Celebrating 90 years: happy birthday Margaret Fulton

Jane Willson
02 October, 2014

On the eve of her 90th birthday, food world trailblazer Margaret Fulton reflects on a few cooking fundamentals, the art of a calm kitchen, and her life of good fortune.

Margaret Fulton is on the phone from her Balmain home talking through some of the essential qualities of the competent cook: master eggs; perfect a lump-free béchamel sauce; understand your oven; respect meat; learn to read a recipe; plan.

A milestone birthday is approaching – “Let me see, I was born 6/10/24” – but the instruction is sharp, her voice firm and knowing. It’s not hard to imagine that in person she remains a force in the kitchen, even if she is now, reluctantly, more prone to observations from the sidelines.

Margaret cooking up a storm in the 80s

There are, of course, so many lessons to be learnt from the woman who is widely acknowledged as the first pioneer of contemporary Australian cooking; someone who showed us that we need not be constrained by geography, or the meat-and-three-veg mindset of the past. Sydney chef Kylie Kwong puts it well: “Margaret liberated and empowered all of the women in Australia!”

Tips on the perfect white sauce aside, what resonates perhaps most of all is Margaret’s recollections of her mother, her greatest early influence. Isabella Fulton aspired to the best meals for her six children and was equally determined to cook with quality produce.

“It was always very calm and very jolly,” Margaret recalls of her mother’s kitchen in country NSW. “It all goes together. If you are calm you can be jolly and if you have done a little bit of thinking about it you are going to be fine.”

Margaret’s daughter Suzanne Gibbs says this is how she remembers Margaret, too: “Always calm and matter of fact. That is a good way of being and very important in the kitchen. I’m the same: never get panicky about it.”

Dinner parties were Margaret’s thing back in the day. “It used to start with eight, then it would go up to 10, and because I could fit 12 around my table, I’d end up with 12. “I did it so regularly, loved having dinner parties. I don’t any more, let me tell you. I think we’ve got over that, the trying to be ladies.”

Suzanne, a Le Cordon Bleu graduate and writer herself (Margaret says “Suzanne’s food is always perfect”), remembers these “marvellous dinner parties”. “The gourmet set would come. And I would be the washer upper. I learnt from an early age about doing that.”

Margaret and Suzanne sharing time in the kitchen

Suzanne says she was an only child and Margaret was a single mum, “so we were very close”. “Our activities were aligned, whatever she was doing, I wanted to be doing. If she was in the kitchen, I was there, and she had the patience to show me.”

This was the 1960s, and “it was simple food, not glamorous”. “But what we did was done very well. All Australian homes had lamb chops, but mum knew to trim the fat very well and to curl the tails and to have the grill nice and hot”.

Suzanne and Margaret

Suzanne recalls brains in black butter sauce for her 13th birthday (“she said when I was 13 she’d cook anything I wanted!”) and their ritual Saturday trips to Paddy’s Markets. “We’d buy up big and we’d carry our bags back and make a big lunch, like a bunch of globe artichokes – it was a wonderful heritage for me”.

Today Suzanne lives a few doors from Margaret, and Suzanne’s two daughters, Kate Gibbs and Louise Fulton Keats – also both food writers – are in the same suburb. “The extended family can work well,” says Margaret. “It can also be a nuisance. I knew that working well with my mob meant in another house. Close by.”

Margaret with her family, from left to right: daughter Suzanne, great-grandson Harry and granddaughters Louise and Kate

Louise says Margaret’s place was home away from home when she was growing up. “She had beagles and so she had a dog door. Kate and I just used to let ourselves through the dog door into her kitchen and plonk ourselves down at the table.

“We’d invariably find her cooking something magical. And we’d join in stirring the custard or shelling the peas or whatever she was up to.”

Margaret says she considers herself the luckiest person. “After the Second World War, distant countries were trying to attract tourists. I started at Woman’s Day [as food editor in the early 1960s] and later when I worked at New Idea, Dulcie Boling was the editor. She didn’t like freebies. So she gave me an extra, I think it was $15,000, to go wherever I wanted.

Margaret and editor of New Idea, Dulcie Boling 

“They’d invite me to Scandinavia, Spain, so many places. They would let me travel first class and it was so lovely because when I went to all of these places, I would meet the leading cooks – both chefs and home cooks – and they all gave me recipes.”

Margaret’s first book, The Margaret Fulton Cookbook, was a game changer when it was published by Paul Hamlyn in 1968. She says she had no sense of the influence it would have. She does remember Paul reducing the price of the book. “He said, ‘Margaret, I want to sell a lot of books at a cheaper price’.

“Don’t forget, I had no competition. Going in to cooking was the worst thing in the world to do. People would say, ‘Oh, she’s a cookery writer’, and they’d say that with a sniff.”

Her 900-odd page Encylopaedia of Food and Cookery followed in 1983, the most comprehensive local guide to cooking Australians had then seen, and a precursor to Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion, its contemporary in the canon of food classics.

Today the number of books she has authored exceeds 25, from baking to Christmas specials to a 30th anniversary edition of the encylopaedia that remains dog-eared and revered in so many homes. 

Margaret with My Very Special Cookbook, published in 1980

Assuming the weather complies, Margaret will toast her 90 years with magnums of Pol Roger and food by Biota Dining Room’s James Viles at a small celebration at her home of four decades on Monday.

Does she plan to get involved in the kitchen? “I’m not doing anything. I’m actually quite happy – I have the most marvellous view, facing the Sydney Harbour Bridge and right up the river. It’s just spectacular. I’ll be happy sitting looking.” 

Margaret Fulton on …

White sauce: Once you can cook an ordinary what housewives call white sauce –but the French call a béchamel sauce – you are on the way to doing a lot of things. It must be smooth and velvety and no lumps.

A good roast: When you are cooking meat, you want to understand your oven and get the right temperature. It also helps very much to have a proper dish. It’s important to have the meat a bit elevated so then the dripping can go on to the vegetables and the heat can circulate around the meat. It’s the right thing to do.

Resting meat:  This is so important. I think it’s necessary to have some foil. Put the meat on a fresh plate, and cover it, but don’t clamp it, make it loose, like a tent.

Eggs: I think you’ve really got to spend some time with eggs; they can be very very tricky and you’ve got to be at ease with them. That said, I know that my mother taught me how to boil an egg, but not be fussed if [the result] was not what I set out [to achieve].

Beating egg whites:  Always check your bowls and beaters; even the slightest bit of water in your bowl will stop the egg white from getting to the lovely fluffy stage. The best thing to beat egg whites in is copper bowls, but they’re now too expensive and people don’t really do that.

Copper pots: They are just perfect for cooking. I still have the pots I bought in Paris – when I was having big dinner parties, I knew could trust them. The food doesn’t burn and you can cook for quite a long time with the heat turned low.

Pastry: This is a different skill altogether and very tricky. I have a nice marble rolling pin and a marble slab I prepare it on to keep it cold. It’s one thing you’ve absolutely got to have a good recipe, and not mess around – follow it. I was doing something with MasterChef and there was one fellow who was terribly smart and knew everything and he was always telling everyone else what was wrong with their food. He made some little lemon tarts. I said, ‘Look, you need a lesson in pastry making’. He was livid. He’d never had a woman talk to him like that. The pastry wasn’t nice.

Entertaining: I think don’t get too hung up on it. It is quite a tricky thing if you want to be perfect. Relax more; your friends can chat together, if you have nice people around you they don’t have to be fed every minute of their life.

Piroshki: I make these little yeast savoury breads with some speck and onion. They go in the freezer and when people come, I can just pull them out, brush them with a little beaten egg and they just go in the oven. I might spend a couple of days making them and then I know I’ve got them for a couple of months.

Tribute to a trailblazer: the industry’s best say happy birthday 

Dear Margaret,

Wishing you a wonderful 90th birthday!

It has an been an honour to know you over the years.  You have always been an inspiring influence for me. 

Thank you for all your encouragement and kind words of advice.

I hope to catch up with you soon.



– Tetsuya Wakuda

Margaret, long before your time, you really changed the way a nation cooked and ate. You helped this wonderful country culturally grow and blossom and you did it in the single most tactile way anyone could, through the way we cook and eat. My mother was a big influence on my cooking and in true modern Australian style her “go to” references were The Golden Wattle Cook Book,  The Italian Cook Book and of course, Margaret Fulton. Wishing you the most joyous 90th birthday, Nino and family

– Nino Zoccali, chef and restaurateur La Rosa and Pendolino


Dear Margaret,

Wishing you a very happy 90th birthday! You’re the doyenne of Australian cooking and an incredible inspiration to all of us.

Congratulations on all that you’ve achieved and I wish you a wonderful day filled with memories, happiness and good food!

Matt x

– Matt Moran, Aria

Happy birthday Margaret,

42 years ago David thought I should try to learn English through an interest, he gave me a Margaret Fulton, today I still use that book along with all the others and forever I will be grateful to you for that first encouragement.

Love Janni

– Janni Kyritsis, chef


Dear Margaret, what a special day, and a special celebration of many wonderful years of delighting us all with your recipes and skill ... Happy birthday!

Warmest wishes, Belinda.

– Belinda Jeffery, author

As a young headstrong chef with Michelin stars in his eyes I would have looked at Margret as just a cook, now older and wiser I realise Margret is what cooking is all about. Happy 90th birthday Margret!

– Gary Mehigan, MasterChef judge, restaurateur

The Margaret Fulton Cookbook was my first ever cookbook, given to me by my mother. Nearly 40 years on, it still sits on my favourites shelf and is thumbed regularly not only by me, but by my three children.

Happy birthday Margret, you have inspired three generations of my family, and am sure there will be more to come.

– Mike McEnearney, Kitchen by Mike


Great to meet such an Ozy legend and inspiration to chefs and home cooks – a lesson to cooking w pride and love,

Happy 21st xx

– Colin Fassnidge, Four in Hand

For those of us who grew up in middle class, white, Anglo-Saxon Australia, where there were 50 shades of grey in our food, Margaret Fulton turned on the lights – she has made sense of our culinary heritage and provided stewardship with buckets of enthusiasm and helped set the country on a rollicking delicious journey – Happy birthday to THE Australian food icon.

– John Susman, Fishtales


Margaret's boeuf bourguignon was my first dinner party dish and we all thought it was so chic!

Happy birthday Margaret!  Love, Damien

– Damien Pignolet, chef and restaurateur

For me, Margaret is the symbol of humble, true, fun and tasty cooking. And a great inspiration for me to keep true to myself and do what I’m good at – don't try to be somebody else.

The real greatness of cooking is not reflected of how many restaurants or starts you have, is reflected in the love that people have for you because you make them happy with your food.

And Margaret you have been doing that for a long time and that's why everybody loves you.

Feliz cumpleaños !!!

Love, Miguel

– Miguel Maestre, celebrity chef


Growing up, The Margaret Fulton Cookbook was the glamorous food cooking bible in our house. In fact it introduced me to vanilla sugar and years later I am reminded of making your creme caramel recipe as a 12 year old every time I inhale home-infused vanilla sugar. Your years of influence have helped create many happy memories.

Best wishes for a milestone birthday.

– Phillippa Grogan, Phillippa’s bakery


Dear Margaret,

When I was 14 I went to Greece as part of a school scholarship, it meant I would be away from my family for Christmas. My wonderful mother had packed my bags and underneath the clothing you could see some Christmas paper wrapping. I lugged my suitcase with my Christmas present around Greece and finally the day came when I could open it – It was  your cookbook!

I still have it today – I love the memories the book holds for me – my puberty blues cookbook.

Thank you doing what you did for women, families and Australian kitchen tables.

– Leigh Cholakos, Bei Amici



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