The Dinner Ladies share their secrets to success, in and out of the kitchen

Date

Georgie Gordon

These two mums started a business to help the time-poor enjoy healthy, home-cooked meals. Here, they share their story - and recipes.

Sophie Gilliatt (left) and Katherine Westwood outside the backyard shed where it all began.

Sophie Gilliatt (left) and Katherine Westwood outside the backyard shed where it all began. Photo: Brigid Arnott

Friends Sophie Gilliatt, 48, and Katherine Westwood, 49, launched their meal delivery service, The Dinner Ladies, from Katherine's backyard shed in 2007. What started as a way to make a bit of extra cash is now a booming business, supplying meals to more than 800 busy Sydney homes every week. (Plans to expand to Melbourne have been put on hold for the moment.)

Sophie, who has a background in journalism and later worked as a literary agent, grew up in a large family where food was talked about and shared constantly. She has three children with husband Tom: Fred, 17, Rosy, 14, and Joe, 9. Katherine worked for Business Television in London as a program manager and has four children with husband Perry: Finn, 18, Willow, 17, Moby, 15, and Iggy, 11.

If you can cook in batches and cook ahead, it just makes eating well so much easier. 

They understand the struggle of getting healthy, home-cooked meals on the table after a long day at work, and are now sharing their secrets in a new recipe book, The Dinner Ladies.

Spiced, slow-cooked lamb shanks.

Spiced, slow-cooked lamb shanks. Photo: Brigid Arnott

Katherine

Advertisement

"Unlike Sophie, I grew up in a house with a mother who detested cooking. I've always loved good food, but really I became interested in it when I was at home with a small child. It's quite a huge shock to suddenly find yourself with lots of time and no money when you're used to having your own income, so my interest in cooking came from how to achieve things efficiently and economically.

Sophie and I became friends when our two oldest children started school together. She had also stopped working when her first child was born, and was looking around thinking, what will I do now? The Dinner Ladies just seemed like a great idea and it was something we could do without a big investment.

Chocolate pavlova with raspberries.

Chocolate pavlova with raspberries. Photo: Brigid Arnott

We started in my shed: we cooked two things, a pie and a curry, and delivered them free to 10 different people and said, 'If you like what you've eaten, then order again next week.'

We didn't make a bean for the first two years. We had seven little children between us and on the delivery day, Sophie would bring hers over and I'd do baths and dinner while she drove around delivering the food. It's been a long road, but now we have a chef and a production kitchen, people in the office, four vans, and we deliver about 10,000 dinners a week.

We decided to write the book because over the years we've developed a huge range of recipes, and have learnt so much about cooking in batches and cooking ahead. If you can do that, it just makes eating well so much easier.

Spring pea soup with lettuce and mint.

Spring pea soup with lettuce and mint. Photo: Brigid Arnott

Sophie has an amazing palate, so I've always seen my role as supporting her in trying to produce the food she wants to make - and pulling her back from some of her more insane ideas.

The business has definitely been good for the friendship. I remember when I first met her, I thought, 'This is going to be fun.' "

Sophie

"The business started after a conversation I had in the park with a couple of my old schoolfriends when Joe [her youngest] was a baby. All of them were lawyers working part-time with small children and all were trying their hardest to manage their complex lives. I was having a whinge because I didn't have any money to buy my husband a birthday present, and my friend said, 'Well, if you cook me a couple of dinners, I'll pay you.' I thought, 'If she's prepared to pay, other people might.' There are a lot of home-delivered dinner and grocery services around now but there weren't many back then, so it did seem like a profoundly new idea.

It started out as a nice little thing we did a couple of days a week. But once Joe started school, we went full-time and were able to really start motoring. We never had any massive pressure to suddenly succeed, so it's been nice being able to grow slowly and organically.

I take control of communication with customers through our weekly email and coming up with recipes. I'm a maniac taster - I go flying down to the kitchen and have hysterics if things aren't seasoned properly. Katherine is the logistics queen. She should be in charge of a large army - she runs her household of four children with military precision, and that's how she runs our business.

We get great feedback from people thanking us for helping them get on top of their lives at overwhelming times: after the birth of young children, for elderly parents that they're worried about, or just when trying to juggle work and family.

We don't cut corners, we make our stocks and curry pastes from scratch and we encourage people to do the same in our book - because that's where the real pleasure of food is." •

Interviews by Georgie Gordon

Spring pea soup with lettuce and mint

SERVES 4

This is a delightfully light, fresh, springy sort of soup. You could even serve it cold on a hot summer's day. Don't even contemplate using fresh peas for this dish unless you grow them and have both a glut and an army of unpaid labourers. Frozen are better than okay.

Preparation time: 10 minutes.

Cooking time: 30 minutes.

• 1 tbsp salted butter

• 600g shallots or onions, diced

• 1 tsp salt

• 1 iceberg lettuce, outer leaves and core removed, shredded

• 800g frozen baby peas, defrosted

• 1 litre vegetable stock

• large handful mint, leaves only

To serve

• cream or plain yoghurt

• toasted sourdough bread

• freshly ground black pepper

Melt the butter in a large saucepan and gently cook the shallots or onions with the salt over a low heat for 10-15 minutes until sweet, soft and translucent. Add the lettuce, stirring until it is soft and wilted.

Stir in the baby peas, cover with the vegetable stock, turn the temperature up and bring to the boil, then turn down to medium-low and simmer for 10 minutes. Allow to cool slightly, then add two-thirds of the mint leaves to the soup and purée, using a stick blender or food processor.

Taste for seasoning.

Serve, scattered with the remaining mint leaves, a swirl of cream or yoghurt, toasted sourdough bread or croutons, and plenty of freshly ground black pepper.

Make ahead: The whole soup can be made before it's needed and stored in an airtight container either in the fridge for up to 3 days or in the freezer for up to 3 months. If you freeze it, defrost and stir as you reheat to bring the soup back together.

Spiced, slow-cooked lamb shanks

SERVES 4

If we were cranky old women (and we rule nothing out for the future), we could have a real whinge about how old-fashioned cuts like shanks used to be so very cheap (good for the dog, or as the cook's perk) until they were discovered by chefs, when their popularity and prices sky-rocketed. The trouble is, they are so very delicious. We could take or leave a leg of lamb or a backstrap (or loin fillet) but a sticky, shiny, falling-apart shank? Never.

Preparation time: 25 minutes.

Cooking time: 3 1/2 hours.

• 1 heaped tsp ground coriander, toasted

• 1 heaped tsp ground cumin, toasted

• 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

• 1/2 tsp sweet paprika

• 1 1/2 tsp salt

• 4 lamb shanks, approximately 350g each, trimmed and membranes removed

• 1 1/2 tbsp olive oil

• 1 large brown onion, diced

• 2 carrots, diced into 1cm pieces

• 1 large celery stalk, trimmed and diced into 1cm cubes

• 2 garlic cloves, crushed

• 260ml red wine

• 600g tinned chopped tomatoes

• 1 1/2 tsp balsamic vinegar

• 1 tsp rosemary leaves, chopped

• 1/2 tsp thyme leaves, chopped

To serve

• 1 small handful parsley leaves, chopped

• mashed potato or soft polenta

• English spinach or kale with extra virgin olive oil and garlic

Preheat the oven to 150°C.

Mix together the coriander, cumin, cinnamon, paprika and half the salt. Rub the mixture all over the lamb shanks. Heat the oil over a medium-high heat in a large, heavy-based flameproof casserole dish that will fit all the shanks in one layer and brown the shanks all over (tongs are helpful here). Set the shanks aside in a warm place, covered.

Lower the heat to medium-low, add a little more oil if necessary, and cook the onion, carrots, celery and garlic with the remaining ¾ tsp of salt till soft. Keep stirring occasionally - cooking this will take around 10-15 minutes.

Increase the heat and add the wine, which will bubble up to deglaze the casserole dish. Stir vigorously. Lower the heat and then add the tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, rosemary and thyme. Taste this sauce for seasoning and balance - it will change as it cooks with the shanks but all the elements should be harmonious at this stage.

Return the lamb shanks to the dish, spooning the sauce over so that they are covered. Cover with a lid or foil, place in the oven and cook for 3 hours. Take the dish out every so often and turn the shanks so that they cook evenly. Top up with a little water or stock if the liquid level is too low.

The shanks are ready when the meat is soft and shrinking back from the bone, and the sauce is glossy. Use tongs to lift the shanks out gently and flip them over as you dish them up (the underside is always prettier). Give the sauce a good stir and pour over the shanks.

Sprinkle with the chopped parsley. Serve with mashed potato or soft polenta and some English spinach or kale dressed with olive oil and garlic.

Make ahead: These will benefit from being made ahead of time and reheated gently in a low-temperature oven, covered with foil. They'll last for 3 days in the fridge or up to 3 months in the freezer. Defrost before reheating.

Chocolate pavlova with raspberries

SERVES 8

A traditional, fluffy, virginal white pavlova is a fine thing, but we say "double the pavlova repertoire, double the fun". The pavlova base (chewy and chocolatey, almost torte-like) is based on a recipe of Nigella Lawson's, but where she used plain whipped cream for the topping, we show no such restraint and use a mixture of cream and hazelnut cocoa spread. Oh, my!

Preparation time: 30 minutes.

Cooking time: 1 hour 15 minutes.

Pavlova base

• 6 egg whites

• pinch of salt

• 300g caster (superfine) sugar

• 2 heaped tbsp cocoa powder

• 1 tsp balsamic vinegar

• 50g good-quality dark chocolate, finely chopped, plus 50g extra, grated or shaved for serving (optional)

Topping

• 500ml thin (pouring) cream

• 200g hazelnut cocoa spread

• 250g raspberries

Preheat the oven to 120°C and line a baking tray with baking paper.

Whisk the egg whites with the salt in a scrupulously clean and dry stainless steel or glass bow till stiff, then gradually add the sugar, a little at a time, continuously whisking until the mixture is satiny. Sift in the cocoa powder and stir through the vinegar and dark chocolate.

Pile this meringue mixture onto the baking tray in a 25cm-diameter circle and place in the oven. After 1 hour, turn the oven off but leave the pavlova in the oven to cool and dry out further.

We like to make this recipe the night before we need it, then leave the pavlova in the oven overnight after cooking it. Put a shouty note on the oven door telling people: Do not turn the oven back on under pain of death.

This may also prevent you from doing that very thing yourself.

For the topping, whip the cream until soft peaks form. Fold through the hazelnut cocoa spread.

When you're ready to serve, spoon the cream on top of the meringue and dot the raspberries on the cream - either in concentric circles, or in a haphazard jumble, depending on your artistic bent and level of perfectionism. Finish with a flurry of shaved or grated chocolate, if you wish.