Clare lived in London and was a big name in the food styling industry overseas.

“Clare said to me, ‘If you ever get to London, I’ll get you a job’.”

Sally booked a ticket the next day and became Clare’s assistant.

“I got to do some fabulous jobs and worked around UK and Europe.”

Based in London, Sally worked behind the scenes on TV shows, and met chefs like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay,

In between she travelled, expanded into food writing and worked for big supermarket brands Asda and Tesco.

In 2000 she returned home to New Zealand, where her first job was helping on the re-do of the Edmonds Cookbook range.

She loves that she has come full circle and returned home to Tairawhiti.

“I’ve had lots of cool people who taught me how to cook here so it’s nice to bring my skills back.”

At 16 Sally got a job at the Marina Restaurant.

“I could always cook. I was one of those kids who loved to cook.”

Science and maths were also strengths.

She graduated from Otago University with a food science and food marketing degree, as well as a design degree.

Sally grew up in Kaiti, went to Te Wharau School and was in the class of 1989 at Lytton High School.

As a freelancer, Sally’s business is called Smartmouth Consultancy.

It’s a play on her initials SMC, and came to her during a 20-hour train ride across India.

That same business is now conducted from her backyard in Russell Street, where quite a large She Shed sits.

It houses her photography gear, styling plates and props, plus the 2000 cookbooks (and just as many magazines) which line one entire wall.

Sally is a food writer, food stylist, and photographer whose work shows up in a lot of websites, magazines and supermarket shelves across New Zealand.

She tests recipes, and works with producers to present and market their products.

Sally has contracts with local companies Corsons, Twisted Citrus, Ngati Porou Seafoods and nationally for Regal Salmon, Sanitarium, Silver Fern Farms and Moana Seafoods.

A lot of people don’t realise the value of a recipe, she says.

“It can bring a consumer to you very quickly.

“Food triggers all sorts of memories. Recipes are long-lasting — everyone remembers one, or the recipe their grandmother made.

“Look where Marmite went, tomato sauce started as a recipe, so did marmalade in a jar.

“You can sell a whole magazine from one recipe.”

Sally’s food science degree taught her about the importance of a recipe.

“It’s a bit like concrete. If you don’t put enough of something in, it won’t set.

“As a food scientist you learn how to do that. One of my biggest skills is recipe development.”

'Tairawhiti is ahead of the game'

She believes learning how to cook, and having respect for food, is “Human Life 101”, up there with brushing your teeth.

Sally is a creative problem solver, whose aptitude for a recipe goes beyond the measure of each ingredient. She can advise how to take a product to market.

After 30 years experience there’s a fair bit of intuition at play now.

“We in Tairawhiti sometimes think we are the poor cousin to Hawke’s Bay. We don’t realise how much good quality food we’ve got and how well we do things.

“Tairawhiti is ahead of the game.

“What I am liking at the moment is the emerging new producers, bringing new and inspiring products to market.

“We have fantastic farmers and growers, producing great natural products sold at the weekly Farmers Market.

“You can still buy lettuce for $1 and spray- free avocados.”

And how many people realise snackfoods Twisties, Dorritos, Grain Waves and cornflakes are made from corn produced here by Corsons, she asks.

“We say we can’t get export quality meat but we’re feeding the world from here.

“If we isolated ourselves we’d be fine.

“We could even make our own packaging and biofuel too. We’d have enough for everyone and could drink plenty of wine and we make our own beer.”

“There’s nothing we’d want for.”

Sally and her partner Craig moved home with their two children Maxwell, 14, and Jacqueline, 13, in mid-2012.

It rained for three months. But Sally couldn’t shake the excitement and happiness of being home.

“It’s always been about lifestyle for me and Craig.”

It was the best decision they ever made, she said.

“Gisborne’s just taken off.”

She has plans for her consultancy business.

“My goal is to create a business that employs people in a food hub for all. If you do have an idea about something you want to put in a jar or a packet, and you’re asking, ‘how do I get that to market?’ Then that’s me.

“It can be a scary process — with so many questions, where do you put your resources? How do you test something?”

“Anything NZ-made is huge right now, NZ sourced products and ingredients.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also taught everyone about supply chains and how they can make or break your company.

“In Tairawhiti there is less distance from grower to market. We should capitalise on this.”

For years, Sally has been the person behind the recipe, or the inspiring photo of a finished meal.

“Someone has got to give you that inspiration, aspiration, and someone has got to think about that finished product, so that when you do go and buy all the ingredients and do it yourself you might have some success.”

There have been plenty of tests, trials and “massive failures” along the way.

So much goes into making each item of food.

“If you’re happy and laughing in the kitchen, the food will show the aroha.

“If you’re grumpy it comes out in the taste.”

Sally wants to bring it back to basics.

“Teaching children to cook is huge. Introduce children from three or four years old to the kitchen, to contribute to a meal.

“Age appropriate, I am not saying give them a knife, but they could wash the potatoes.

“If every kid knows how to peel a potato and poach an egg, they’ll always have a meal. Teach them the basics. If you can teach a kid where the food comes from there’s more respect.

Sally says she is lucky because Craig and the children like to cook.

“He’s brilliant, and we’re quite simple eaters.”

She believes in guardianship, and giving back.

“If we all care a little bit more it will start a nice cycle.

“If we all care about what’s going in the packet, and what the packet is made of, we all win. Sustainability has become integral.”

Food waste bugs Sally.

“We spend so much money every week on food that gets thrown out.

“Everyone puts a lot of effort into growing this food. These are local people — we need to respect our kai more.

“I was holding a kumara in my hand the other day. It takes eight months to grow — that’s a lot of energy. Don’t peel half and then throw the other half away.

“I applaud places like Gizzy Kai Rescue bringing food back to life. There is always a bit of room to move with expiry dates.”

HAPPY BEING HOME: When Sally Cameron makes a poached egg it has to be perfect -- water swirling, and cooked for two minutes and 40 seconds. “It’s science.”It’s the same science Sally brings to her work as a food writer, recipe-creator, food stylist and photographer. Picture by Rebecca Grunwell