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Barefoot beginnings

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Barefoot beginnings

Elli Beer talks about her love of food, family and the celebrity chef in her life who’s only ever been “mum”.
words heidi helbig
PHOTOGRAPHY pete thornton
>> >> Elli Beer, owner of The Farm Eatery

It’s pre-service on a Friday morning at The Farm Eatery and Elli Beer is on the floor, doing what she does best.

In the expansive, light-filled dining room, she’s making final touches to the seating plan and  seasonal menu – all part of the seamless customer experience at one of the Barossa’s foremost restaurants.

Elli makes her presence felt not only by what she does, but how she does it.

She radiates energy, practicality and an agile business mind that can troubleshoot a potential problem before it becomes one.

“I’m my father’s daughter in that perspective,” smiles Elli. “Dad and I have always held the pieces together, the practical ones driving things forward and keeping the creative energy under control.”

She’s referring of course to Maggie Beer – celebrity chef, author and food entrepreneur, who was always just “mum” to her and sister, Saskia.

“We didn’t grow up with mum being famous; I still find it quite surreal,” says Elli. “We had mum, not Maggie Beer.

“The biggest advantage of being mum’s daughter is what she taught me about life and joy and hard work, both her and dad.

“She always used to say the greatest gift Nanna ever gave her was a sense of joy, and that has been her gift to me too.” 

It’s clearly been a hard year to find the joy in life with Saskia’s unexpected but peaceful passing in February.

“This year has really cemented lots of things; between Saskia and Covid, great perspective has been granted to all of us, and by that I mean the whole world, and certainly us,” Elli says.

“I don’t mean every day is good; there have been bad days, a lot of bad days. But joy is always there.”

That engrained resilience is as much a part of Elli’s DNA as the Beer family food story that started over 40 years ago with the Pheasant Farm restaurant at Nuriootpa, which was also her childhood home.

Washing dishes at the age of eight and working the restaurant floor by nine, Elli’s early years were equal parts hard work and chaos.

“That’s how I ended up on the floor and Sassie cooking. As kids the only way to get food was to run through the kitchen, and the only way to stay in the kitchen was to wear shoes.

“I’m not good at sitting still and hate shoes, so I’d bolt through barefoot, grab something as I went and disappear,” she says.

“For someone ‘born in a restaurant,’ there’s so much I can’t do – but I’m very, very good at eating!”

 

By contrast Saskia absorbed her mum’s ‘paddock to plate’ food philosophy.

“Sassie would be in the kitchen and learn everything by osmosis; she was stunned by how little I managed to pick up about cooking,” laughs Elli.

She doesn’t deny there were sacrifices, or wished at times “perhaps things might have been a bit different.”

But she is equally grateful for the values she learned in the years before the restaurant closed on her 18th birthday – life lessons she has instilled in her own three children.

“Yes it was frenetic, but I didn’t know any different,” Elli says.

“Our childhood was hard work, good fun, a little bit of chaos and just watching it all unfold.”

As Maggie and Colin went on to forge international success with Maggie Beer Products and Maggie’s Farm Shop, so too Saskia and Elli carved their own niche in 
food and hospitality.

Elli says her career was “always, always a choice”, adding she didn’t seek to distinguish herself from her mum: “I never tried; I didn’t feel I needed to”.

“You only do something well when you love doing it, and people only believe you if you’re talking about something you know and love.”

- elli beer

In 2017 Elli launched The Farm Eatery with a casual seasonal menu and a hospitality A-team led by head chef, Tim Bourke, previously from luxury Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island.

“The first day we opened we thought if we serve 30 or 40 people that will be great.

“We did 108 without a computer system and the guy that was here to do it started polishing glasses,” Elli laughs.

“It didn’t stop until Covid.”

Like Maggie, Elli has no formal training in either food or hospitality, but more than compensates with nous and natural intellect.

“The only training I’ve ever done is horse riding and athletics,” she laughs. “But I have watched, I have learned and I’m never afraid to ask a question, and never assume I know the answer.

“Mum always said the day you stop learning is the day you set yourself up to fail.

“I also recognise a good idea, whether it’s mine or not. I don’t let ego get in the way of those things.”

>> Elli pictured with head chef Tim Bourke

Her latest “good idea” is The Farm Experience Centre, a gastronomy centre featuring a chef-led cooking school.

Officially launched in August, it offers 15 classes ranging from Pheasant Farm classics to seafood, vegan, game, butchery, pickles and preserves and even a dedicated class for junior chefs.

Elli is humble but proud of what she’s created.

“We make ourselves happy in making other people happy. What we do here is ours, and we love sharing it. They call it hospitality for a reason,” she says.

“You only do something well when you love doing it, and people only believe you if you’re talking about something you know and love.”

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