A new edition of Stephanie Alexander’s A to Z kitchen bible The Cook’s Companion is a culinary event.By Susan Chenery.
Stephanie Alexander on The Cook’s Companion
It was when she got to the letter “C” that Stephanie Alexander began to despair. She was only beginning her opus, The Cook’s Companion, and already the redoubtable food writer was stuck. Starting with cabbages, moving through cantaloupes, cardoons, cavolo nero, onto chestnuts, chillies, chutney and cumquats, it was turning out to be an inexhaustible letter. There was the infinite variety of cakes, all you need to know about chocolate, the multitude of ways with chicken. And that’s before even starting on cheeses.
Alexander was not aware of it then, but it turns out there is more food starting with the letter “C” than any other in the alphabet. “It seemed that it was going on forever,” she says.
She had decided to put everything she knew – from A to Z – into a definitive book. To set it all down and “answer everyone’s questions about everything”. The problem was that she knew too much. Her publisher told her to just move on to another letter, but Alexander had once been a librarian. “I said, ‘I couldn’t possibly do that.’ ”
Fortunately “D” was less demanding. Dipping sauces, dressings, duck, dumplings. “I whipped through the next couple of letters and began to think, I am going to get there.”
Getting all the way through to the final recipe – for zucchini cake – would take her four gruelling years of methodically, meticulously looking at well over a hundred ingredients from every angle – care and storage, varieties and seasons, testing recipes. A project that had started out as merely encyclopaedic grew and grew, becoming something monumental. Turning randomly to the “P” section, for example, delivers 12 pages on potatoes, 19 on pork, seven on pears, nine on peppers. There is no part of parsley that is left unparsed.
“I had paper,” says Alexander, “from one end of the study to the other. I am a devil for organising information.” It is something of an understatement. “In the first instance I tried to get in touch with somebody of authority in every industry to make sure that I understood it. I needed to understand if there was something in the pig industry that I really needed to get my head around before I could write convincingly about pork.”
To someone with Alexander’s breadth of knowledge and commitment to getting it right, there is always something more that could be added. “You start out saying, ‘I will write about apples,’ ” she says. “And I need to mention the sort of variety of apples that are likely to be found in the marketplace. And even that became an issue because where do you stop? Do you discuss the derivation of these apples? Do you talk about the pink lady being a cross between a this and a that? So I had to make those sorts of decisions, because often they were brain twisters. There was no right or wrong answer. My horror above all else would be to bore a reader, to read like some sort of agricultural tract.”
The project’s scale was unprecedented for its publisher, Penguin. It was one of the last major books printed out for editing on paper, a nine-month labour. More than a thousand pages, with 2000 recipes, and not a single photo of food on a plate, The Cook’s Companion, first published in 1996, became a phenomenon, the kitchen bible. It has sold more than 500,000 copies, making it a mainstay of Australian kitchens, where it sits authoritatively near a stove, stained and splattered with use.
It has also grown with age, receiving an update in 2004 and now a further edition. “People have died, there are new ingredients around,” Alexander says of the need for updates. “This latest revision has got a chapter on bush foods. It has got a chapter on grain and seeds, which have become increasingly important for a lot of people. It has got an add-on to a chapter on truffles. So it is a significant change.” She believes this will be its final iteration.
I always imagine Stephanie Alexander on a sunny verandah somewhere, with a freshly made brioche still warm from the oven, matched perhaps with marmalade made from sweet oranges picked from her garden – the image is probably derived from the lavish photographs in magazines and many of her books. Among the images of laden tables in Tuscany or France, there have also always been many of her elegant Victorian home in the genteel Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn, with its immaculate kitchen and abundant and thriving garden.
As it is, we meet in Brisbane, where she is visiting a friend, and the warm weather delivers subtropical rain. Now in her 70s, her hair is snowy white, but then it’s been a striking grey for many years. A dog snoozes under the table, and low-flying planes come in to land at the airport not far away. Alexander exudes calm control – she says she hates shouting – though you sense a laconic sense of humour close to the surface.
Were we in Victoria we wouldn’t have met at the grand house from her books, in any case. She has recently sold it and downscaled to an apartment. She tells me she hasn’t yet been able to drive past her old place, in case they have cut the lemon tree down.
Her memoir, A Cook’s Life, reveals that beneath the beautiful surfaces of that Hawthorn home was all the ordinary chaos and messiness of life. Two marriages that ended, guilt that she wasn’t always there for her two daughters. “The pressure and the challenges of trying to create something so special meant that everything else became subordinate,” she writes of her commitment to Stephanie’s Restaurant.
Alexander was born on the Mornington Peninsula. Her mother was a passionate cook and gardener; her father a bibliophile, who encouraged her first career as a librarian. “My mother set me on the path of loving good food and taking care of it,” she says. “But she would have never wanted me to work in kitchens. So I tried to please both of them.”
It was in France in her early 20s, while on a contract to teach English conversation, that she was seduced by its food. Back in Melbourne she and her Jamaican first husband opened the cafe Jamaica House, when their daughter Lisa was only three weeks old. Stephanie’s Restaurant opened in Fitzroy in 1976 before moving to a Hawthorn mansion in 1980, where it became iconic. Alexander was seen as a visionary. She would present wild barramundi wrapped in paperbark and cooked over coals in the back garden, put violet petals in sorbet, marigolds in fish soup. She steamed marsh samphire from the inlet banks near Geelong to serve with fish. She put roasted wattleseed into blinis. She farmed her own snails.
Jamie Oliver calls her “a true food hero” on the cover of A Cook’s Life. In her drive to present the most perfect food possible, Alexander writes, “I winkled out of my suppliers even smaller beans, younger lettuces, or milk-fed lambs, larger squab or calves’ feet. And if we managed to capture the bubbles in a champagne jelly, achieve perfect clarification of a crab stock, or make the silkiest puree of celeriac, we all rejoiced at our success.
“I became determined to celebrate the best produce we had in Australia and wherever possible find and encourage small producers.” She befriended the growers – such as the man who reared squab in the Mallee and the Frenchman who grew baby salad greens at a time when this was news – and wrote about them in her newspaper columns, articles and books.
Her writing displayed a tactile, sensuous relationship with food. She would describe the sexiness of the shiny skin of eggplants, the carnality of a burst ripe fig, the hot flush of a tomato freshly harvested from the vine. It might have been an early assay into food porn, but it stopped just short, out of respect. “It was the start of something different,” she says. “For a long time I felt that I was sort of spouting this stuff about ‘use this, use that – there is more than one sort of lettuce, you don’t have to have only one sort of potato’. I kept on and on and on. Of course, it impacted on producers as well, so that they sort of felt here was somebody who they could talk to and come and show the other potato they had or the other lettuces.”
At Stephanie’s, she says she was a benevolent dictator, even if, like all great cooks, she was an utter perfectionist. “I was never histrionic. There were times when I stamped my feet, but I am told that was the worst thing I did.” I was once in the restaurant for a function that her second husband, Maurice, felt was blowing the budget. She drily and calmly told him that if he didn’t stop fulminating she might be inclined to chop off his head with a meat cleaver.
Stephanie’s Restaurant closed after 21 years. Her memoir reveals: “Now and then I have a very brief moment of nostalgia for that amazing adrenalin rush that happened between 8 and 10.30 every evening, sweat trickling down your legs into your clogs so your feet were clammy, body on fire, face bright red, everyone into the rhythm.” But she heeds the physical toll that it has taken. “I think it unlikely that anyone can effectively work on the stoves much past the age of 50. Your knees go. I have got bad hips. My rheumatologist says that it is what 30 years standing at a bench chopping has done, solidly jarring your joints.”
Instead, she busied herself becoming one of our most respected food writers. As well as her many books, website and newsletter, Alexander is now proud to launch an app for The Cook’s Companion, which includes helpful how-to videos. “It is probably the most important thing I have achieved – I have to say ‘after my children’, or they will be offended. It is the whole book, every last thing from A to Z. It freaked out the digital publishers because that is a lot of text.” It was also an enormous task to compile, as the book had never been digitised – it existed only as a vast archive of paper files stored in boxes at Penguin.
The astonishing success of The Cook’s Companion made her solvent for the first time, which enabled her to pursue another major project, the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, which exhibits her passion for food education among children. “[The book] gave me a platform where I could decide to operate a not-for-profit platform and still pay my bills. That was fantastic.”
She has poured herself into the foundation. Putting gardens in schools, connecting children to the earth and their source of food, its program is an extension of everything Alexander has ever stood for. “I believe that if you can encourage really young children to think more about what they eat and to have some input into how it is produced then they will be more environmentally aware. If they are planting peas or broad beans and watching them grow and then picking them, taking them into a kitchen and having fun squashing them, and having them with some parmesan cheese and a bit of olive oil and putting it on toast – they have a different feeling about
a broad bean forever.”
Her program has blossomed from its beginnings in a single school in 2001 to being adopted in 643 venues around the country – 10 per cent of all Australian schools – and employing 27 staff. “In every locality you could possibly mention: big, little, rural, remote, Aboriginal special schools,” she says. “It is very dynamic.” The foundation provides a syllabus, teacher training, activities and resources. Funding for such an ambitious program initially came from the previous federal government, but it expires next June, leaving the foundation’s future uncertain. “It is very discouraging having to spend so much time chasing funding rather than doing the work,” she allows.
But her enthusiasm for the project remains unbowed. “It will transform the next generation. It will change the way people feel about food in the longer term, it will change the way it is farmed and sold, and the way we live. And it will be a better way to live.” She says this matter of factly, without preachiness. Rather, she says,
“I try to avoid the big questions.”
Alexander may not be given to pondering the big questions, but she has a firm focus on what she considers the fundamental things of life. She has always been emphatic that, for her, food is about sharing. It has been the underlying principle of her life – good times with friends.
Alexander still frequently cooks for others – “She is a fiercely loyal friend,” says fellow national luminary Maggie Beer – but she is on her own a lot now, too. Nonetheless, she sets the table and has a glass of good wine. “I take my time and enjoy it. People say, ‘It’s only me and I just have a piece of toast.’ And I think, ‘How tragic is that?’ ”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 20, 2014 as "Alphabetical ardour". Subscribe here.