Alice Zaslavsky aka Alice in Frames, has always lived in a world of colour. From her grandfather’s vegetable harvest to the arrival of her new rainbow coloured cookbook, she has always celebrated life’s simple pleasures.
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I was a latchkey kid, my parents are academics, so I’d arrive home to an afternoon tea of borscht,” remembers Alice, whose early childhood was spent in post-Soviet Georgia. “That bright pink soup was love,” she says. “It sounds silly, but it was a connection to my Mum, a gesture of love; I loved the bowls of soup she’d leave for us.”
Grocery shopping in post-Glasnost Georgia was undertaken with ration tickets in hand.
“Georgia was seen as a place of deficit and disadvantage, but that’s not how we felt as children,” Alice recalls.
“We celebrated everything – my grandfather had a dacha (summer house) where he grew veggies and made wine, we preserved fruits and vegetables and I remember chasing butterflies through the fields, it felt like the land of plenty.”
It wasn’t until much later that Alice realised her parents had shielded her from scarcity.
“Food was very important to them, they saved and scrounged so we could try new foods which always had a sense of celebration,” she says. “I remember trying banana for the first time. My brother went on a school excursion to Switzerland and brought home a souvenir banana. We sliced it up and shared it, this extraordinary tropical fruit I can now eat every day if I feel like it.”
A New Life
The family left Georgia in 1990 bound for Australia via Singapore.
“We weren’t allowed to take anything with us,” she remembers. “All of the family heirlooms had to stay. I snuck a silver cigarette case in my pocket and I can still feel the weight of it,” she says.
While the family first settled in Bondi, Alice’s parents eventually found posts at Melbourne universities and they moved to Victoria. Alice’s teenage years were punctuated with overseas travel.
“Mum and Dad were always guest lecturing or had speaking engagements so we did stints in some pretty great food towns,” she says.
Periods spent in Israel, Italy, Thailand, Portugal, Spain and Luleå, Sweden, on the edge of the Arctic circle, gave young Alice, she says, “a context for so many different foods and an understanding of food cultures. Israel was the land of milk and honey, so many delicious flavours. In Bangkok I was a feral teen bouncing around the MBK Shopping Centre food court, I was in heaven, all those little food stores, tasting new flavours, I became quite obsessed with some, I ate my bodyweight in pomelo,” she laughs.
Upon graduating from school she decided to undertake Creative Arts at Melbourne University.
“My parents were slightly horrified I’d chosen to go into the humanities, not the sciences like them.”
Parental approval arrived when their daughter channelled her creative tendencies into teaching and rose to become the Deputy Head of Humanities at a reputable middle school.
“When I walked up in front of a class I thought, ‘this is a stage, this is my audience’, it was a lightbulb moment, the energy in the room, young minds to fill,” she describes. “I realised I was slipping food into my lessons more and more and the kids really engaged with it,” she says. “I set about designing an elective food subject.”
Her students’ receptiveness set her on the path that would eventually see her as a contestant on Masterchef in 2012. “I figured if I auditioned for Masterchef, my kids would see me on TV and they’d want to do my subject,” she laughs. The school felt differently. “They were supportive at first, but once I got through more and more rounds of auditions I was given an ultimatum – ‘See you in class on Monday, or don’t come back.’ I didn’t show up on Monday.”
Beyond The Classroom
In the years since, she has launched her own food education program, Phenomenom, now in over 3,000 schools; produced and presented television series for kids Kitchen Whiz and Crunch Time; been food editor of a Melbourne lifestyle glossy; become Culinary Correspondent for ABC TV News Breakfast; and published two books, Alice’s Food A-Z for kids (Walker Books) and now, for adults; In Praise of Veg: A Modern Kitchen Companion (Murdoch Books).
“When we were growing up in Georgia, the arrival of a certain vegetable was celebrated, every season,” she says. “Many Australians, largely, haven’t had that experience, vegetables have tended to be on the edge of the plate, not in the centre.”
Her new book aims to address that. Dressed in a vibrant cover with borscht-pink text screaming the title, the book catalogues vegetables by colour, with tips for storage and handling, matrixes outlining modes of cooking, notes on pairings and over 150 recipes, it’s a celebration of food that grows in the dirt and Alice’s homage to vegetables.
Many of the recipes are those she cooks at home for her young family. Now settled on the Mornington Peninsula, life remains full of colour. The arrival of the first copy of the book to her door during Victoria’s second lockdown was a cause for great celebration. “That was a truly special day,” she says.