Stephanie Alexander in her home office in Melbourne.  Photo – Brooke Holm.

Stephanie Alexander’s office.  Photo - Brooke Holm.

Stephanie Alexander’s beautiful front garden – with tomato plants lining the garden path!  Photo - Brooke Holm.

Stephanie in the garden.  Photo - Brooke Holm.

You might recall my excitement recently when Stephanie Alexander left a comment on TDF! I was a little starstruck. Stephanie is a superstar! Of course I’m not one to let an opportunity like this pass by…so, encouraged by the thought that Stephanie might actually be reading The Design Files occasionally, I approached her for an interview!

Most Melburnians will know at least a little of Stephanie’s story. An appreciation for great food has always been her driving passion, and though she originally studied to be a librarian (!!), Stephanie didn’t last in libraries for long. She has had an incredible career in Melbourne, running restaurants and writing countless best selling cook books, one in particular which has become a fixture in SO MANY Australian kitchens! If you read our interview with Penguin publisher Julie Gibbs last week, you’ll recall that Stephanie’s famous book, The Cook’s Companion, first published in 1996, has sold over 500,000 copies in Australia! AMAZING! It is such a brilliant, dense, and thoroughly exhaustive tome – and in some ways, though it’s only one small part of Stephanie’s spectacular career, this book encapsulates so much of what Stephanie is about. The Cook’s Companion perfectly exemplifies Stephanie’s incredible work ethic, and her no-nonsense approach to cooking, and to life.

What I find most admirable about Stephanie is her entrepreneurial spirit and boundless energy. She is always doing something new! You’d think after running three successful restaurants, writing a string of best selling books, and becoming a respected authority within your field you might feel compelled to slow down a little! Not Stephanie. In 2001 she embarked on an entirely new venture – the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation. This not-for-profit initiative is a a comprehensive gardening and cooking program for Australian primary schools, in which kids learn to grow fresh produce on school grounds, and to cook it! SAKGF now takes up a lot of Stephanie’s time, as she works with staff, schools and policy makers to take the program to as many schools as possible. Currently over 260 schools participate in the program – and Stephanie aims to have 10% of all Australian primary schools involved by the end of 2015.

As you would expect from a woman of such determination and drive, in recent years Stephanie has also fully embraced the digital space! She has an excellent website, and has launched a monthly email newsletter called the Cooks Companion Club –  if The Cook’s Companion is a well loved friend in your home, you should definitely sign up!  Subscribers receive a monthly newsletter from Stephanie containing news and seasonal recipes.  Stephanie also has a strong Twitter following, and she’s recently taken on Facebook too – do pop over and follow!

I can’t tell you how good this interview is! Such a truly inspiring story from one of Australia’s most driven and successful businesswomen. Thanks so much to Stephanie for sharing her story and so many pearls of wisdom with us today!

Tell us a little about your background – what did you study, and when did it become obvious that you were destined for a culinary-based career? What was your first break in the food industry, and how did this lead eventually to opening your very own restaurant/s?

I do feel that this interview may well read like a retelling of the story in A Cook’s Life. But of course not everyone will have read my memoir!

I grew up in a small seaside town on the Mornington Peninsula. Both my parents strongly influenced my interests and the subsequent paths I have taken. My mother loved to cook and to tend her garden. She had romantic notions of achieving self-sufficiency, which didn’t really materialise but there was plenty of energy spent planning and cultivating and harvesting what produce she and my grandfather grew or cared for. And even more passion spent planning meals, cooking them and finding out more about other culinary ways. The hour of gathering at the dinner table was the highlight of my day and is still remembered, maybe with slightly rose-tinted glasses, as always delicious, always noisy, and always interesting.

As the eldest of four I learnt about responsibility at a very early age and the work ethic in my family was extreme. One was expected to contribute and pocket money was tied to the achieving of one’s tasks. There was no easy ride.

My father loved books, especially those that echoed his own humanist philosophies. He had a very strong belief in the need to contribute to your community, and to stand up for social justice. He probably suggested that librarianship might be an appropriate career for his bookish daughter. I certainly had no objection. Although I loved to spend time in the kitchen with Mum it did not ever occur to me that I would involve myself in professional cooking.

So that is the background to my decision to do an Arts degree at Melbourne University, to train as a librarian, and much later to do a Diploma of Education with a special interest in working as a teacher-librarian in a secondary college. My library years spanned about ten years and I thoroughly enjoyed them. Readers of my books will note the legacy in the organisation, the insistence on correct detail, as much as the recipes. In my travel books, hopefully my appreciation of natural beauty and a sensual appreciation of fresh food is just as noticeable.

I always loved to cook, and cooking for my friends was an absorbing hobby. Whilst living in London, and working as a librarian at BBC-TV, I met my first husband, a Jamaican. We decided to return to Australia (after I had fulfilled a contract to spend a year in France as a language assistant) and to open a coffee lounge which would offer snacks that could feature the products that my husband intended to import from Jamaica. Jamaica House in Carlton was my first foray into the restaurant industry.

It is on record that this was a very difficult time for us both, combining a career of which we had nil experience with my husband moonlighting at a second demanding job, and me caring for a three-week-old baby. Suffice to say my involvement in this venture ended after two and a half years, and I went back to libraries.

But the food itch was a very compulsive one. I just couldn’t leave it alone. Seven years later (approximately) in 1976, remarried, with a second daughter, I opened Stephanie’s Restaurant in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. Four years later my second husband and I purchased a grand house in Hawthorn and created the second Stephanie’s. It was a huge success and traded for twenty-one years, four years in Brunswick Street and seventeen in Hawthorn.

Stephanie’s kitchen at home.  Photo - Brooke Holm.

Stephanie’s kitchen.  Photo - Brooke Holm.
How has the culinary landscape in Australia shifted from the 1960′s to today?

In the 1960’s Melbourne was a very conservative quiet city. The few smart restaurants were owned by Italian families, there were quite a few small ethnic restaurants cooking good food in very simple surroundings and the height of sophistication for students of the day was Lygon Street with its Italian cafes and a few coffee lounges. Licensing laws were very restrictive, tables on pavements were not allowed and there was no trading on Sundays. Food had not yet become a preferred leisure activity. There was hardly any food media, and television was in its infancy. And very few people were able to travel regularly to see what was happening elsewhere. Migrant populations at the time were mostly from the Mediterranean. South-East Asian migration was in the future. One could go on and on…

There were stirrings in the seventies and the scene started to change. I was a self-taught, inexperienced restaurateur with plenty of ideas and opinions. The late 1970’s and 1980’s were very important decades for restaurants in Australia, and many of the best-known at the time were owned and operated by self-taught, passionate and well educated young people.

French food became fashionable and was discussed in newspapers. In 1973 the term ‘nouvelle cuisine’ was heard for the first time. French chefs were changing the way things had been done in France. Some of us went to see and to taste and to think. What was a trickle continued to grow until we have the scene today – completely unrecognisable.

With over 500,000 copies sold since it was fist published in 1996, we’re pretty confident that every Australian kitchen worth eating in contains a copy of your brilliant book The Cook’s Companion – it is an incredible resource, and I still often heed your advice when trying to remember the optimum cooking time for a chewy / crispy pavlova base! Did you ever anticipate this book to become such a staple in Australian kitchens? The publishing of this book must have been a significant turning point for your career – could you elaborate on this?

The Cook’s Companion changed my life. I had no idea it would prove to be the definitive volume it is. All I knew was that once I started to write I knew it had to be correct, it had to be friendly, it had to be comprehensive, and it had to answer everyone’s questions about anything. For three years I wrote, often in deep despair, thinking I had set myself an impossible task. But one day it was finished. I enjoyed the long editing process of sculpting and refining my tome. And then it appeared and it seemed that everyone, absolutely everyone wanted a copy! Amazing.

It was first published in 1996, a year before the closing of Stephanie’s Restaurant. Its success has enabled me to concentrate my energies on creating and developing the next major project of my life, the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation. A revised edition appeared in 2004 and the book is reprinted at least once every year.

Some of Stephanie’s best selling booking including her most recent memoir, ‘A Cook’s Life‘.  Photo - Brooke Holm.
Your most recently published book A Cook’s Life is a memoir chronicling your years in the food industry. How long had this book been in development for and was it cathartic to write? What process is usually involved when writing a new book?

A Cook’s Life is radically different from all my other books. It does not include a single recipe. It is about the food industry, but it is also about me. I wanted to set the record straight, to look at the history of all that I knew of my parents’ lives, to examine their influence on me, to recount some of my most enjoyable personal and travel experiences, and some of the painful ones as well. I would like to feel that many young restaurateurs might read it and reflect on the distance Australian food has travelled. I don’t know that it felt cathartic to write it. Sometimes it felt difficult, and it was a fine line between being truthful and yet protecting others.

My processes in writing varies depending on what I am writing. Cookbooks often start with a collection of recipes that can be put together in some way. A Cook’s Life required much more research.

You’ve owned many restaurants over the years, but in 2005 you stepped back from the commercial kitchen, instead focusing your energy on the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, originally launched in 2001. What prompted you to start this inspired initiative? What was your vision for the foundation originally, and where do you see it heading into the future?

I have been disturbed by the growth of the processed food industry and perhaps even more disturbed by noticing how few young people have an easy relationship with fresh food, and can cook delicious healthy food for themselves without anxiety. The media bombards us every day with horror statistics of rising obesity levels with promises of public health blowouts if nothing is done. But the solutions usually proposed are punitive. Don’t eat this, eat only this. I believe that unless young children are educated about fresh food and how to prepare it, about how to grow and care for food, how to know the difference between the seasons, and whether something is ripe or not, we have only ourselves to blame if those same children follow the seductive messages of the fast food industry.

So that is the background to establishing the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation and to finding the continuing energy to lobby for financial support to establish a model that can change children’s lives, and quite quickly. Currently we have over 260 schools with the model and we have just announced plans to make the model more flexible so that many more schools can join in. Our aim is 10% of all Australian schools with a primary enrolment by the end of 2015. Once we have achieved that we will be thinking of ways to ensure that the benefits influence government policy on an even bigger scale.

Details from Stephanie Alexander’s  productive garden. Photo - Brooke Holm.

Details from Stephanie Alexander’s  productive garden. Photo - Brooke Holm.
What does a typical day in the life of Stephanie Alexander look like? How do you manage your time between your various pursuits – from writing your cookbooks to SAKGF to television appearances and of course cooking the dishes that you are famous for?! AND do you still manage to put a home cooked dinner on the table every night!?

Dinner tonight will be freshly harvested zucchini and green beans, served with an enormous oxheart tomato (also from my garden) that I will stuff with breadcrumbs, parmesan, basil and parsley and garlic and bake in the oven. Perhaps followed by a piece of cheese and a pear. And I will have a glass, or maybe two, of 2009 Cloudy Bay chardonnay.

My days are very busy. More and more of my time is taken up being the spokesperson for the Foundation. Today I attended the very first training session for classroom teachers who have elected to be the educators for the kitchen garden program in their schools. For most it was their first experience of kneading dough, or of rolling and cutting fresh pasta, or making pesto or a tabbouleh salad. They were glowing with pride and satisfaction as they sat down for lunch.

I also felt satisfied as I drove home, knowing that we have passed on simple skills that will in turn be passed onto young Australian children every week for at least two years.

It becomes hard to find time to write. I have started a newsletter called the Cook’s Companion Club that readers can join by accessing my website and I feel very protective of the time I need to create this. I want it to be an important window into my thinking and a way for me to reflect on things that happen. I also am making an effort to understand the world of social networking and try to find time each day to ‘tweet’ and update my Facebook page. I enjoy the instant conversations that sometimes ensue from these outlets and new connections that I make.

Stephanie’s outdoor dining area. Photo - Brooke Holm.
Do you have any wisdom for our readers who are interested in taking the kitchen garden philosophy home? How can they integrate healthy growing / cooking habits into their daily lives?

Just do it. I become impatient at those who suggest that it is very difficult. Grow something. Even parsley and basil and a cherry tomato will make your summer special (might have to wait until next year though as season has just ended). Now is the moment for a second crop of bush beans, or to start thinking about the broad beans. Stick one plant of silver beet in a corner of the garden, or some Asian greens. Or if you have no soil, and no sunshine, go to a farmers’ market as often as possible and enjoy the smells, the fresh air, and the wonderful food that you will take home.

I admit that planning a day ahead does help and does calm anxiety. Cook simply unless you love spending hours in the kitchen. Learn a few salad combinations. Eat more fish. Drizzle with Australian extra virgin oil. Buy a copy of The Cook’s Companion!

Can you list for us 5 specific resources across any media that you turn to when you’re in need of a bolt of creative inspiration?

Really enjoy The Design Files – truly! I have subscribed for months and love it.
Haven’t really got into too many blogs or websites. Still prefer to sink into an armchair with a book. Loved early River Cottage programs. Love the bravery and visuals of Luke Nguyen, but will never cook the food. Would he cook it for me I wonder? Love Annie Smithers’ book. Love Sean Moran’s book Let It Simmer: From Bush to Beach and Onto Your Plate. Love Kylie Kwong’s books on China. Love Neil Perry’s The Food I Love, and Maggie’s Harvest and Dee Nolan’s A Food Lover’s Pilgrimage to Santiago De Compostela that I wish I could walk but I cannot. So many books and so many cooks that inspire me with their ideas, their energy, their journeys.

Just about 10% of Stephanie’s incredible cook book collectoin!  Photo - Brooke Holm.
What would be your dream creative project?

To be invited by the Australian Government to help them devise the plan that would see the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden project established in the National Curriculum and thus in every school in Australia. Then we would change the health and happiness of the entire nation.

What are you looking forward to?

Time to concentrate on my new project – underwraps though!

Melbourne Questions

Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?

Fitzroy and Richmond – quirky, multi-generational, stylish cafes, book shops, crazy fashion shops, handmade designer jewellery, good restaurants. I particularly love my French class at Dagmar Rousset in Fitzroy, and in Richmond the Laikon delicatessen.

Where do you shop in Melbourne for fresh and wholesome food, ingredients and / or kitchen bits and pieces?

The Camberwell Fresh Food Market for Noisette bread from Nick and Sue’s Gourmet Deli, Kingfisher Seafoods, and fabulous flowers.

What and where was the last great meal you had in Melbourne?

Veal with sweetbreads and parsley sauce at Cutler & Co was delicious; Carpaccio of tuna with home-grown horseradish at Town Hall Hotel was great, as was the fabulous tortellini of rock lobster.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

At a farmers’ market, enjoying a coffee from Eureka and filling my basket with Holy Goat cheese, Phillippa’s boule, waxy potatoes, additional salad greens, vegetables I cannot grow and some of the last peaches of the season.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

Not sure it is a secret. Would be a toss-up between our wonderful trams, the Yarra River as it bends and winds through Hawthorn, and the fact that fresh food is widely available.

Details from Stephanie Alexander’s  garden. Photo - Brooke Holm.