Legend of stage and screen, champion for te reo Māori and 2020 New Zealander of the Year recipient, Jennifer Ward-Lealand is something of a national treasure. Since landing her first acting role at age seven, she’s starred in countless theatre and screen productions, lending her trademark glamour and quick wit to everything from comedy to cabaret roles.
Despite her many accomplishments, she’s decidedly not a diva. A tireless advocate for actors’ working conditions and pay, she was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to theatre and the community in 2007. In her 40s, she became a dedicated student of te reo Māori and tikanga (culture and customs), taking classes four days a week to become fluent. More recently, she has trained as an intimacy coordinator, working with actors and directors to sensitively navigate scenes that might otherwise make them blush.
So yes. When it comes to listing her talents, calling Jennifer a “triple threat” doesn’t quite cover it. But can she cook? Or does she leave that up to her husband, acclaimed actor and director Michael Hurst? In the middle of rehearsals for her next cabaret role, Jennifer caught up with dish to spill the beans.
Do you like to cook?
Jennifer: To be honest, I’ve mostly given it up recently as I live with two cooks — my stepmum, Rula, and my husband. After all those years of cooking for the children, I realised it really wasn’t my fun thing, but I’m excellent at a few things, and when the family don't want to cook they go “Jen, can you do your X,Y or Z?”
And what are X, Y, and Z?
I make a really good dahl. I went to an Ayurvedic cooking class about 15 years ago because I really loved that food and wanted to learn to cook it properly. It’s all about starting with a really tasty vaghar – that is, using whole or ground spices, and sometimes other ingredients such as chillies or minced ginger root, and frying briefly in oil or ghee to draw out essential oils and enhance their flavour.I can also do an extremely good omelette, which is great for when you can’t be bothered cooking, and I’m a good baker. I can rustle up a damn fine date scone or a good cake if need be.
What are some of your favourite dishes to eat at home?
Jennifer: Rula makes a dish that I love, which is fresh fish, pan-fried and served with a very fine coleslaw, which she cuts with a mandolin. We usually go to the fish market every Friday if we can. She also makes a beautiful Thai fish curry with coconut milk. I definitely have preference for white meat – fish and chicken – I wouldn’t feel confident cooking red meat because Michael does that really well.
What other foods and flavours do you tend to gravitate towards/away from?
Jennifer: I tend to choose things that are light and fresh, but with a little zing. If I was making something for lunch, for example, I’d have bread with maybe some jalapeño hummus, smoked salmon, coleslaw and parsley. I like clean food rather than anything buttery or greasy. I hardly ever make pasta except for when Michael makes an aglio e olio – pasta with olive oil and garlic. I dislike anything viscous, like runny egg yolk,or anything gluggy, like porridge.
Do you like to entertain at home? If so, what’s your entertaining style?
Jennifer: We do. We love to entertain small groups of people and family and actually prefer that to eating out. I love setting the table properly with nice napkins and cutlery, lovely glasses, etcetera. The ritual of the dinner is something we all really enjoy in our house.
Who would your dream dinner guests be?
I love people who are involved in the arts because someone’s always doing some new thing or show, so that’s something you can really get excited about and have a true meeting of minds. I’d also love to have my te reo teachers to dinner, then I could bask in an evening of poetic, funny, wicked and deep language.
What will you eat for lunch when you’re busy all day in rehearsals?
Jennifer: I always bring something from home. Rula makes a Swiss pie, which has an almond base and all sorts of different fruits in it with beaten eggs poured over them. It’s not sweetened with anything other than the fruit and can be eaten for lunch or dinner. So if I’m feeling lazy I’ll just cut a slice of that, or bring leftovers.
Do you have any favourite childhood memories around food?
Jennifer: My Mum was a solo and working mother, and when she was too tired to cook she’d make what she called “cold dinner”. It was very much New Zealand fare – usually iceberg lettuce, tomato, boiled egg, luncheon sausage and some cheese. She’d say “Ooh, we’re having a cold dinner tonight” and that seemed awfully exciting.
The other thing I remember is having afternoon tea at my grandparent’s house. Granny’s tins were always filled with lovely things, like shortbread, and she’d put them out on a trolley and use the tea set, which was her mothers. Again, I loved the ritual of it all.
Is that sense of ritual something you’ve tried to introduce with your family?
Jennifer: My boys are very used to sitting around a nicely set table. The hospitality gene is in their DNA for sure. When we have family dinners we never just sit around the telly with dinner on our laps.
Any favourite restaurants in New Zealand or overseas?
Jennifer: I really love Tony’s for a great steak. I always have the pepper steak and it’s consistently good.
Are there any treat foods you can’t go past?
Jennifer: Dark chocolate, meringues… But my favourite treat would have to be a chocolate caramel slice.
Jennifer will be performing in Rock Follies Forever (June 23-25) as part of the Auckland Live Cabaret Season.Visit aucklandlive.co.nz for tickets.
JENNIFER WARD-LEALAND'S AROMATIC FISH CURRY
Recipe by Sarah Tuck
From issue #97
Reading that Jennifer doesn’t spend much time cooking any more, I immediately wanted to lure her back into the kitchen with a recipe that is quick to make, light, and packed with herby freshness.
2 stalks lemongrass
3 makrut lime leaves
400ml tin light coconut milk
200ml fish stock
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 red chillies, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 star anise
1 thumb-sized piece fresh ginger, peeled
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon palm or brown sugar
400 grams mixed baby potatoes
4 x 180-gram firm white fish fillets
2 handfuls round green beans, ends trimmed
½ cup Thai basil leaves
soba noodles or rice
½ cup coriander leaves
Bash the lemongrass stalks with a rolling pin and tear the makrut lime leaves from the stems.
Put the coconut milk and fish stock in a large deep pan and add the lemongrass, lime leaves, garlic, chilli, fish sauce, star anise, ginger, turmeric and sugar. Bring to the boil, add the potatoes and simmer for 10 minutes.
Add the fish fillets and simmer for a further 5 minutes. Add the beans and Thai basil leaves and cook for a final 5 minutes until the fish is cooked through.
Serve the fish on soba noodles or rice with plenty of the aromatic broth. Garnish with coriander and serve with flatbreads, if desired.