Moved by the muse: Rosheen Kaul
For Rosheen Kaul, author of Chinese-ish and head chef at Etta, home is where the art is.
It's been a busy month for Rosheen Kaul. Heck, it's been a busy year. Her cookbook Chinese-ish, co-created with friend and illustrator Joanna Hu, has been met with critical acclaim, garnering a coveted James Beard award for Hu's striking illustrations as well as a World Gourmand award. Etta, where Kaul presides as head chef, continues its run as one of Melbourne's hottest dining destinations. Deadlines loom for her Good Food and The Guardian columns, and, as we connect with her, she's in preparation for a European sojourn to get some much-deserved R&R.
The culinary life wasn't always a pre-determined destination for Kaul, however, who spent time selling Jimmy Choo shoes while studying the sciences - first geosciences, before switching to a psychology major. By her early twenties, however, she realised it just wasn't her thing, and shelved the books in favour of an apron.
Suddenly, things clicked. "I knew almost instantly that I'd found the job for me," recalls Kaul. "The adrenaline, the urgency... I absolutely adored it."
From there, Kaul apprenticed at Lee Ho Fook, a new-style Chinese restaurant by Victor Liong. A list of high-profile restaurants followed: Ezard, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Smith & Deli, with Kaul accruing valuable skills along the way - until Covid hit, and the world went sideways for the hospitality scene. Restlessly creative and without the props and drive of a commercial kitchen as an outlet, Kaul's response to lockdown was to draft an easy-to-prep collection of Asian recipes for all those people now suddenly cooking more at home.
She reached out to Hu, who she'd become friends with a year or so earlier following a night out spent mutually admiring each other's taste in clothes (seriously, look at that jacket), and asked if she'd be interested in illustrating the work. Thus was born The Iso (Asian) Cookbook series, a zine inspired by her part-Chinese, part-Singaporean, part-Kashmiri heritage - a reflection of her status as a self-described "third culture kid." Suffice to say, things once more clicked.
"It was fun, really, because we were creating to satisfy our own creative energy, without any interference from publishers or care for commercial viability," recalls Kaul. "Jo and I were able to create entirely for our own joy. We share similarly high standards that teeter on perfectionism, as well as very clear creative identities. It just so happened that as Asian-Australians we shared content too, and we collaborated with ease."
Rosheen Kaul's SUSTAINED INSPIRATION
Soon after, Kaul was invited by ex-Attica staffer Hannah Green, owner of Etta in Brunswick East, to take on the role of new head chef. Green almost instantly became a mentor to Kaul, who had yet to run her own kitchen. "It was based in blind trust," says Kaul. "She saw something in me that she liked, and offered to show me the ropes. My job requirements were always a little vague, left unstipulated so that I could find my own way."
Find her way Kaul did, building on Etta's already-established reputation with her own distinctive take on modern cross-cultural culinary practice, drawn from a complex web of family, memory, and association.
"We use food as the method of communicating the intricacies of culture within my family. My parents met in Singapore, where both my sister and I were born. The ceremonies of cooking and eating, as well as the ingredients and approach to cuisine are the clearest representation of a way of life practiced by a culture in a particular region," she says.
"Beyond the logistics of a menu, I look to produce for inspiration, then I look into my own culture and flavour memories for times when I've eaten this or that ingredient. Once I have that flavour memory, the rest is easy."
It was blind trust. She saw something in me that she liked, and offered to show me the ropes.
Then came Chinese-ish: Home Cooking, Not Quite Authentic, 100% Delicious, another cookbook-cum-memoir collaboration between Kaul and Hu that impressed critics with its exquisite artistic flair and a definite sense of fun. More importantly, for Kaul, was its reception by its intended audience. "The most unexpected and beautiful reactions have been from readers who like ourselves are caught between worlds," she says.
"I have an inbox full of lovely messages from Asian-Australians, but also plenty of others who've grown up away from their home culture and often felt a little lost or destabilised. Our book seems to have given visibility to a huge group of people often shunned in the search for authenticity. The book is our authentic story, the only one that we could tell as individuals, and everyone's story - no matter how 'inauthentic' - has value."
The success of Chinese-ish has surpassed all of Kaul's and Hu's expectations, with The Guardian already having crowned it as one of the Top 20 Australian Cookbooks of All Time. "Seeing it out in the world still boggles my mind," says Kaul. "Kylie Kwong's endorsement, Nigella featuring it on her blog, and our very recent James Beard award seem to be the most significant moments for the book, but so were the bestseller list inclusions." The Guardian plaudits are of especial significance, she says, "showing how the face of modern Australia proudly includes diverse faces such as ours."
THE EYES HAVE IT
For someone so relatively fresh to the big leagues as Kaul, she's certainly leaving a mark. Shannon Martinez of Smith & Deli, a clear source of inspiration to Kaul ("One of my biggest professional role models"), observes her protégé’s blossoming career with a seasoned eye.
"Her potential is huge," says Martinez. "In Australia there aren't a lot of female chefs in her position. It's great to see Rosheen thrown into a spotlight like she has been because these opportunities are few and far between. That makes me really happy - normally we have to fight for this kind of attention in this world, and it's great she's been embraced by the media and hospitality as a whole. Compared to a lot of us she is quite new, but to be where she is at her age is huge and a testament to her talent."
For Kaul, whose earliest memories are of the black and white tiles of the kitchen in her childhood home in Singapore, a keen aesthetic sensibility is very much a part of her DNA. "I'm a very visual person, and I've been raised in a family who work in creative fields - predominantly luxury fashion," she says. "An eye for detail, appreciation for simplicity and quality are all things that I was taught very young, honed by my own creative flair."
These influences are evident in Kaul's distinct plating style, which embodies the hackneyed yet nonetheless time-honoured notion of the first bite being made with the eye. "Vibrantly coloured, somewhat free but purposefully plated and restrained," she says of her dishes. "I love height, colours, and building interest with shadows and textures. Clean lines, craftsmanship, a little bit of 'if you know, you know' with some cheffy elements thrown in."
If anything, her work is a direct extension or embodiment of her very personality. "It's how I like to dress, too," says Kaul. "My parents always taught me to present my best self. I can be a little vain sometimes, but I'm proud of the face I present to the world and how I represent myself - through my own appearance, yes, but most certainly through my food."
One could argue that these aren't simply the words of a talented chef, but of an artist. An especially inspired - and inspiring - one at that.