To celebrate International Women’s Day, we speak with influential women who impact the way we shop, cook and think about food.
International Women's Day: Stephanie Alexander
Stephanie Alexander AO is regarded as one of Australia’s great chefs and food educators. Her reputation has been earned through 30 years as an owner-chef in several restaurants, as the author of 17 influential books (including an Australian classic, The Cook’s Companion), and for her ground-breaking work in creating the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, proudly supported by Coles.
Name a female chef or mentor who has in some way inspired your career.
My mother has been the most important influence or mentor for my career in food.
On a daily basis she demonstrated the happiness and satisfaction she received in giving pleasure to other people through an experience around the table. This is still what motivates me.
She was also an artist and found additional pleasure in selecting or making everything to do with the table a delight. She embroidered tablemats. She made tiny posies of flowers, including grasses and probably weeds, she collected pottery pieces, she made her own bread rolls, she experimented with fresh cheese, she preferred a meal that had two or three small courses, and she embraced culinary diversity wherever she found it.
I also want the table to be a delight to the eye even before my guests take a single bite. Bowls and serving dishes have been collected over a lifetime, ditto tablecloths, a linen one from St Remy, an embroidered one from Umbria, and so on. And always flowers. These principles underlined the experience at Stephanie’s Restaurant, for 21 years, reinforced by well-chosen and beautifully cooked pretty simple food. I probably put more time into cultivating suppliers for fine produce and encouraging these people to consider other varieties (softer-leaved lettuces, or green beans picked smaller for instance) than she did. But she also grew more of her own than I have been able to.
What has been the biggest positive change you’ve seen regarding women in the food industry in the past 5-10 years?
In looking at the food industry over the past 10 years from the distance of someone no longer part of it, it is pleasing to see so many strong capable women at the helm of their own businesses. I am very aware that I am the old guard and am careful to avoid generalisations but all I see are positive models for younger women just starting out.
If you could change anything about the opportunities for women in food today, what would it be?
The industry is still a difficult one to reconcile with family life. Especially with young children. I am confident that today’s confident and professional female cooks and chefs can negotiate through the issues of long hours, anti-social hours and the need for time with families. Long gone are the 15-hour days and routine double shifts. I was guilty of some of this myself, also with my staff, and I know that today’s chefs and cooks of any sex want a better life balance.
What was the best thing that happened in your own food career?
One of the best things that happened in my food career was the opportunity to write about it all. The early food media was hungry for pieces written by practitioners and for articles that debated or described “trends” from Europe. This in turn prompted overseas travel which at one and the same time expanded my food knowledge but also reinforced my pride in the egalitarian character of our food industry.
What would you say to a young woman considering a career in food today?
I would say to any young hospitality worker to get a sense of how far we have come. History is important and revealing. I consider myself amongst those pioneers who made sure we had a greater choice of fresh vegetables, fresh herbs and all manner of green things, who encouraged our cheesemakers and farmers, who started to describe food rather than give dishes fanciful names (this can get out of hand), and who were open to learning how to appreciate the ingredients and methods from so many other cultures. Read some books written by Australian pioneers and be pleased that you will be working in such a vibrant and appreciative environment.
See Stephanie’s recipes here.