Pen, plate and garden still drive Stephanie Alexander

Australia’s famous chef, writer and educator explains the power of the plate.

Stephanie Alexander is tireless. The renowned cook, restaurateur and food writer has built her reputation over 30-plus years and she appears to have no intention of slowing down just yet.

She was an owner-chef in several highly regarded restaurants and has written 15 books and countless articles about food. But perhaps the project that has given her the most satisfaction is the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation ­ a not-for-profit organisation teaching school children how to grow, harvest, prepare and share fresh food – for which she was appointed an Officer of the Order ofAustralia.

Despite a hectic Australia-wide tour to promote her latest book, The Cook’s Apprentice, she made time to talk with YourLifeChoices.

YourLifeChoices: You recently turned 78. What did you have for a special lunch/dinner?

Stephanie Alexander: Grilled calamari with olive oil and lemon, followed by spaghetti with clams and a bit of chilli – at The Grand (inMelbourne), my local.

Food, travel and writing would be a dream combination for many. What were the key influences that brought that about?

SA: Probably my parents’ influence. Mother a great and curious cook and Dad a great reader and traveller. Both interested in books and the wide world.

You have just published your 16th book, The Cook’s Apprentice, which is a back-to-basics collection of tips, explanations and recipes mainly aimed at new cooks. What was the motivation? Are you concerned that families are neglecting cooking skills?

SA: I still meet too many young and not-so-young people who do not cook because they cannot – often because they are anxious. I hope that with friendly, clear instruction and explanations I can persuade some of them to give it a go.

Do you have a favourite Stephanie Alexander book?

SA: Not really although I did enjoy the research and fun that went into Cooking and Travelling in South-West France. Of course no one can live without The Cook’s Companion!

You have two daughters – are they accomplished cooks?

SA: They can cook and enjoy being around a table.

Are you concerned that home cooks are losing touch with using seasonal produce because foods are always available from somewhere in the world?

SA: Yes I am.  My work with the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation has, as one of its principal aims, to encourage young children at primary school to grow, harvest, prepare and share seasonal foods so that they do understand the seasons.

I have been in love with Brussels sprouts for 18 months. What is your favourite food now? And wine?

SA: I couldn’t possibly name a favourite. but I was particularly enjoying plenty of asparagus and tender green leaves during spring.

Is there a dish that brings back strong memories of your childhood?

SA: Mum’s rabbit pie was a much-loved feature of every family picnic. It still features in family gatherings.

Do you have a theory as to why food allergies are so common these days compared with 50 years ago?

SA: No one has a single answer. Being over-zealous with scrupulous aversion to dirt is one idea I rather like. But I have a brother with an egg and peanut allergy and he had plenty of contact with dirt as I remember as a young kid, so no I have no idea. Some of it is imaginary I believe.

My chef son-in-law, and others, say the most important tool in the kitchen is a sharp knife. Do you agree? What is the second most important item?

SA: A really good well-seasoned iron frying pan that never buckles and food never sticks in it. And I do love my food processor.

You have travelled extensively. Where haven’t you been that is at the top of your bucket list?

SA: Probably places inAustralia in the far north. I am becoming less interested in travelling.

You set up the Kitchen Garden Foundation in schools in 2001 because of your concern about children’s knowledge of food and cooking. Now, more than 1500 schools are participating. What’s the best feedback you have received?

SA: It’s the many parents who tell me that they are noticing changes in their child’s behaviour – they’re more interested in what goes on in the kitchen at home; offers to help; suggestions when out shopping, a willingness to try ingredients they’ve never tasted before.

It’s your favourite time of the week – where are you and what are you doing?

SA: After a busy day I like to take to my favourite couch and watch the afternoon light fade on the gum trees outside my window, with a book and either a cup of tea or even a glass of wine.

You’ve been on a major tour of Australia to promote your book. Is this your idea of retirement or what does retirement look like to you?

SA: I am certainly not yet retired and I think retirement for me is probably more of the same, but maybe less travelling around and more reading, thinking, writing, and sharing good times with friends.

What should I cook for dinner?

SA: Whatever takes your fancy. I will probably have a piece of grilled John Dory with slow-roasted bullhorn peppers, all with extra virgin olive oil and a green salad.

Do you have a Stephanie Alexander cookbook on the shelf? Have your children or grandchildren participated in her Kitchen Garden Foundation?

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