SBS TV presenter, journalist and author Maeve O'Meara has a foothold in a lot of different cultures. The founder of food-tour company Gourmet Safaris has spent the past two decades collecting culinary treasures and stories from all around the globe. This year actually marks the 20th anniversary of Gourmet Safaris, which inspired her Food Safari series on SBS, and O'Meara is as enthusiastic as ever when it comes to pulling these colourful threads together into a beautifully woven mesh.
After training as a journalist and working at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sun-Herald, ABC and Channel Nine, O'Meara joined SBS in 1990. Entering the multicultural and multilingual broadcaster was a revelation.
"I grew up in the white-bread suburbs and always dreamed about a more exotic food world than the plain meat and three veg I grew up with," says O'Meara, who has hosted the long-running TV show, Food Safari, for nine consecutive seasons.
"When I joined SBS, it was like finding my people – food-loving, multicultural and adventurous. Everyone would talk about where they'd been the night before or what their mum had cooked. I'd travelled and treasured my culinary experiences, but to find them on my doorstep was gold," she says.
O'Meara describes running Gourmet Safaris as being as full-on as "having another child". And, while the format of the hugely popular food tours hasn't changed at lot in the past two decades, O'Meara says she continues to find new inspiration and additions to the itineraries, which are designed to celebrate Australia's colourful mix of migrants.
"I have three children and Gourmet Safaris has been like being part of a mad wonderful family … Each one-day safari opens the doors to at least seven or eight family businesses and, when we travel, we go back to the same places and are welcomed like old friends," says O'Meara, who is currently leading a group of food lovers through her favourite places in Sardinia and Corsica.
"It's been a joy to have my children loving the world we are part of. Before heading off for a year in France on a Rotary exchange, my son Conor's last meal in Australia was Vietnamese in Canley Vale; my older daughter Kitty makes spanakopita like a yiayia and my younger daughter Carli loves having a United Nations of aunties and uncles who are part of our lives and our family dinners," she says.
Over the course of her career, O'Meara has seen how food is the perfect way to bring people together – exploring recipes and culture opens many doors. While she has learnt thousands of recipes over the last 20 years, her life would not be as rich and full without the tours, which have brought joy to more than 60,000 guests.
"I've learnt that generosity is the key to life and that Australia is the ultimate food destination on Earth. No other nation has our exotic mix of cultures and true spirit of embracing the new and wanting to get it right," she says.
While O'Meara's ideas and instincts have informed the direction of the business, she says she has been blessed to have the organisational skills of her long-term manager, Suzy Brien, and the invaluable financial smarts of her partner Toufic Charabati (who is also the creator and director of Food Safari).
O'Meara says many of the Gourmet Safaris' guides have also been with her from the very start.
"Sam Cosentino grew up in Haberfield and has introduced many thousands to the delights of the small village; Peter Nguyen in Cabramatta also travels to Vietnam every year with me to lead safaris and visiting his family village is an absolute highlight for our guests," O'Meara says.
"We also have many guides who work at high-level during the week [as engineers, psychologists, journalists and chefs], and then, on the weekends, like to showcase their neighbourhoods and food," she says.
Whether it's the tiny Indian restaurant that treats guests to a cooking demonstration or the glass of fragrant Persian tea sampled at a supermarket in the back streets of Ryde, O'Meara says she loves that Gourmet Safaris has grown from the early hosted dinners to walking tours of food villages.
"I have three children and Gourmet Safaris has been like being part of a mad wonderful family … When we travel, we go back to the same places and are welcomed like old friends."
"Now, in Sydney, in addition to the hosted dinners and lunches, we host bus tours and also weave together many places of culinary pilgrimages - such as Cabramatta, Eastwood, Auburn, Haberfield, Fairfield and Punchbowl," she says.
O'Meara says the food tours continue to flourish because there's an interest in travelling to eat – particularly in a meaningful way that goes beyond securing bragging rights on Instagram. She says she still gets a thrill out of connecting like-minded individuals and encouraging them to spread their culinary wings. There are hundreds of highlights from her themed trips around the world.
"So much of my life has been about forging great relationships with chefs who open up a secret door to an authentic experience … The wonderful nonna making nougat in the mountains of Sardinia on the trip with Pietro Porcu from Da Noi in Melbourne; the San Benedetto markets in Cagliari where we are welcomed every year by stallholders who give us gifts, and the Greek Islands we’ve visited for 18 years where the word goes out, 'the Australians are back!' – I really treasure these moments of connections through food. It makes the world a warm and special place," she says.
A traditional Portuguese dish that makes use of yesterday's bread to create a stew-style meal.
Everyone has their own way of cooking this Sicilian favourite, and Rosa Mitchell cooks each vegetable separately as they all take different times, before mixing them together at the end.
This risotto is made “all’onda” (in the ‘wave style’), which is typical of northern Italy. It should take about 18 minutes to make from the time you start adding the liquid.
“Chef Sharon Salloum says some of her best culinary knowledge comes from her mother, Violet, who was born in Syria. Her Lebanese dad, Michael, is the practical genius who creates cooking devices, such as the shopping trolley/fridge shelf/lawnmower barbecue, which cooks food to perfection.” Maeve O’Meara, Food Safari Fire