Five minutes with a Legend: Richard Cornish

Published on 29 October 2020

Photo: Richard Cornish - Food writer and friend of the festival.

Few writers can say they’ve been rehired because of reader backlash. But that’s exactly what happened when Richard Cornish’s popular Brain Food column in The Age was axed in 2016. The readers revolted, the editors reacted and Cornish continues to answer readers’ culinary questions every Tuesday.

The son of dairy farmers, Richard is a Mornington Peninsula born-lad who grew up in Shoreham and is passionate about telling the story of good food and where it comes from. He is a regular contributor to the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and he’s written several books, including four cookbooks with MoVida chef and founder Frank Camorra, as well as authoring My Year Without Meat and The Brain Food Book 

Richard’s career goes beyond writing journalism and cookbooks: he was the acclaimed commentator on the 7 Network series Iron Chef Australia in 2010 and was involved with Melbourne Food & Wine Festival as co-creative director and then consultant for over a decade. He’s also an affable and humourous host and presenter at numerous food, drink and agriculture events around the state and is one half of The Hungry Gentlemen, along with wine writer Max Allen, creating food and wine events MasterQuiz and The True Story of Oysters and Champagne, with a podcast on the horizon. Richard was inducted into the MFWF Legends Hall of Fame in 2019 for his exceptional work telling stories about Victorian food and drink.

The proudest moment in my career has been the small things, the turn of a phrase, the encapsulation of an idea – this is where writers take pride. When we win awards, when our works are best-sellers, when our peers commend us, when The New York Times awards us, many of us feel like fakes. That said, this line of work takes you to the most extraordinary places. Years ago, I was drinking with chef Frank Camorra, photographer Alan Benson and Catalan food writer Cesc Castro in an Art Deco electrical distribution building that had been converted to a cellar near Cordoba in Spain. We were drinking PX that was blended in 1896 from a solera dating back to the early 1850s. To drink century-old wine with men who appreciate what life is about is to know you are truly alive.

The mistake that taught me the most was fuck up the facts and you fuck up the story. Getting things wrong jeopardises your reputation. I am here to tell stories and my currency is fact. I admit I have made mistakes in reporting food stories – getting names wrong, addresses wrong – and I believe it ruins the whole piece. That is why I find the disregard for truth and fact these days so reprehensible. 

My first job in hospitality was making pies, pasties and sausage rolls at The Merricks General Store in the early 1980s when I was still at school. I worked with a woman called Marj Parker. She taught me so much. My family bought the store and I introduced my grandmother’s way of cooking lamb shanks to the recipe we used for our steak and bacon pie – the secret is adding bay leaf and nutmeg to the braise.

The reason I got into this industry was I grew up on a farm, where I grew vegetables from when I was five. I still grow my own food. I know how good farm food should taste. Most of the stuff we are fed these days is ersatz food. I think everyone needs to know the truth and that’s what I strive to do with my writing.

The reason I stayed was that this is where I belong.

My mentor is Mary Ellis, who established Cliffy’s Emporium in Daylesford alongside Geoffrey Gray. She grew up on a sheep station, travelled the world cooking for the rich and famous and ended up in central Victoria. Her mantra is don’t bugger up food by tarting it up. Eat what is in season, treat it gently, cook it using time-honoured traditions and serve it with good wine and – most importantly – good people who know how to have a conversation.

If there’s one positive thing to come out of this lockdown experience, I think it’s walking within the five-kilometre lockdown boundary and finding a local gem. For me, that’s the Indian shop that does exceptional takeaway: Shahi India at 41 Glenferrie Road in Malvern.

If I could return to any moment in the Melbourne hospitality industry of the last 50 years, I’d choose to reject the premise. I want to see what Melbourne was like before settlement, when the Yarra ran clear, the wetlands at Footscray were sapphire pools ringed by purple flowering succulents and whiting were jumping from the water.

But the most exciting development in the Melbourne hospitality industry in the last five years is seeing overseas students reshape the food we eat. Living near Monash University in Caulfield, I’ve seen this transformation among my local restaurants. For example, the explosion of different regional Chinese cuisines on offer has resulted in everything from Uyghur lamb pastries to deep fried fish specialists right here in our backyard.

Keep up with Richard’s latest local food stories by following him on Twitter: @FoodCornish. You can buy The Age each Tuesday to read his Brain Food column, in the Good Food liftout.

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