Growing up in Melbourne, Curtis Stone started baking fudge with his grandmother at the age of five. It was at this young age that he discovered his love for cooking and at 18 he started his chef’s apprenticeship at Melbourne’s Savoy Hotel. Working alongside international chefs at the Savoy, Stone was inspired to travel to Europe before ending up in London.
Stone’s UK career started at Marco Pierre White’s Grill Room. He then moved to White’s Mirabelle as sous-chef and played a large role in putting together the Mirabelle Cookbook. After winning White’s trust Stone was handed the reins at Quo Vadis, where he received critical acclaim. He remained at Quo Vadis for several years before moving to Terence Conran’s exclusive Restaurant 301.
Reality television then came calling and Stone was offered his first television series in the UK, Dinner in a Box, where he showed people how to create meals for a dinner party. He then returned to Australia to film the Surfing the Menu series with his friend, Ben O’Donoghue. The popular series Take Home Chef was Stone’s US debut; he would “pick up” a woman in the supermarket (he was named one of the sexiest men alive in People magazine, after all), take her home and help her cook for her partner, family or friends. “It was awkward at first,” says Stone of the show’s unusual concept, “but it was a great introduction to the American culture.”
Los Angeles has been Stone’s home for the past three years and he is now keeping himself busy with a new book, a new show and possibly a new restaurant.
MiNDFOOD: Is there a concept behind your book, Relaxed Cooking with Curtis Stone?
The idea behind the new book is to try to make the kitchen a more sane place. As a chef I think you take a lot for granted – if I was making a roast beef I would just take some sauce from work. When I started cooking in people’s homes for Take Home Chef, I thought, “It’s a lot harder than I remember.” For example, you have time and ingredient restraints.
Cooking is much more than creating good food, it’s also about having a nice time. If you’re stressed out it affects the taste of the meal and the experience. I believe if you cook something with love you can really taste it. So with my book the concept is about making cooking a relaxed experience. I’ve kept the recipes really simple; there isn’t a massive list of ingredients or drawn-out cooking methods.
From your time on Take Home Chef what utensils do you find are often missing from people’s kitchens?
The only thing you really need, to be able to cook well, is a sharp knife, a decent-sized cutting board and a good pan – a non-stick pan if you cook fish or a good cast-iron pan. Everything else is a luxury, but if you have nice toys you’re more inclined to enjoy it. If you enjoy it, that energy flows into the food.
I created a kithenware range to help people sort out their kitchen. Some of the pieces are really practical and some are simply nice-looking.
Your kitchenware range comes in 100 per cent recycled packaging. Is the environment high on your list of priorities?
Definitely. I think living sustainably has become fashionable, which is great. Creating kitchenware is a new industry for me so I had the opportunity to ask lots of questions. I started researching and found that bamboo is sourced from sustainable plantations, so it made sense to use it. I have incorporated other environmentally friendly components into the range, too.
I think anything to do with food should be sustainable. We shouldn’t waste. Our fast-paced lives mean we now give little thought to the food chain. If you had to kill your own chicken for meat you wouldn’t throw it out at the end of the week simply because you hadn’t had a chance to cook it.
Do you find it hard to keep in touch with what’s in season when you can buy almost anything from the supermarket?
It’s easy to blame supermarkets for everything, just like it’s easy to blame fast-food chains for the obesity crisis. The harsh reality is we choose what we want to eat. If we wanted to eat salads and smoothies, that’s what the fast-food chains would provide, but we want to eat burgers and fries, so that’s what they give us. Supermarkets will keep giving us food that is out of season because we keep asking for it.
If everyone took a stance one week by going to a farmers market instead of a supermarket, I guarantee things would change. Supermarkets would say, “Let’s stop stocking apples in the middle of summer and strawberries in the middle of winter and be more like the farmers markets.” Consumers don’t realise how powerful they are. If we all took a stance about what’s important to us, collectively we would have a big say.
What are some of the more surprising things you’ve learnt about people’s eating habits?
I think the biggest shock for me, as a chef, is just how little people know about food. I remember when I first travelled through Italy I stayed on a mate’s farm. They would make their own pasta, make their own sauces, kill their own pigs to make salami and grow their own grapes to make wine. I can remember looking at this family and thinking how different it was to how I lived. Some cultures are more in touch with food and they appreciate it more.
I think one of the good things that has come from the downturn in the economy is people are rethinking what they eat. People can’t afford to eat out as much any more and they have to think twice about getting takeaway. People have to start cooking more.
Do you cook much for yourself?
Yes, I do. I live on my own and I think it’s a bit tougher to cook for yourself, just for one person, but I do. I’ve learnt to cook more simply when I’m on my own. I also entertain a lot so my kitchen is always in action.
Is it difficult to keep creating recipes?
It was a challenge when I was doing Take Home Chef. We made 140 episodes and by the time I reached the 137th episode I had to think of another dessert. It was a struggle. But I love food, so all I have to do is walk through a market and find some fresh peaches and think, “What can I do with those?”
What’s next for you?
I’m working on the next series of The Biggest Loser in the US. We are creating a kitchen “boot camp” where I teach the contestants how to cook. I’m really interested in the concept of the show and I’m interested in how society is progressing.
Australia has just taken over as the most obese country in the world. It’s horrible and embarrassing. I think it’s important to educate people about how to have a healthy, balanced life.
I’m also looking at sites in LA to open my own restaurant and I’m looking at a resort in Miami. I want to be back in a restaurant. Something will happen in the next 12 months. I’m ready.
What did you learn from making the Surfing the Menu series?
It was such a learning curve. I was an arrogant chef at 27. I thought I knew all there was to know about ingredients and food. Surfing the Menu was a surfing cooking show and I thought, “What a bludge,” but it wasn’t.
We spent time with farmers. For example, I would meet a farmer and hear about his passion for mangoes. It helped me to develop more respect for food. I met a mussel farmer and he spoke about the drought and how it had affected the size of the mussels. There wasn’t as much run-off of rain into the ocean and so there were less nutrients in the water. I didn’t really appreciate how the health of the ocean affected the health of the mussels. It really got me thinking about where I sourced my food from. It changed my whole outlook on food.
What can people cook this winter?
Winter is about soups and slow-cooked foods such as pot roasts. I recommend that everyone cook baby back ribs – they are delicious and much more meaty than spare ribs. The great thing about winter is it gives you the opportunity to stay in. There’s nothing like coming home to a warm, nice-smelling kitchen.