Stephanie Alexander at 80: how she changed how we eat

Published on 11 November 2020

Photo: Stephanie Alexander in 2012, (credit: James Geer)

The cook's companions: the legacy of an Australian culinary icon, as told by her protégés.

Stephanie Alexander’s influence on food in Australia has been profound. Starting with Jamaica House in 1964, finding acclaim at the original Stephanie’s in Fitzroy in 1976 and then moving the restaurant in 1980 to the Hawthorn site it was to occupy for another 17 years, she was a standard-setter not just in restaurants in Melbourne but for the nation as a whole.

And that was just the beginning. Alexander’s good works have extended across journalism, television, books (most notably the publishing phenomenon The Cook’s Companion) and, in 2004, the establishment of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, the cause that she champions to this day.

Her protégés are legion and include some of the most significant names in Australian cooking. Here, to mark Stephanie Alexander’s 80th birthday, some of them share their memories on working with her, and their thoughts on her legacy.

Janni Kyritsis, chef
Janni Kyritsis worked at Stephanie’s for five years. His role as chef at Berowra Waters Inn, Bennelong and MG Garage in Sydney cemented his reputation as one of Australia’s finest chefs.

Above all I’d like to say that Stephanie is someone who I love as my best friend. I am always thankful for what she’s done for me. I will always be grateful to her for allowing a 30-year-old electrician to come into her kitchen. Can you imagine walking into a kitchen and trying that now? She had the foresight to see that that I’d be able to succeed as a chef – she saw it in me before I saw it in myself.

Being in the kitchen with her was a breeze. We got on so well – totally different to any idea of chefs being hard to work with. She was delightful, just delightful in the kitchen.

She has an incredible palate. She knows very well what goes with what, and a lot of chefs don’t necessarily have that. At the same time, she was very open to suggestions and very happy to try things that were out of the ordinary, which very much suited me.

Just think of all the people who passed through Stephanie’s, and some of them carved a significant place in Australian food themselves and influenced a generation of chefs – there must be thousands of them now. I’d say every one of them is grateful to have met Stephanie and to have interacted with her. I will call her my friend forever.

Annie Smithers, chef and restaurateur
Annie Smithers first apprenticed for Stephanie Alexander at Stephanie’s 36 years ago and has gone on to become one of Victoria’s standard-bearers for great regional cooking, latterly at Annie Smithers Bistrot in Kyneton and now Du Fermier in Trentham. 

Working with Stephanie was the most formative experience of my cooking career. I started there as a first-year apprentice in 1984. I remember the kitchen being incredibly disciplined and polite. I learnt in later years that the setup of the kitchen was not the norm in Australia. Each section of the kitchen had a qualified cook and an apprentice, and there was a huge emphasis on cooking technique, learning, team building and mentoring.

At the beginning of each new seasonal menu Stephanie would write lists, sit each of us down and explain what was expected. There was a belief that the list was appropriate for our level but would always push us a little so our knowledge and skill base would expand. There also was an extraordinary belief in the small grower and farmer, a message that is so loud today, but was at its very beginning back in the mid-eighties. 

I can’t think of anyone who has had a greater impact on cooking and dining in Australia. The opening of Stephanie’s in Hawthorn, emulating the grand dining rooms of Europe, set the standard for so many restaurants to follow. Her amazing writing output, crowned by The Cook’s Companion, the volume that sits in half a million kitchens. But her vision to change the way that children see food is perhaps her biggest achievement. The sheer tenacity it took to introduce a program into the general school community is breathtaking. Providing a program that educates children with growing and cooking skills, life skills that seem to have been forgotten in the general curriculum, has changed and continues to change many lives.

Stephanie has been many things to me over the years, but most importantly she is my friend and I wish her the happiest of birthdays. 

Neil Perry, chef and restaurateur
Though he has opened restaurants around the nation, Neil Perry is nonetheless seen as the epitome of the Sydney chef. Yet part of his journey to becoming the founder of the Rockpool brand and one of the defining voices in Modern Australian cooking was in Melbourne, working at Stephanie’s.

I remember sitting upstairs at Claude’s in Sydney in 1982 in May having a cup of tea and a croissant and talking to Damien [Pignolet, then co-chef and owner of Claudes], Jo [the late Josephine Pignolet, Damien’s wife] and Stephanie about going down to work at Stephanie’s for three months over the winter. She offered me a job washing lettuces and cleaning mussels and doing grunt-work with simple things in service, and down I went.

It was a really professional place. Stephanie taught me how to wash lettuces and prepare salad and that’s still something I talk about all the time. It’s important: learning to wash it gently and look after it like it’s an important piece of produce that you’re going to make a hero out of. Drying it properly, being delicate with it and making sure it’s perfectly dry so that the dressing isn’t diluted by water, and it’s seasoned properly. It’s about looking after it and caring for it because somebody grew it and looked after it enough to get to you in perfect condition. Simple is easy to get wrong.

Stephanie has had a massive impact on the way we eat in Australia. There was an aura to her dining room that was something special and she managed to communicate that beyond her restaurants to the whole of Australia through her writing, getting the message through about good cooking, a Margaret Fulton for our time. And then she’s done such brilliant philanthropic work beyond that with the Kitchen Garden Foundation and her work with school children. I was lucky – I learned to eat really well as a child and that set me on the path – and she’s trying to do that for every child in Australia. I just wish the government would get it together and realise that if people understood what she’s trying to teach about where our food comes from, about food waste and about nurturing the soil, we wouldn’t need to have any more conversations about sustainability, I think everybody would get it. Just start laying that foundation at a young age.

Nicky Riemer, chef
Nicky Riemer first worked for Stephanie Alexander as a final-year apprentice at Stephanie’s, and after heading the kitchen at many of Melbourne’s favourite eateries now runs the show at Bellota. 

I remember cooking for Stephanie’s 60th at Ripponlea, myself and my sous chef from Richmond Hill Cafe & Larder stirring a huge risotto in a paella pan. Then a lot of Champagne was consumed. And I mean a lot of Champagne. 

I don’t know where to begin with telling you what she was like to work with – there are too many stories! I do remember my very first day at Stephanie’s in Hawthorn as a final-year apprentice, though. I walked in and stood beside her peeling warm kipfler potatoes and I immediately knew this woman would form my world as a chef. 

She was always there for her young cooks, showing them techniques, teaching them the history behind these techniques, and leading a kitchen with fairness, friendliness, and a genuine love of food. I remember scouring through her recipe cards, all meticulously handwritten on library cards and kept in shoe boxes in her office at Stephanie’s, some of which became part of the “orange bible” – The Cook’s Companion

Stephanie gave me my first role as head chef when she opened Richmond Hill Cafe & Larder. She said, “No one is going to get it, we’re going to open a cafe/restaurant/breakfast/cheese shop venue and I don’t think it’ll be busy at first.” Well, let me just say, from our opening day in 1996 (I think), it went gangbusters. Now Gruyère, Roquefort, and cloth-bound cheddar are even in supermarkets thanks to that “little” venue on Bridge Road in Richmond.  

I remember her talking about the Kitchen Garden Project, and how she hoped to change the way children (and families) see food - at school and at home. 

I have all her cookbooks, all are dog-eared, scribbled in and well loved, they continue to remind me that cooking should always be heartfelt.  

I learned a lot in the seven years I worked for Stephanie, and beyond. I think more than anything she taught me to trust my instincts as a chef: if it tastes good, it probably is good. One thing I can say for certain is that without Stephanie Alexander I certainly wouldn’t be where I am at this point in my career, very, very happily still cooking after 25 years.

Natalie Paull, chef and baker
Nat Paull finished her apprenticeship with Stephanie Alexander, and the shout-out she gets for her gingerbread in The Cook’s Companion foreshadowed the following she has won at her celebrated North Melbourne bakery, Beatrix.

I love Stephanie Alexander to pieces. She has been more influential across my career and personal life than any other human. 

She taught me honesty and intellect in food, how to diligently do a to-do list, to be kind and meticulous when instructing staff, how to quietly resonate leadership, and that there is abundant pleasure at a shared table and in the craft of food. For the love of Escoffier, can someone please make a documentary about her extraordinary life and endeavours?

Justin Dowd, chef
Justin Dowd worked with Stephanie Alexander for 10 years, some of them working at Richmond Hill Café & Larder, where he rose to head chef. An alumnus of Richmond Public House and Beaumaris Hotel, he is now group food services manager at Cabrini Health. 

I loved working at Stephanie’s and Richmond Hill Café & Larder. I was lucky enough to spend 10 years in the presence of Stephanie. At times it was challenging both mentally and physically, but it was always exciting. For me, her legacy will be the support of primary producers and the marriages of flavours.

On a personal level, the thing that always resonated with me is a piece of advice Stephanie once gave me after stuffing up a batch of soufflés: “Read each recipe, think about the process and then read the recipe again.” Sage words. And words which, I later realised, applied to many more things in life than cooking.

Elena Bonnici, chef
After apprenticing with Stephanie Alexander, Elena Bonnici went on to cook at a variety of great Melbourne eateries, Yelza and Chez Phat among them, and opened Northcote landmark Pizza Meine Liebe, and United Arab Eatery. She was also Stephanie’s on-screen companion on the TV series A Shared Table.

I’ll get straight into it: working with Stephanie was really stressful in the beginning, when I started as an apprentice. I think I just really annoyed her because she was a fairly pedantic and regimented type of teacher who thrived on order and I was a hot mess of disorganisation.

She managed to whip me into shape, but it took a long six months and a few firm “chats”. She was motherly but professional and taught me one of my greatest life lessons: first you learn discipline, then you can be truly free. 

She was tough, but thoughtful. Thorough. Her training method very different to that of the time. You didn’t learn a section like meat or fish or sauce, you were taught the dish in its entirety. From preparation of the meat, its vegetable accompaniments, sauces, garnishes and ordering for your dishes, always keeping in mind the seasons and the growers’ limitations. 

She championed produce and farmers in Australia, sourcing the best ingredients before it became trendy to do so. Marron flown in live from Western Australia, baby vegetable and salad leaves from the Herbiere (I actually ordered each individual type of leaf for the salad mix: frisée, mizuna, rocket, cress, baby oakleaf – all handpicked by me). Milk-fed veal, six-week old lambs that we butchered ourselves with a mallet and a cleaver. She opened my eyes to the wonder of beautiful produce and the seasons and to the purpose of eating for pleasure. 

We wasted nothing. Everything was used in pickles or stocks or jams or just simply for staff dinners. We worked hard, quite often 60-plus hours a week, but it was the most rewarding experience of my life. I found a family at Stephanie’s, albeit sometimes dysfunctional. 

She loved women in her kitchen, and there were plenty of us. All you needed was a passion for food and she opened her heart and kitchen to you. I think that’s what connected us. That she could see that I loved food and learning. She learnt to tolerate my chaos (or at least I hope she did). 

In terms of how Stephanie has changed the food scene in Australia it would probably be easier to tell you what facets she hasn’t directly or indirectly affected over her long reign as unofficial queen of the Australia food scene, so encompassing has been her impact. In her restaurants she stimulated growers to have a better product. Quite often she’d be sent produce and asked to cook it and give feedback and be a part of its development. 

She championed Australian produce and uniquely Australian ingredients. Wattle seed. Lilly-pillies. Bush tomatoes. Warrigal greens. Kakadu plums. Native limes. I can remember all these items being on her menu while I worked with her at one time or another. 

Her writings have romanticised food in such a way that the 1950s notion that cooking is a chore was totally debunked.

She has mentored so many amazing chefs and cooks. When Janni Kyritsis landed in Australia, a migrant electrician, she gave him the opportunity to learn alongside her. (She joked that he was quite handy to have around when things broke down.) She touched households en masse through her cooking ‘bible’, The Cook’s Companion.

And through her Kitchen Garden Foundation, she’s probably achieved her greatest accomplishment, educating the next generation of children to be budding foodies, sometimes taking this excitement home and inspiring parents to change and plant vegie patches, sowing seeds, growing food, enjoying and understanding the processes of food and reaping the rewards of their labours on a plate. Bringing the family back to the dinner table.

Tony Tan, chef, author and food historian
Tony Tan cooked as a guest chef alongside Stephanie Alexander at her Hawthorn restaurant and at Richmond Hill Café & Larder many times. A food historian and teacher of international repute and some decades standing, he returns to the kitchen with the opening of the Tony Tan Cooking School in Trentham in early 2021.

I’ll never forget the first time I worked in Stephanie’s kitchen. In the mid-1980s, I was asked to be translator for two Cantonese chefs who came to cook at Stephanie’s restaurant in Hawthorn. Chefs Hui and Li were there to collaborate with Stephanie and the Hong Kong Festival.

As part of my job that day, I was given the task of trimming green beans. Given the excitement and the honour of being in the presence of one of the most celebrated chefs in the country plus all the jabbering away in Cantonese, I got carried away. When Stephanie rocked up and noticed my imprecise slicing, she chided me for not being accurate. I turned a shade of beetroot, not least because she was right. To this day, whenever I trim and slice green beans, I think of Stephanie.

She’s a stickler for detail, thanks perhaps to her days as a librarian, but I enjoy that immensely – something to do with kindred vision.

Had it not been for Stephanie and her vision for Australia, we wouldn’t have the chefs, the committed teachers in her Foundation, the aspiring and accomplished writers (particularly women writers) we have today. She has been and always will be my mentor and friend. Happy birthday, Stephanie.

kitchengardenfoundation.org.au

By Pat Nourse