Cook, restaurateur, food writer and champion of the quality and diversity of Australian food, Stephanie Alexander’s latest book The Kitchen Garden Companion is a book for friends and family to garden together, cook together, and of course, eat together.
MiNDFOOD: What role has your garden played in your life?
I have always had a productive garden of some sort – sometimes tiny when I lived in a small flat, just a couple of herbs in pots. I have become more and more excited by my gardening over the years. I love picking fresh vegetables for a meal. The actual tending of the garden is also relaxing and a good time for contemplation.
What do you remember most vividly of your garden and your mother’s cooking as a young girl?
Grandpa’s potatoes and a large patch of waving sweet corn and Mum’s pride in her citrus orchard. The smell of homemade bread was a lovely smell to come home to after school. Mum was always cooking something wonderful in the kitchen.
What is the first vegetable you ever planted? How did it fare?
I planted lettuces when I was about nine years old and they were only so-so. I think they didn’t get enough water and many of them went to seed. A good lesson regarding the importance of salad plants needing to grow fast with plenty of water.
What should everyone have in their garden/balcony/kitchen windowsill?
Fresh parsley. It’s so easy to grow. A good tip is to have several pots – one on the kitchen windowsill and the others outside in the fresh air. Every few days change the inside one for an outside one. Heated rooms are not good for any herb.
What is your never-fail standby meal?
A fillet or chunk of fresh fish, rubbed with extra virgin olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, seared in a non-stick pan, transferred to the oven for around 10 minutes (depending how thick the fish is), served with freshly picked green beans or snow peas, and maybe a couple of waxy potatoes, simply boiled or steamed. Scatter with a mix of chopped parsley and chives, and a knob of butter. Follow with delicious, new season strawberries.
What are your favourite ingredients for spring?
Asparagus, broad beans, snow peas, delicate salad leaves and strawberries. Artichokes too.
What is your favourite place to eat?
At home with friends.
What draws you so frequently to France?
Not that frequently alas – maybe every 18 months. I am always re-energised when I shop in a French country market. I love to watch and listen to how carefully the shoppers choose their purchases, the delightful interaction between shopper and stallholder, and the enormous respect with which quality produce is spoken about and handled.
What do you miss most about your iconic eatery, Stephanie’s Restaurant?
Perhaps the excitement of the early 1980s when I was cooking some exciting and interesting dishes, experimenting and being surrounded by a team of passionate young cooks. Camaraderie and sense of satisfaction, and positive responses from the customers are all marvellous memories. These things are all remembered long after one forgets the heat, the long hours and the challenges.
What are some of your favourite books?
I like cookbooks that tell me the story of a dish, or paint a memorable picture of a culture or of a place. The works of Elizabeth David are at the top of my list. Also Claudia Roden, Richard Olney and my friend Maggie Beer whose work oozes the Barossa Valley. There are so many.
How do you find the process of researching and writing your books?
I originally trained as a librarian so I’m used to organising information and keeping records. I also love words so I try to describe complex processes in a way that makes the process accessible and crystal clear. Tiny snippets of information catch my imagination sometimes and just set me off.
What are some of your concerns about modern food production and eating habits?
My major concern is, and has been for many years, that so many people seem to be paralysed with anxiety that they find it difficult to cook with fresh food on a daily basis. Convenient and processed foods can never taste as good as freshly chosen or freshly picked.
What is The Kitchen Garden at Collingwood College?
Collingwood College is the pilot model school for the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation. It offers a program of pleasurable food education delivered to children in Years 3-6. The program involves a weekly lesson in a productive vegetable garden and a double lesson in a teaching kitchen, cooking the produce from the garden and enjoying it around a table. This program is now on offer in 93 schools around Australia and this month we have called for further applications from every state and territory.
What affect has The Kitchen Garden had on your life and the life of those involved?
I am fully involved as founder and chair of the not-for-profit Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation. Other than my writing, it is my full-time occupation.
What inspired you to start the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation?
I believe we need to change the way young children choose food, and the best way to do this is to enable them to learn more and to have fun doing it. I started in 2001, and I can now say with confidence that the program achieves its aims.
What is the main focus of the Foundation?
Hands-on experiential learning on a regular basis over a three to four year period, with guidance given by specialist instructors. The learning is also integrated into the school curriculum.
What have been some of the highs and lows in running the Foundation?
Seeing the happy smiles on the children’s faces is always a highlight whenever I visit one of the schools. The challenges and lows are always to do with needing more funds.
Thanks to your intense lobbying in 2007, the Australian Government agreed to support 190 additional projects around Australia by 2012. What impact do you forsee this having on a small and large scale?
I am hoping that by 2012 the kitchen garden movement will have grown well beyond the 190 schools and may be seen as an effective movement for change in the way our children see fresh and healthy food. As such, it will hopefully be available to any school that wishes to include such a program.
What are some of your other goals for the future?
I am still looking for that elusive balance. It is difficult, as staying involved with all of our schools means almost constant travel. But I wouldn’t change a thing.