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Fiona Mair: 'It's my dream job'

Fiona Mair reveals her kitchen lab secrets and why an oven shelf was named in her honour.

Fiona Staff profile lead
Last updated: 03 October 2019

Fiona Mair is a home economist and test coordinator in CHOICE's kitchen lab. 

She puts a wide range of kitchen appliances through their paces by using them to make and prepare various foods, such as shredded cheese and Thai red curry paste (food processors), white sauce and stir fries (cooktops), steak and sausages (barbecues) and scones, meringues, roast chicken and pizza (ovens).

TIP: Never get in the way of a CHOICE staffer when it's scone day. You will get trampled. 

It's no surprise, then, that since joining the organisation in 1997, Fiona has gone on to become what her colleagues call "the secret ingredient of CHOICE". 

Here, she opens up about what it's like to work here.

Describe your job in one sentence 

I feed the minds of CHOICE members with kitchen appliances and the bellies of CHOICE staff. [Laughs.] It's a really tough question!

What's the most common reaction you get when you tell people you work at CHOICE?

I usually just tell people I test cooking appliances. But once they find out I work for CHOICE, they always ask what's the best barbecue, oven or mixer.

Do you ever give them the answer? 

It depends on how close a friend they are! I'd give them some general information, but I wouldn't tell them exactly which make and model. 

But when I speak to other home economists, they say to me, "You have my dream job." And I'm like, "I know, I love it." It is my dream job.

gene and fiona christmas lunch

Fiona with fellow CHOICE staffer Gene Ross: "Gene and I cook a Christmas lunch for the whole organisation … I just need more help with the cleaning up!"

What part of your job would an outsider think is bizarre?

That in the 22 years I've worked here, I've tested well over 3000 appliances. And I've cooked over 8000 scones, 4000 chickens, 3000 sausages, 800 meringues, 500 stir fries and 300 pizzas.

People might also be surprised that Gene Ross [CHOICE photographer] and I cook a Christmas lunch for the whole organisation – about 130 people – every year. 

We've done it every year since 2009 and we raise money for charity and have raffles and secret Santa. It's a nice thing that we do. It's a tradition. I just need more help with the cleaning up! 

What's something most people should know about kitchen appliances, but don't?

That some appliances just aren't necessary. Companies market these things as making your life easy, but often they're just a gimmick that you'll use a couple of times before they end up at the back of the cupboard.  

When it comes to cooking, all you really need is a good chopping board, a good knife, a good quality saucepan…  you can do a lot of things with those.

Egg Rollie machine fiona mair profile

The "unnecessary" Rollie vertical grill.

Tell us about the Shonkiest product you've seen at CHOICE 

It's not technically a Shonky, it performed OK, but I thought the Rollie vertical grill –  which cooks eggs and turns other sweet and savoury dishes into cylindrical pops – was just unnecessary.

That's what Shonky is to me – unnecessary appliances. Oh, and appliances that come with loads of accessories that you'll probably never use. That annoys me. I hate accessories. 

RELATED: CHOICE Shonky Awards hall of fame

What's the most surprising or useful fact you've learnt at CHOICE?

Well, after all the testing I've done, I've gained this superpower… I can actually just look at an appliance and know if it's crap. [Laughs.]

That is a very cool superpower. Is there anything obvious that the rest of us should look out for? 

The feel of it, the flimsiness, the controls, all those sorts of things. I can just tell it's going to be crap. I just know. 

But there is another thing I've learned and that's always read your instructions. Particularly because there could be some safety issues that you need to understand, especially for cooking appliances with heat and blades.

Of all the products you've tested, do you have a favourite?

A food processor because it's so versatile. And I really like a slow cooker as it helps keep your food budget down. You can use cheaper cuts of meat as well as legumes and vegetables, and still manage to get a lot of flavour out of them. 

All you really need is a good chopping board, a good knife, a good quality saucepan … you can do a lot of things with those

I also got really hooked on one of the all-in-one kitchen appliances I tested and nearly bought it. But when I thought about how I'd use it at home, I realised I didn't actually need it. I mean, how many times am I really going to make ice cream – once every six months? And sure, it can make soup, but I can do that on the stove in a saucepan. 

I think an all-in-one is something you should buy when you're first setting up your kitchen, because then you won't need to buy most other appliances. But for me, I've already got all those appliances so why would I get rid of them? 

Speaking of your home kitchen, do you own one of everything we test? 

I love cast iron and I do have a very good oven and induction cooktop, and of course my food processor. But when it comes to kitchen appliances I really believe you need to get the products that suit your cooking. 

For example, I do a lot of baking so I have a benchtop mixer and a hand mixer, which help me with that. But that's about it. 

My biggest tip when it comes to appliances is to keep it simple, buy things that will help you in the kitchen, and think about how easy they're going to be to clean and use. 

fiona filming for the today show

Fiona puts benchtop mixers through their paces for a TV segment.

You have to cook lots of different foods when you test appliances. Does that put you off cooking at home?

Well, having just finished our barbecues test, I definitely can't look at another steak or sausage right now. [Laughs.] But I love baking, it's my favourite thing, and testing ovens actually inspires me to bake more at home.

Are all your friends and families scared to cook for you now? 

Some are! But honestly I'm happy when anyone cooks for me, I don't care what it is. And even though I try not to interfere, sometimes I just want to teach them that you can do things a little more easily. 

But I can't stand it when kitchens get messy, because an organised kitchen makes cooking so much easier. So if I'm in someone's kitchen and it's starting to look like a bomb has hit it, I have to step in and start doing the washing up. 

But I'm also on call for friends and family if they have any cooking issues and I also like giving CHOICE staff cooking lessons when I can. 

What consumer rights issue really annoys you?

Product safety is a big deal for me. I don't understand how manufacturers can make products that are dangerous. For example, some barbecues have really sharp edges and become so hot on the hood – 100 degrees… I just don't understand why they can't fix that before they put it on the market. 

CHOICE can actually help manufacturers make better products, if they let us.

How so?

Sometimes manufacturers don't understand how their product is going to work in the Australian market. At CHOICE, we do a lot of extra tests to find out how a consumer would use a product and what, if any, problems they'd encounter.

For example, one oven brand used to score poorly for ease of use, as they had a shelf that was really flimsy, thin and loose. They'd come in for meetings with me about it and I'd tell them the same thing: "I'm sorry, but it's flimsy. You need a better shelf." Eventually they came back with a better version that they called 'the Fiona shelf'. 

We also reviewed a BBQ smoker and the instruction manual was unclear. But the company listened to our feedback and changed it. That's really satisfying – I really enjoy that part of testing.

RELATED: Find out where you stand with our consumer rights guides.

fiona and the hedgehog choice kitchen lab

Fiona using an instrument nicknamed 'the hedgehog' to measure temperatures for evenness.

Complete this sentence? Australians need CHOICE …

So manufacturers can pick up their game and consumers can avoid products and services that are basically a waste of money and end up in landfill. There's an oversupply of cooking appliances that manufacturers are marketing to consumers that they just don't need. 

What would nine-year-old you say about your job?

Probably that it sounds like fun, because I've been cooking since I was five years old. 

So your whole career has essentially been in your blood since you were five?

Yeah, I suppose so. That's a rare thing, isn't it?

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