An interview with Stephanie Alexander

Bestselling cookbook author, Stephanie Alexander will be a guest of this year’s Island FEASTival.

Bestselling cookbook author, food education champion and former restauranteur Stephanie Alexander is one of Australia’s best-loved and most influential cooking identities. The author of the half-million selling The Cook’s Companion will be a guest of this year’s Kangaroo Island FEASTival and answers The Adelaide Review’s questions about the FEASTival, her Foundation and the art of buying a good cookbook. You will be a guest of KI FEASTival and will contribute to the Enchanted Garden dinner along with local chef Kate Sumner. The Enchanted Garden dinner will celebrate KI’s “special tastes”. Have you started to work on a menu or have an idea as to what might be on the menu? There has been a great deal of toing and froing re the menu that will be presented on Friday night [Friday, May 1]. Given the distance, this has been done electronically – although I did meet with Kate Sumner last November when we had initial discussions. A menu requirement was that the produce used could be sourced on Kangaroo Island and that it incorporated produce from major sponsors. Hence pork is featured in the menu, and I have suggested local pears to be included in the dessert course. As part of the FEASTival, you will conduct cooking demonstrations with local school children that are part of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation (SAKGF) program at the Hothouse Food Fair. Can you tell us a bit about the Hothouse cooking demonstrations you will be a part of? The three campuses of Kangaroo Island Primary School are all considering being part of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden program. I visited the Penneshaw school campus in November and watched the students plant produce in the vegetable garden. Some of their produce will be incorporated into the menu for the dinner and for the demonstrations. I am unsure exactly what this will be. The dishes selected are from my book Kitchen Garden Cooking With Kids, a book written several years ago, but designed especially to encourage children to cook simple but delicious dishes. Instructions and ideas have had to be done from a distance so I will be intrigued to see how the students perform on the day. I will be there mainly to advise and explain the work we do with schools all over the country. Will you be visiting any other parts of SA and its producers, restaurants etc. when you’re here? No. This will be a lightning visit. But I do visit SA fairly frequently, often to visit one of our schools. There are currently 98 schools actively part of the program. On your website it states that everything you have achieved and worked towards has been driven by a “desire to break down people’s anxieties about cooking, to emphasise the beauty of produce fresh from the garden, to demonstrate the pleasures of sharing around a table, so that more of us will choose to live a more joyful and healthier life”. Do you feel that today people are more aware of fresh and healthy produce and cooking than ever before (in modern times)? And if not, what can be done for people to get the message? There is no doubt that a small percentage of the adult population is increasingly interested in the provenance of their food. This group will probably grow some of their own food, visit farmers’ markets, read the food media, eat plenty of seasonal fruit and vegetables, and encourage their children to take a broad and active interest in food. But this group is a minority. The majority still chooses their food first and foremost on price, convenience and their mood (according to the very recent Medibank Health Check #5). I believe the best way to change this situation is to introduce pleasurable food education into all Australian schools, so that every child understands and experiences the importance and the pleasure of eating well, and sees the connection between fresh delicious food and the environment, and along the way develops confidence and specific skills.  Stephanie-Alexander What was the driving factor for you to initially push this ethos (fresh, healthy joyous food and cooking) outside of your restaurants? It was the way I was raised, and [that] has made my siblings and me food lovers for life. You are supporting Jamie Oliver’s global petition to persuade G20 governments to provide food education in schools. Oliver visited the pilot SAKGF program, and the program is now active in 800 schools. Have you now reached your goal of getting the program into 10 percent of Australian schools? And if you have, what is the next goal for the program? We welcome Jamie’s input into raising awareness of the need for food education for all children. Having reached our important milestone of 10 percent of all Australian schools with a primary curriculum, and having completed the project we undertook with the Australian government, we are now moving away from recruiting school-by-school and offering a membership to the Kitchen Garden Classroom to any school in Australia, including early learning centres as well as secondary schools. The SAKGF will continue to support our existing 800 Kitchen Garden Program Schools and will offer support and training to the schools and centres that decide to introduce pleasurable food education into their community. A lot has been made about how the food and restaurant scene in Australia has matured and reached new heights over the last five years or so. Do you think this is the case? And if so (or not) – why? I no longer feel able to comment on the restaurant scene. It has moved so fast and expanded to such a degree that it would be better to ask someone younger and more of a regular restaurant goer. You released your autobiography A Cook’s Life a few years ago and last year upgraded The Cook’s Companion with two new chapters. Is there another cookbook on the cards? And if so, what will you focus on? There is a great deal more in the revised Cook’s Companion than two new chapters. Every line was examined for an update on statistics, to reflect changes in laws and regulations, to incorporate ingredients that are now mainstream such as truffles into already existing chapters, to correct inconsistencies, to reflect new practices in aquaculture etc. In short, a year’s work. And of course this year’s work also produced the Cook’s Companion App, unique, I believe, in encompassing the entire content of the Cook’s Companion in a format that is searchable, has many photographs and how-to videos, and is a delight to use. I love having it on my iPad and iPhone, especially if I am on holiday, or overseas and wanting to cook a favourite dish. And I am always writing something but nothing that will appear this year. The Cook’s Companion is known in Australia as a bible for home cooks and has sold half a million copies here. Outside of Australia, UK chef, writer and presenter Nigel Slater listed it as one of his five favourite cookbooks of all time, writing that it “has a very clever balance between information and inspiration”. Was that balance between “information and inspiration” one of your chief aims? And how was the book received outside of Australia? I think Nigel Slater’s remark about achieving a balance between information and inspiration is very apt. I wanted to reduce anxiety for new cooks by giving clear, basic information, and encourage all cooks to try something new or a bit different. Nigella’s [Lawson] comment on the back of the book is “Anyone who cooks – or eats – needs this book” and Jamie Oliver and Yotam Ottolenghi also make very complimentary remarks. I think The Cook’s Companion is well-known to cooks and chefs in the UK. There are thousands upon thousands of cookbooks out there – and a lot from people outside of the food industry. What are your thoughts on non-cooks and -chefs lending their name to cookbooks? Cookbooks come and go very rapidly. I hope that the ones that sell well do so because their content is helpful to people, rather than because someone has endorsed the book or lent their name. Why would I buy a cookbook purporting to be the work of an actress who has never before shown any interest in promoting or supporting good food? And what is your advice to people searching for a good cookbook? Are there some easy-to-recognise signs to decipher whether a book will be a valued addition to your kitchen? I have to admit to my bias. Buy The Cook’s Companion, and The Kitchen Garden Companion also if you are starting your own vegetable patch. Seriously though, reputation is what I look for. Does the author have the knowledge to write something about the particular style of food or the country it purports to investigate? Sealink Kangaroo Island FEASTival May 1 to May 8

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