Rise issue 12 cover

A rich life doesn't cost a fortune

Food is a universal equaliser. It doesn’t matter your heritage, income level or personal challenges – we all need to eat. Sophie Gray of destitute gourmet has built a thriving business based on this simple concept, with the twist that feeding your family should be affordable, convenient and nourishing.

destitute gourmet began when Sophie and her husband started a marketing business, they were determined not to let the cost of a start-up company bury them in debt, so they looked to the family budget to find where they could cut costs. First on the list: the cost of feeding a family of four.

“I found that I was turning to the grocery bill as a way to free up some money for other things in life,” she says. “We found that it was the easiest area to save money in an already-tightened budget. That’s when I started looking at the way we cooked, shopped and ate, to see where there was excess and where there was waste.”

What she came up with was a way of cooking that reflected ‘peasant culture’; namely, using a small proportion of a luxury ingredient and making it go a long way. She identified three critical parts of what makes peasant cooking work in the modern world: shop smart, eat healthily and in season, and make a little bit of something luxurious go a long way.

Accessible cooking for every family

While first she took on this new way of cooking as a way of tightening up the family budget, eventually her simple but powerful ideas began catching on. Soon she was asked to speak to community groups to share her idea of affordable gourmet eating. After being featured in New Zealand’s Next magazine’s Millennium Issue, Sophie’s family shifted their energy from the marketing venture to focus full-time on the success of destitute gourmet.

“It received over 3,000 letters,” Sophie says of the magazine article. “From there I was asked to do a cookery book which sold out in three months and has been reprinted many times; it was just reissued for its tenth anniversary. We now have eight books under our destitute gourmet brand, all espousing the same three principles.”

Part of what helped destitute gourmet become successful so quickly is that it was answering to the shift in family lifestyles through the generations. Today, the average family’s day is filled to capacity, and nutrition is coming back on the radar as an important part of every meal. destitute gourmet is working to replace the quick-fix high-fat culture with the home-cooked family meals of years ago; it met the needs of busy families who would otherwise resort to unhealthy and expensive takeaway meals.

Sophie grew up watching her mother baking Christmas cakes and making home preserves, but when she decided to go back to school, the torch was passed. Sophie noticed that around the same time, instant noodles and biscuits were becoming more prevalent on supermarket shelves.

“The kids who came after me never saw their mums making these things from scratch. The women were busy at work; they were tired and they were excited about all these new food products that were available. At that stage we didn’t know that they were going to deteriorate in their nutritional quality.

“So kids weren’t taught to cook. They no longer came home and were handed a potato peeler like we had been.”

Everyone doing their part

She feels that’s what is missing in many of today’s families: an expectation that everyone does their part in the kitchen. “It’s so important to share the responsibilities of meal preparation.

“Children can put a meal together if it’s taught and expected of them. If they’re taught how to make a meal on the weekend, and they have the ingredients they need, they can make that meal during the week when the parent is at work. I know a teenager who frequently cooks for his young brothers because his mum is a single parent and she’s at work.”

Finding time together as a family while earning enough to put food on the table can feel overwhelming, particularly to families with polar schedules. Again, Sophie stresses the importance of teaching children valuable home skills as a way to support the family unit. It also puts children more in touch with what it takes to nourish themselves and prepare themselves for a fuller life.

“It’s about using the time you have,” she says. “Running to the supermarket or running to the takeaways every day could be spent in the kitchen with the kids. We always suggest that people spend less time in the supermarket and more time in the kitchen.”

Coming up with a plan together and creating a meal plan can make cooking more accessible. Sophie finds that it only takes about four weeks before a routine is set and everyone gets into the idea. “There is so much value in all people in the household being involved in the cooking. We know that kids are more interested in eating food that they’ve prepared and parents are so grateful when they come home to meal cooked by their kids.”

Many New Zealanders have found this to be true for destitute gourmet to be as successful as it is. Sophie offers simple tips to becoming a kitchen whiz, even with a houseful of expectant kids and a formidable ‘To Do’ list. “Cooking is a practical skill – the more you do it, the better you get at it. Most of us operate on a fairly small repertoire of dishes, but if you make them often you get very good at it. The best time to try a new recipe is the weekend. That way you have a chance to follow it carefully and get really good at it. Once you’ve mastered it, it’s attainable.”

She’s found that being conscious of the family finances isn’t just affecting the pantry and the cheque book; it’s affecting how people feel in all areas of their lives. They’re freeing up money to put towards a mortgage, visits to the doctor, paying off credit card debt and buying new clothes for the school year. By keeping a careful eye on the budget, they may even find more freedom overall.

“I’ve had people jump up in classes like some kind of spiritual revival. They’re jumping to their feet and saying: ‘I came to a class you did two years ago and now I save $150 per week on my grocery bill!’” Sophie says with a laugh.

Sharing a meal together

The social implications of an at-home feast are just as important as bolstering the savings account. Sophie points out that all cultures use food as a means of celebration, comfort in hard times, such as mourning, and as a way of connecting with those around us. It doesn't matter how you got there, if you find yourself around the dinner table, you're part of something bigger than the meal in front of you.

"There's something hard-wired in us that connects us to the food we grew up with," she says. "It makes us feel very connected to our home and our family. By preparing food at home and eating it with your family, you strengthen those family ties.

"The people sitting around the table are clearly important to you. If you're sharing this meal with us, then you are whānau."

Part of that willingness to open your home and share a meal comes from a sense of pride in your household. Sophie believes weeding in the veggie garden and tracking the family finances is just as important a source of pride as any other. To get that message across, Sophie's family had to get comfortable with sharing all the gritty details of their own financial struggles in the past.

Recalling those difficult times with a wry smile, Sophie says, "[Our story] made it easier for other people to relate to their own struggles."

Sophie sharing her story

Sophie shares her relatable story with communities around the country to inspire people to take charge of their family's budget - and their lives. Groups such as the Jubilee Budget Advisory Service and Toolbox parenting groups have hosted her presentations to families interested in upping the health factor of their cooking and having more time to spend enjoying each other's company.

In everything she puts her name to, including the current Eat Wise and Exercise campaign, Sophie stresses that it's important to see family as a source of pride. Acknowledging and honouring what could be considered mundane - weeding the veggie garden, checking the budget - can help families pull together and support one another.