Australian chef and author Stephanie Alexander reflects on her own childhood memories of food, shares some tips for entertaining at home and talks about her joy at teaching kids how to grow, and love, fresh food.
Stephanie Alexander inspires a new generation of home cooks
Q: As a child, who in particular shaped your own attitude to food?
“My mother was a very good cook and a keen gardener. She was helped in the garden by my grandfather. As a child I took for granted that probably at every meal something would have come from the garden.”
Q: What are your personal memories of great family food occasions, such as Christmas?
“My Mum loved to have special food experiences, so every birthday was a bit special. And we had many happy times around the table with family. There were always great stories as well as lovely food.”
Q: What do you value most about hosting friends and family over a meal?
“I always make the table beautiful. I think carefully about the menu. I love the opportunity to catch up and listen to my friends. As always, it is the stories and the food that make the moment memorable.”
Q: What are the small things a host can do that have the power to make a meal memorable?
“I do as much pre-preparation as possible. The table is set. The salad greens are washed and dried and waiting in the refrigerator. The gratin is ready in the oven. I do not want my friends around me in the kitchen. I want to sit and enjoy that first drink and welcome remarks, relaxed, knowing that all is ready to go. I want to be absent from the table for the shortest possible time, so I prefer self-service dishes or big platters of food. Generosity and beautiful colours are both important to me.”
Q: In our quest to create Instagram-able dishes are we forgetting the importance of sharing food with others around a table?
“I hope not. It is the most accessible pleasure for everyone if they take the time to learn how to make simple things well. The Instagram-pics of perfect food are terrifying for an anxious cook and dissuade as many as they inspire, I believe.”
Q: We hear that many more people are now cooking (and baking) at home because of the pandemic – is this here to stay or just a passing trend?
“Hopefully many have realised how possible and pleasurable it is to share the table with the entire family more often. I hope that all members of the family can be involved so that the work is shared along with the pleasure. Not everyone wants to or needs to struggle with a sourdough starter!”
Q: Early European settlers in Australia were known for their frugality – can we learn from their example as we deal with the pandemic?
“I like the challenge of using leftovers creatively and my friends almost expect it of me! In these difficult times, there will be many who will find it much more difficult to make ends meet. I hope they can explore foods that are inexpensive – pulses, legumes, green vegetables, fresh pasta and noodles, eggs, fresh cheese and-so-on. Eating well has to be a family priority and then it is possible to cook beautiful dishes without spending lots of money. And do stay away from convenience foods.”
Q: You launched The Kitchen Garden Foundation to improve the food habits of Australian children – how important is the charity to you?
“The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation is very important to me. My entire 30 years of professional life has been aimed at maximising the pleasures associated with eating well for happiness and good health. It seemed logical that once I had completed my work in restaurants, I should turn my energies to developing a school-based program aimed at helping children understand all about good fresh food.”
Q: The Kitchen Garden Foundation has partnered with hundreds of schools – how important is that partnership and what are the tangible results?
“When anyone visits a kitchen garden school they are usually overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the students. The students are very proud of their achievements, and they achieve a great deal. In a short time they become competent and curious gardeners with an impressive grasp of sustainability issues. In the kitchen they learn skills as well as how to make simple and delicious dishes from fresh seasonal ingredients. The partnership between educators, support staff, school principals, the school community and, of course, the students themselves continues to inspire me.”
Q: How important is it for children to grow some of their own food?
“Growing any food is a pretty special thing for anyone. It is the nearest thing to magic to put a bean in a pot and to watch it grow. Many children have never had the experience of touching soil or digging and planting; such simple things have a big impact. Students feel differently about a pasta dish that is scattered with parsley, basil and tomatoes from their own garden.”