Home Truths with Stephanie Alexander
How Stephanie Alexander is cultivating a hunger for handpicked food and authentic cooking amongst a new generation of food lovers.
It’s a bright, crisp Autumn morning in Melbourne’s inner east when Stephanie Alexander – one of the country’s most enduring and authoritative culinary figures, thanks to celebrated titles like Recipes My Mother Gave Me and the iconic The Cook’s Companion – welcomes the Selector team into her home for this edition’s cover shoot.
An inviting split-level apartment along the banks of the Yarra River, it is here that Stephanie completed the writing for her most recent publication, Home – a sumptuous collection of recipes and musings on food, travel, and life – which was part-way finished when Covid-19 upended society and saw millions largely confined to their places of residence over a seemingly endless two-year period.
Stephanie Alexander's latest cook book 'Home'.
Stephanie Alexander reading her latest recipe book.
In its pages, she reflects on conversations shared with many people at the time; about how all they felt like doing was getting in the kitchen and cooking. Did she feel the virus changed, or at least cast in a new light, the very idea of the role that home and family occupies in our lives?
It’s always dangerous to generalise, but there is no question that some food-interested families made the decision during the dark days of lockdowns to embrace family time, and that included more cooking. Others, maybe with more money to spare, took to ordering from well-known restaurants, some of which required finishing at home so it could feel at least a little home-cooked. While I’m a confirmed introvert, I continued as ever to cook for myself and my daughter, who was my permitted buddy.
Her daughter would shop, Stephanie would cook; they’d exchange news with each other over food and wine, in some semblance of normality. “That injection of warmth and family kept me feeling ok,” she reflects.
Indeed, Home is replete with stories of Stephanie’s daughters Holly and Lisa dropping in, with recipes that have earned her granddaughter Juliet’s tick of approval, such as chicken ‘schnitzel’ Stephanie Alexander-style. It is a deeply personal, occasionally moving book, far greater than the sum of its parts; at one point, Stephanie laments how a busy life in the restaurant trade – particularly with her breakout venue, Stephanie’s Restaurant – left her time-poor when it came to practising cooking with her young daughters, who witnessed first-hand the demanding hours of a life in hospitality.
“Making time is vital,” she says. “I may not have cooked much with my two daughters when they were very young, but we love nothing more than a shared meal these days – and they still call me regularly for culinary advice! But it’s even more fun nowadays with that delightful third generation being a part of it all.”
Stephanie Alexander cooking with her daughter.
Stephanie Alexander cooking a recipe from her recipe book.
FROM LITTLE THINGS…
If there is a drive or direction in Stephanie’s work over the years, it is to communicate the value and importance of positive food choices. “At times I feel despondent at the triumph of the mass produced and the mediocre,” she says. “Convenience often pursued at a higher price and lesser quality. I try not to preach too much, but to show by example that the most delicious food does not have to break the bank.”
This emphasis on quality and provenance is a core principal of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation. Established in 2004 as a way to address Australia’s growing childhood obesity problem, the independent not-for-profit organisation supports approximately 2,000 early childhood services and schools across Australia in teaching children about “fresh, seasonal, delicious food”, with the aim of instilling a healthy approach to eating for life.
“My decision to start the Kitchen Garden movement was to communicate enthusiasm for the world of flavour and the magic of growth, in order to help develop that interest,” says Stephanie, whose own life-long love of food was inculcated early through her mother’s home-made bread rolls and regular dinner parties. “There really is nothing better than a good role model, whether your interest is in being with others at a table, or riding bikes or surfing. Enthusiasm is such a wonderful characteristic.”
Stephanie Alexander in her garden.
Stephanie Alexander with one of her dishes.
It appears to be paying dividends, too. A 2019 evaluation of the program by University of Melbourne studied the long-term impact of the Kitchen Garden program on young adults who had participated while at primary school, with 75% reporting a positive impact on their cooking skills and 64% on their cooking behaviour. Several respondents also attributed their preference for healthy food to time spent in the program as a child, as well as a general willingness to try new foods.
“We see an overwhelming positive response in all of the students – from the youngest to those in primary schools, who become skilled and confident cooks – with a profound understanding of the connection between caring for their plants and the success of the harvest,” says Stephanie. “Better still, we get to witness the joy of these students as they sit around a table to enjoy what they have made.”
WHERE THE HEART IS
Even without the Kitchen Garden Foundation, Stephanie’s legacy would already be assured through her profoundly influential publications, which reflect over 30 years' hard work and dedication to the art and joy of preparing quality food – none more so, perhaps, than The Cook’s Companion, an exhaustive collection of 100 common ingredients and over 700 recipes, many of which Stephanie learnt from her mother.
“I’m very proud of The Cook’s Companion and the way it has been embraced by Australian families,” says Stephanie, when asked to reflect on its success. “It’s a rare day that I’m not stopped by someone who will shyly tell me that it’s their ‘bible’,” she says. “To realise how many people actually use the book on a daily basis is humbling and wonderful – I’ve seen some extraordinary copies, without backs, held together with gaffer tape, smudged with stuck-together pages. Marvellous.”
Stephanie Alexander sharing Home Truths.
Stephanie Alexander adding the finishing touches.
As well-travelled as the copies of The Cook’s Companion she describes, Stephanie’s various sojourns over the years across numerous continents (including time in Tuscany with Maggie Beer running a cooking school during the late 70s, a period depicted in their co-authored Tuscan Cookbook, soon to be made into a feature film) have only deepened her connection to Australia’s rich, bountiful soils.
“I feel immensely enriched by my travel experiences but I always need to come home,” she says when asked where, given the option of living anywhere in the world, she would choose to rest her head. “I have learnt so much from fine cooks in other countries, but it is back home with the colours and the crunch of the bush, the wildness and the beauty of our coastal landscapes, and the lifelong friendships that I have that will always keep me here.”
Never one to rest on her laurels, Stephanie shows no signs of slowing down. And with Home and the Kitchen Garden Foundation, her work continues to inspire. “We need to value the times we spend together,” she says when asked how best we can nurture and sustain the benefits of breaking bread together, amongst friends and in the home. “No matter how busy we are, we need to make the time and cherish it.”
We need to value the times we spend together,” she says when asked how best we can nurture and sustain the benefits of breaking bread together, amongst friends and in the home. “No matter how busy we are, we need to make the time and cherish it.