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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.

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