She’s become a household name thanks to her incredibly popular cookbook The Cook’s Companion — which is without question one of the greatest culinary guides of our time — but Stephanie Alexander says everything she learned in the kitchen she owes to her mother.
In an exclusive tell-all chat with Starts at 60, the beloved Aussie cook, 77, revealed her earliest memories were spent in the kitchen with her late mother, Mary Burchett, who inspired her love of food.
“She loved to cook… she had a very broad interest in food, she was interested in ingredients and how other people in other countries cooked with the same ingredients,” Stephanie said.
Stephanie wrote about her mother in her 2012 biography A Cook’s Life, and described her as a passionate home cook and published food writer, who was curious about diverse ingredients when much of Australia was stuck in an Anglo-Saxon foodie rut.
It was her mother who really inspired her love of the kitchen. Like many parents raising their kids in the 1950s and ’60s, Mary expected her daughter to help around the house and pitch in to help run the family’s caravan park on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. It was through this that Stephanie learned the importance of growing food and cooking with fresh ingredients from the family’s kitchen garden.
If Stephanie has a regret, it’s that she never took the time to thank her mother for her invaluable influence.
“Very few children at the time when I was growing up had that background,” she said. “By the time I was 14, I felt very confident in the kitchen. I don’t believe I ever fully expressed to my mother my gratitude.”
While she’s undoubtedly skilled in the kitchen, slicing and dicing like the best of them, the talented cook didn’t plan on a life behind the chopping board. In fact, Stephanie studied to become a librarian, with no thoughts of working with food professionally.
“My passion for all things to do with food continued throughout my library years,” she said. “I dipped my toes into food service with my first restaurant Jamaica House with my first husband. A very difficult time. It took me a few more years to decide to have another go and this time with the beginning of Stephanie’s Restaurant I was off and running.”
Stephanie’s Restaurant closed in 1997 after years of critical acclaim. It was groundbreaking in the way it used seasonal Australian produce to showcase the flavours of the country and cemented Stephanie’s name as a leader in the nation’s culinary scene.
Her love of cooking with seasonal produce and growing food at home has transcended into all areas of her professional life and since 2004, she has been travelling the country with her Kitchen Garden Foundation helping schools set up gardens in which students grow vegetables they then turn into meals. The initiative has been taken up by more than 1,700 Australian schools.
“I believe that it’s very important for young children to have that sort of food education and for many of them sadly it doesn’t happen at home,” she said.
Stephanie’s latest cookbook, The Cook’s Apprentice, is dedicated to the students she has met over the years through the foundation. The book is a hands-on guide with tips, techniques — such as poaching chicken or skinning a fillet of fish — and recipes inspired by her popular 1996 cookbook, The Cook’s Companion, which is still used in kitchens around the country today.
Stephanie says her new book encourages all aspiring cooks, no matter their age, to believe “that they can become confident [cooks] and have a great time making lovely fresh food”.
“Once they’ve cooked their way through The Cook’s Apprentice they may well want to graduate to The Cook’s Companion,” she added.
It seems a lifetime of eating simple, quality ingredients has paid off for Stephanie, who will turn 78 in November. She says she’s “100 per cent fit” and that her health is fabulous.
The food educator has no time for fad diets and managed to resist the rollercoaster of diet trends that dominated the culinary world throughout the late ’80s and 90s.
“As far as I’m concerned, if one lives a life eating fresh food, you are going to lead a healthy life. It isn’t hard and there are alternatives to living on takeaway and convenience,” she said.
For Stephanie cooking and sharing a meal is its own reward. The Melbourne-based chef says the greatest dishes are often the most simple.
“I’ve always loved cooking. I use fresh ingredients always… But I don’t usually make it complicated unless I’m having a bit of a show-off dinner for my friends.”
So what does her ideal dish look like these days? For Stephanie is a simple meal of fresh fish with a few vegetables and a small green salad.
“I find as I get older my interest in complicated dishes diminishes,” she added.
Feeling inspired? Stephanie shared with us a delicious recipe from The Cook’s Apprentice!