Take a look at the bookshelf of any enthusiastic home cook in Australia and you’re bound to find a rainbow-hued copy of The Cook’s Companion by Stephanie Alexander. It’s a classic Australian cookbook, comprehensively arranged in alphabetical order from A to Z. This format is so intuitive that Alexander has revisited it in her newest cookbook, The Cook’s Apprentice.
Written for anyone who is intimidated by the kitchen, this new book is a gentle introduction to home cooking. It’s the culmination of Alexander’s rich life experience, which has included running one of Australia’s most popular restaurants, living in France and getting children and teenagers involved in food through her Kitchen Garden Community.
Alexander will appear at Brisbane Powerhouse on 8 November to celebrate the launch of her 18th cookbook, ahead of which she sat down with us to chat about all things food, family and books.
You initially studied to become a librarian – what inspired you to make the transition into chef life?
When I was growing up, I was a very enthusiastic home cook, but it had never occurred to me or anybody else that I should do this professionally. It was just like being the man on the moon. I mean, going to the moon. Women, in that stage, were not part of the culinary scene and I was extremely happy to be trying to be a librarian. I loved books and writing and reading.
I was cooking all the time when I was a librarian – cooking for friends and family and anybody who'd literally let me – but I eventually got married and started my first restaurant with my first husband who was interested in food. It's a very long story, but let's say it was a fairly serendipitous decision. I was sort of in charge of my own destiny and I stayed that way for the next 21 years.
You said that you loved books and since childhood and your background is a librarian – did that influence your decision to start writing books and the way you write them?
I think it's all very mixed up. My father was a great reader, a great lover of books. My mother was a great cook. Together both, as influences, were very important to me for and I was also a veracious reader as a teenager.
I always loved writing stories and things and certainly, with many of my books, the story about why a dish interests me is one of the nicest parts of writing the recipe – who gave it to me, where I was when I tasted something for the first time – all those things that give character and the background to the dish.
When you're writing a book, where do you start?
Given the success of The Cook’s Companion and, hopefully the success of the books at the printers, you have to say I start at A and go all the way to Z. And that comes from those years in the library, my interest in organisation and research, and liking to have everything clearly organised – and A to Z is a fantastic way to do it.
You have to say that the success of that book, The Cook’s Companion, definitely reinforces my belief that it's a very easy way for other people to find information too. Got carrots? Look up C.
You're on book number 18 now, what motivates you to keep creating and keep writing?
I'd love to feel I've helped encourage many people to become food lovers, to enjoy cooking and eating. When I feel that there is a little part of the community that hasn't got the message, I think maybe I can give that group a little message. I’ve certainly got the young people covered in the Kitchen Garden program. I've got the adults in The Cook's Companion.
Then there's another little group of people – and some of them are adults actually – who have never learned to cook or have lost their cooking partner. That happens more often than we'd like to think, as well as the teenagers who are really interested in food, but are finding that they get paralysed by terminology or recipes that don't explain and they sort of give up.
I want them not to give up, to say that it's really simple and I've tried to explain everything that you're ever likely to encounter, in very simple language so that you can just get in there and have success.
In Brisbane we will see you at Brisbane Powerhouse in November – what's the message you're trying to share at this in-conversation event?
To live a good life. It's wonderful if you can get joy in eating well.
In the introduction to your new book The Cook’s Apprentice, you mention that one of the things you hear from people a lot is that they have no time to cook. How do you respond to people who come to you with this concern?
I often get quite crabby and say if you don't have enough time to cook, it's certainly not a priority for them. They haven't given it any thought until half past six. That's strange to me, because, when I wake up in the morning, I have a little think about what I'm going to have for dinner that night. Where am I going to be? What have I got in the freezer? Is there something I had yesterday that I can revive or add to? It is a priority for me so that's one thing that I'd say to them if they say they haven't got time.
The next thing I'd say is they probably haven't learned to cook. There are plenty of things that you can cook in 15–20 minutes, but you have to plan them. You say, ‘well on the way home I'll buy a piece of salmon’ or ‘I'll buy some fresh fish’ or ‘I'll buy some little baby lamb cutlets’ and none of those things take very long to cook.
You mentioned that one of your favourite things about writing books is remembering where you learned a recipe or the memories associated with that. Do you have a favourite food memory that stands out?
So many. I always go back to when I was a young person living at home and cooking with my mother, who was a really lovely cook as well as an interested cook. It was something I looked forward to as being the highlight of my day – get home from school, talk to mum, watch what she's doing in the kitchen, maybe help peel the apples and roll a bread roll, ask her what she's making, and then we'd have a chat about life. All of those warm and joyful memories are, for me, in the word food, really. Food and family.
Is that what food means to you: family and connection?
And sharing. I can't think of a greater joy than to share a meal with people you love.
You are a big Francophile – what is that you love about France?
A lot of things, probably the most important food-related thing I love in France is that it really is a priority – especially if you go into the country areas. When you go into a French market, you listen to the interaction between the person selling the mushrooms and the person buying them, you can hear the enthusiasm of both sides of the stall. It's fantastic. You listen and you know that French cooking is alive and well because of these people.
When we eat, we may as well eat well. I didn't invent that saying – I can't remember who said it – but that's what I feel.
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