On the eve of the publication of her 16th cookbook, Stephanie Alexander invites us into her Melbourne home to talk about her affection for list making, orderly kitchens, and family dinnertimes. SIMON PLANT meets the doyenne of domesticity
“If I’m eating on my own, I always sit at the table,” Stephanie Alexander says.
Always? “Yes. It is a ritual which I take quite seriously.”
Alexander – married twice, now a single woman – explains: “I always set my glass of water, my glass of wine, napkin, table mat. It wouldn’t occur to me not to do that. It’s my little occasion.”
We are sitting around Alexander’s table, the long smooth one that anchors her light-filled inner city apartment, and it has nothing on it except a pitcher of water with two glasses.
Close by, native flowers erupt from vases, fruit is heaped on bowls and art glows on the walls. But Alexander’s kitchen, like the table, is clean as a whistle. Everything is in its place, from the big range stove to the gleaming double-door fridge.
“I haven’t got a lot of space here,’’ she says. “So I don’t want people arriving and seeing the bench piled high with pots and pans and dishes. I like to have things under control.”
Alexander – a librarian before she became our best-known cook and food educator – channels her orderliness into a new book, The Cook’s Table.
Here she curates 130 recipes to share with family and friends, inspired by “lovely, relaxed occasions” in her life. The recipes are woven into 25 menus that encourage readers to create memorable occasions of their own.
To help them on their way, Alexander supplies carefully compiled lists and meticulous timetables, “so you, the host, can participate in all the conversations and not have your back to family and friends in a state of perpetual anxiety”.
Shopping, prepping, planning – The Cook’s Table imparts lessons learned by Alexander over 40 years as an “enthusiastic cook” and 25 years working in a professional kitchen at her famed restaurant, Stephanie’s.
“It is sort of a companion to The Cook’s Companion,” she says, referring to the super-selling Australian food bible she wrote 21 years ago. “I think the new book certainly carries on the things I’ve always felt were important ... about freshness and balance and a meal having several parts.” Alexander learned to cook from her mother,
Mary Burchett, while
her organisational skills were inherited from her father, an exacting archivist.
“I’m still a great list maker – probably more than ever,” she says. But Alexander insists being organised and systematic is the only way she can manage all the demands on her time: writing, travelling and spearheading the Kitchen Garden Foundation she established in 2004.
What began as a pilot program at one Collingwood school has evolved into a nationwide program of “pleasurable food education” across 830 schools.
And after 12 years, Alexander is constantly reminded that, “for a lot of children, sitting round a table eating and talking is something they just don’t do”.
“I accept life has changed and that for a lot of families, sitting down to dinner is hard,” she says. “But I’d like to think that people still value what happens round the shared table, even if they can only manage it once or twice a week. It should be a treasured time. It certainly was when I was growing up.”
The memories she shares in the new book span a lifetime, and between the lines, she offers a few autobiographical insights, one being her need for privacy.
“I find it quite hard to be in social situations unless I’m with people I’ve known for a very long time,” she tells me. “It’s partly not having a partner, in the sense that you move into a big crowded room on your own which looks very obvious.
"I’m much more comfortable around a table with strangers or people I know well. I’m not good working a room, put it that way.”
Of all her achievements, Alexander is especially proud of The Cook’s Companion, first published in 1997 as “the essential book for all those who love good food”.
“I don’t know how I did it,’’ she sighs. “It was an absolute effort to get through that work. Yet, once I started, I knew it was good and that I had to continue to do it at that level.”
Now 75, she’s still aiming high. The Cook’s Companion is regularly reprinted, and is still being fine-tuned by its eagleeyed author.
“It’s a living thing to me and to be treated with enormous respect,” she says.
And hardly a day passes when someone does not turn to her in a tram or the supermarket and say how much the book means to them.
“That is an incredible thing for me to know,” she says. “There would be very few authors of any genre, I would say, who get that sort of constant feedback.”
Among contemporary food writers, Alexander has a soft spot for Nigella Lawson whose recipe for coffee ice cream appears in The Cook’s Table.
“Nigella has been a great fan,” she says, “and I try to see her when she comes out here ... we’ve sat and had dinner together a couple of times, once in London, another time in Australia. We both feel strongly about family times around the table.” Who do you cook for today? “My two children, Lisa and Holly, and Lisa’s partner, Marco, and three or four close friends I’ve known for nearly 50 years. They’d be my most regular table companions.”
No matter who walks through the door of her riverside apartment, Alexander, a self-confessed control freak, is in charge.
“There are others who love to do it another way, who enjoy the chaos and like dragging everybody else in to peel this or wash that, but I can’t stand that. We have to agree to differ.”
A table for one is easiest of all and Alexander knows exactly what she is serving tonight. “I’m testing out my new pasta machine,” she explains. “So I’ve got some lovely tomatoes, which I’ll turn into a sauce, a red pepper which I’ll roast beforehand and add to the sauce, some olives and nice parmesan.”
Salad? “Yes, I think I’ve got just enough lettuce to make a salad for one. I’m very big on using what’s in the house...”
Alexander smiles. “In a creative way, of course.” The Cook’s Table