22 YEARS AFTER HER FAMOUS COOKBOOK, STEPHANIE ALEXANDER IS STILL CHANGING THE WAY WE COOK
“I WAS VERY FORTUNATE TO COME FROM A FAMILY THAT LOVED GOOD, FRESH FOOD.”
Nothing warms Stephanie Alexander’s heart more than seeing little dirtstained hands scratch in the vegetable garden. Tiny fingers pluck the fruits of their labour from schoolyard potagers destined for the kitchen. For many it’s the first time their tastebuds are tantalised by the foreign flavours of some fruits, vegetables and herbs.
It’s one thing to watch children grow their own food, says Alexander, and another to see them grow from it.
Alexander’s name is synonymous with a book regarded as the “bible” in Australian kitchens. But for the doyenne of domesticity, The Cook’s Companion isn’t her proudest achievement. Rather it’s her philanthropic feat in the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation she founded in 2001 to ignite the palates of schoolchildren.
Her efforts to sew the seed of healthy food habits into classrooms saw Alexander appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2014. Today, more than 1500 schools have adopted the program across Australia, including more than 50 in Queensland. “It’s the fuel that keeps me going,” the 77-year-old says.
“When I see the enthusiasm and the children explain to me how much the program means to them, I feel a glow of pride. It’s the most important thing I’ve done.”
Teaching others to cook remains at the heart of what Alexander does, almost five decades since she swapped library shelves for the kitchen pass.
It’s no surprise her latest book, The Cook’s Apprentice, the 18th in her catalogue, was initially inspired by years of training young apprentices and the need to teach teenagers basic cooking techniques for adulthood.
“As I go around the country, I’m realising a lot of adults, for all sorts of different reasons, have simply not learned how to cook. They feel paralysed by anxiety. Sometimes people have lost the cook in their family, through divorce or death. Often men, but not only men. They realise they need to look after themselves and that includes cooking food.”
Alexander grew up in a small seaside town on the Mornington Peninsula. Her bookish ways saw her go on to do an Arts degree at Melbourne University to train as a librarian, and later a Diploma of Education. At 21, she left Australia to travel the world, namely France, where she became bewitched by the culinary world.
“I was very fortunate to come from a family that loved good, fresh food,” she says.
Alexander’s antipodean approach to food can be credited to her mother, Mary Burchett.
“My mother was a very good cook, but more than that she was interested in food as a way of expressing culture. She was interested in how people from different parts of the world used a fresh ingredient. As children, we were the beneficiaries of that.”
Some of Alexander’s happiest memories are coming together for a meal, but she says the dinner table is in decline.
“It’s incredibly sad and much more important than people think. A lot of the social interaction between parents and children and grandparents that can happen when you get together (to share a meal) is lost. If everyone is independently chomping down a meal elsewhere in the house, eating convenience food, or food that’s been dumbed down so that it doesn’t offend anyone’s powers — it’s not the way to raise children who need to continue to feed themselves for the rest of their lives at an affordable price.”
Alexander’s first foray into the restaurant world followed her return from London with first husband Jamaican-born Rupert Montague. They opened Jamaica House in Carlton just weeks after the birth of Alexander’s first daughter, Lisa. She admits the time was trying and later led to the couple’s split and the restaurant’s closure two years later.
“That was terrible. Life’s not a bowl of cherries every single day. My first daughter was three weeks old when I was trying to start a very simple restaurant — it wasn’t a grand restaurant by any means — but nonetheless the stresses, the hours — that was not a good time in my life. However, we got through it and we are very close.”
Seven years later in 1976, Alexander remarried, to Maurice Alexander, a barrister, with whom she had a second daughter, Holly. She opened Stephanie’s Restaurant in Fitzroy, then in a grand homestead in Hawthorn where she traded for more than two decades. “It is true that during the restaurant years my kids probably got short shrift a bit,” she says. “We ate fast meals. We lived very close to the restaurant and for many years we lived above the restaurant.”
It was here Alexander’s daughters would spy on the likes of Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall dining below.
The grandmother has no regrets of never training as a professional chef. The Cook’s Companion “changed her life”. More than 500,000 copies have sold, and still 22 years after it came off the press, she is reminded of its value in Australian kitchens. The latest, a grease-covered copy with the cover torn from its spine, was presented to her at a recent book signing. Alexander takes that as the ultimate compliment.
The Cook’s Apprentice is somewhat of a prequel to The Cook’s Companion.
“I love that I am able to use my nearly 40years of experience to pass on to other people, but to pass it on at a level that is encouraging, not frightening them with super glossy pictures that they can’t possibly hope to emulate or telling them they can finish something in five minutes,” Alexander says.
“I want to feel that I’m almost holding the hand of somebody who’s reading the recipe and they can say ‘I can do that’.”
The Cook’s Apprentice, Lantern, $45 is out now.