CTHHEACMOPIOOKN’S

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

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Delicious On Sunday - By Stephanie Alexan­der, Lan­tern, $69.99, out to­mor­row by Stephanie Alexan­der.

“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

QUEEN OF THE KITCHEN Stephanie Alexan­der.

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