Stephanie Alexander, influential woman and food ‘god’
We spent an afternoon discussing the nation’s evolving food scene, love affairs with kitchen gadgets and just how a Sunday should start with the woman referred to by many as somewhat of a culinary ‘god’. A must read.
For many, Stephanie Alexander needs no introduction. However, in an effort towards setting the story and educating those a little in the dark, here goes…
Avid cooks commonly say they regard Stephanie as something equivalent and akin to ‘God’ in the kitchen. She wrote ‘the bible’. It’s also more commonly known as The Cook’s Companion. And just like Margaret Fulton’s Encyclopaedia of Cookery is what many refer to when needing a little inspiration or guidance.
For those in their twenties and thirties, the first time they cooked a dish and notably from scratch, it came from The Cook’s Companion. It was a book in their parent’s house or one given by their parents, and presented what needed to be done and just ‘how to do it’ in a concise manner – the superbly clear structure of which undoubtedly stems from Stephanie’s Bachelor’s Degree in Arts from Melbourne University and early work as a librarian.
This book – and take note that she’s also penned 13 more; has now sold over 500,000 copies. And as of last year it gained even more of a cult like status when immortalised via The Cook’s Companion App – it’s the tech savvy and modern day version of ‘the bible’, and you buy it according to the sections you need guidance from. Maybe your way with grains needs improving or you’re seeking a little solace in soups? Genius and so very ‘greater force’ like – appearing when needed.
What also makes Stephanie a heavenly spirit, is her tireless effort to transform the way we eat as a nation, via working with the next generation – our little ones. So much so she was awarded an Order of Australia for her positive contribution towards changing our relationship with food via the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation. A revolutionary program designed to change from early on our relationship with sourcing and then consuming food.
In 2001 it started in just one school, and has since grown exponentially, with now over 500 schools participating. It’s supported both by the Australian government, and more recently Medibank came on board via their community fund. Today 70,000 Australian children are getting their hands dirty by growing, harvesting, preparing and then sharing fresh, seasonal food – all because of Stephanie and her foundation’s efforts.
Simply explained, children learn what it takes to provide, cook and create a nutritional meal – skills that lead to lifelong health. It’s a grass roots concept, but one that got lost somewhere with time. Yet lucky for us and those to come, Stephanie, being the heavenly force she is, is leading us back to the light from where we were mindlessly wandering and eating. Probably somewhere between the aisle stocked with pre prepared and preservative packed meals, and the fast food drive-in. Certainly a dark, and non-delicious or nutritious place.
To say we were beyond thrilled when we received a reply from Stephanie’s PA Katie that it was ‘yes’ to an interview, would be an understatement. Who wouldn’t call and tell their friends with unparalleled excitement that they were going to talk to ‘God’, and then ask them what they’d like to know from this highly regarded force? More so, when talking with others about Stephanie and her endeavours it was common to hear replies of – “Oh, what a crusader” or “she was so ahead of her time – a true visionary”. There was also the “In twenty years time, the whole country will really appreciate the efforts of that woman”.
P.P: Who are two people you hold in high regard for their contribution to Australia’s culinary scene. One for the work already done, and the other for what they’re currently doing?
S.A: Firstly, the now deceased British writer Elizabeth David who has given me a lifetime of inspiration. She wrote about six books and they were mostly about France and Italy, although she did include other Mediterranean countries to a lesser extent. She had spent considerable time in both countries so that her understanding of the way the French and Italians prepared their food, and the importance of food in their lives was high.
And it wasn’t just about recipes, it was never just recipes. It was about understanding how different parts of France, for example, cook in different ways or use the same ingredient, but in a different way. She helped me realise and remember through the years that there’s no such thing as ‘one way to do something’ and that it’s really intriguing as to why one group do it one way, and another group, another way, and it often relates to climate or what they can grow.
Elizabeth David wrote like an angel, so that her prose was wonderful to read and I still can pick up one of her books, and open it anywhere, and become instantly absorbed. I know that’s a huge wrap for her, but I can’t say enough about how important she is. I think it’s tragic that many young chefs have never heard of her. She’s the tops.
Today, we have an extraordinary number of highly talented practitioners and it’s always important to me whenever talking about ‘what’s important in Australian food’ to stress that sometimes commentators equate ‘Australian food ‘with restaurants. Now, most people do not run restaurants and most people shop without patronizing the farmers markets.It’s important that we talk about it in the broadest possible way.
I’m interested in everything that happens in Australian foodI read widely and I do visit lots of lovely restaurants. I’m very aware of how amazing the food produced by Ben Shewry and Dan Hunter is, and am also in awe of the absolute dedication and workaholic characteristics of Neil Perry and chefs such as Andrew McConnell. We’re very lucky to have them, and need to support them. We also need to be constantly aware of protecting our environment, and protecting our farmers, and making sure that the lovely fresh food that we have in Australia, stays that way.
PP: Previously the ‘fad’ when it came to food, was the elevation of cooking and the chef. But now there’s this gritty, sustainable and grass roots movement. We’re getting our hands dirty in the production – maybe with tomatoes in the back yard, or chickens for eggs in the morning if there’s a little more room. Some are even culturing sourdough starters in the kitchen. It’s now at this hip, back to basics, you could say ‘dirty’ level. It’s like fashion. They say nothing ever goes out of style, you could say the same for food…
S.A: Oh and it’s absolutely true. I think everything you’ve said is correct and it’s a global movement. It’s not just in Australia but in other developed countries too, to re-discover or revalue traditional artisan skills, bread making, cheese making making preserves, honey on the roof, heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables… It’s fantastic. And we want that movement to grow, and more people to understand that they can grow their own food and it’s not hard.
But we need to make sure that when we talk about this important movement that we quantify it a little bit… It’s still only a small percentage of the population who have ‘seen the light’. I know and am sure you know, just how much joy one can get from home-grown produce.! I made rhubarb cake today to photograph for something, and the extra thrill of going out to the garden and picking the rhubarb before I made the cake; it is such a lovely thing to do. I get a bit of a hunter-gatherer feeling when I go out and pick my own sweet corn and tomatoes for lunch.
But I know not everybody’s doing it. It is becoming more valued and thankfully you’re no longer considered to have three heads, when you say you want to grow some of your own food and aren’t particularly interested in mass produced something or other.
P.P: Yes, and with artisan made products, we’re no longer solely seeing them in farmers markets. They’re in local stores and some of the artisan products that have branded themselves quite well now have their own retail outlets. It’s almost like as a consumer we’ve become more aware of the conventional and mass made…
S.A: Yes, and I would hope that increased distribution makes these companies stronger. And would love to see it. And certainly in my own little supermarket, which is a relatively small supermarket, I can buy six different brands of good high quality, really excellent bread. I can also buy cheese from local cheese makers and ice-cream that’s superior to that sort of ‘fluffed up’ ice-cream you see and I think that’s fantastic.
I’ll buy bread from Irrewarra Sourdough or Phillippa’s at mine. As well as locally made bocconcini and goat cheese… they’re what I look out for. And I can only assume that people are buying them or else they wouldn’t still be on the shelves. We have to say, that’s a positive sign.
P.P: You previously said it’s would be your dream project to assist the Australian government on a program to be implemented across the country in every school. Who would be the main stakeholders we’d need to target to get it moving on a national level?
S.A: Well, currently we’ve got The Kitchen Garden Foundation running in over 500 schools nationally supported by training and resources that enable it to be integrated into the curriculum, so we’re well on our way to establishing that the program works, and that it’s well accepted and enjoyed in those schools.
However, to make it spread it further it would have to be mandated and supported by each state’s education or health departments, probably education departments. And that is quite a complicated process.
It’s not an easily answered question, there’s a lot of lobbying that would have to go on, and continues to go on. I often feel that the best advocacy is happening right here and now with what’s happening in schools. It’s so widely spread this program, that it’s almost possible for any primary school in Australia to look around, and probably find a school that has this program, or is starting it up very near to where they are. That is a big claim, and I know we have some huge and remote parts of Australia, but the program is extraordinarily widely spread.
PP. We’ve a quick collection of questions from readers that they’d like to ask you…
If for some terrible reason, you could only eat five foods for the rest of your life (note, not full dishes), but whole foods, what would they be? Bread, salad leaves, olive oil, cheese and fish.
My most useful kitchen implement is… Oh dear. A good knife. Oh and my food processor, we’re having a love affair.
The funniest cooking gadget I ever received… I’m not one for gadgets, but I did get an ice-cream maker and gave it away. Not because it wasn’t useful, but as I couldn’t justify the bench space, as I’d use it probably two times a year.
When choosing between a sharp Comté or a creamy buche d’affinois I’ll pick… the Comté.
Sunday mornings should be… Spent in a very relaxing way. I know that it is very fashionable to go out and have a fabulous brunch somewhere with friends, which I do like doing with my family. But Sunday is one of the few days I’ll get the real newspaper, rather than reading it on my ipad, and really linger, with a pot of good black tea.
The best book, culinary based or not, I ever read… Oh no. My mind goes blank and I can’t think of any books! But Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking is a must.
I like my eggs… soft boiled or poached.
If you were coming over for dinner, and we had a whole roast chicken to cook… We’d roast it! Always roast it. And stuff it full of tarragon that’s growing abundantly in the garden right now, and slices of lemon, and butter (but that’s from the shop) and garlic. And we’d put waxy potatoes in the pan, season the whole thing and after an hour it would be beautiful and ready.
My flavours in the morning are… Always savoury – a poached egg on toast in with tea, or if I’m going to change it, toasted muesli, with stewed rhubarb (from the garden) and yoghurt.Note – please do not take our reference and likening to Stephanie Alexander as God as sacrilegious. It’s not intended to be, but just a way to demonstrate what a presence she is.