Stephanie Alexander

Author Profile

My early food life was influenced first and foremost by my mother, Mary Burchett. I studied to become a librarian (with no thoughts of working with food professionally) and left Australia at the age of 21 to see the world. The world for me at that time was France, and I was delighted to discover that France was every bit as thrilling and satisfying as I had dreamed it would be. In the intervening 40 plus years I have returned as often as possible and, whilst acknowledging change, there remains a value and respect accorded to food that I find renewing and reassuring.

My first restaurant, Jamaica House, opened in 1964. It was successful from the customers’ point of view but disastrous personally. I had a baby to care for as well as a restaurant and my marriage collapsed after two years. I went back to libraries for several years but I maintained a passionate interest in food and cooking. In 1976, remarried and with a second daughter, I opened Stephanie’s Restaurant in a small shopfront in the Melbourne inner suburb of Fitzroy. Four years later, in 1980, the restaurant moved to a beautiful National Trust building in the middle-class suburb of Hawthorn.

The timing of this move coincided with an increased interest in food generally. The nouvelle cuisine movement in France was inspiring Australian chefs, the liberalising of the liquor laws allowed for new styles of eating, more of the young middle-class was spending its holidays abroad, the food media grew rapidly and instantly reported everything new, and of course there was the general affluence of the early eighties.

For 21 years Stephanie’s Restaurant was at the heart of everything culinary in Australia. We trained wonderful staff, we cooked excellent food, we pioneered techniques and ways of looking at ingredients, we championed small producers before anyone else understood the importance of this, we set new standards of service, and I was asked to comment on anything and everything to do with food. By the end of 1997 I felt my energies ebbing, an essential ingredient in a restaurant driven by personal style, and I closed the doors.

In 1985 my first book, Stephanie’s Menus for Foodlovers, was published and once I had found my voice there seemed to be no stopping me! My fifth book, The Cook’s Companion (1996), was a product of my growing belief that despite all the surface interest in restaurants and ‘fancy food’ we were raising children and young adults with little if any understanding of what to do with fresh food in their daily lives. When faced with independent living these young people were at best anxious or, at worst, unable to cook for themselves. The vindication of my belief has been the phenomenal success of this massive book.  In October 2004 a completely revised and expanded version with 12 extra chapters and an extra 300 pages was published and is selling strongly..  Soon after the publication of The Cook’s Companion came a television series for the ABC and the book of the series, A Shared Table, in which I visited every state in the country in order to highlight the resources and individuals that contribute to its amazing culinary diversity. My tenth book, Cooking & Travelling in South-West France, was published in March 2002. It is a personal tribute to the south-west of France – a region that will forever be a special place for me.

In 1997, with three other partners including my daughter Lisa, I opened Richmond Hill Cafe & Larder – an informal cafe, cheeseroom and produce store. The aim was to create a warm and accessible neighbourhood cafe and food shop and a centre for interesting food events. This enterprise has given me much pleasure and satisfaction for the past eight years. In early 2005 my partners and I sold the business to our Business Manager, perfect succession planning, as she has been at the helm for close to five years.

My preoccupation with the way children do, or do not, learn about food led me to develop a comprehensive gardening and cooking program at an inner-city Melbourne school – The Kitchen Garden at Collingwood College. This project commenced in 2001 and is still going strong. It is my belief that the earlier children learn about food through example and positive experiences, the better their food choices will be through life. In 2004 I established the not-for-profit Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation to raise funds to expand the model into other schools  throughout the primary school system. The early work of the SAKGF was made possible by several generous individuals, by government and by philanthropic Foundations. We are eternally grateful for this support at such a critical time in our growth. In 2006, my colleague Anna Dollard and I collaborated to produce Kitchen Garden Cooking with Kids, the story of how the Collingwood project developed, with practical information to assist other schools. This book also contained over 100 recipes suitable for children to make and enjoy.

In 2006, after intense lobbying, the Victorian State government announced grants of $2.4 million to part-fund 40 new kitchen garden programs in Victorian primary schools following the successful model at Collingwood College. In 2007, the Australian Government agreed to support 190 additional projects around Australia by 2012.  For most recent information please visit www.kitchengardenfoundation.org.au.

In October 2009 my latest book will be published The Kitchen Garden Companion. This book is for all families, with the hope that many will want to garden together, cook together and above all, eat together.

I see myself as having an unusual mix of practical skills, creative ability, and lots of energy, which when linked to my persuasive gift of the gab have enabled me to achieve a great deal. I am both proud and humble about this. I shall continue to work at all of these things as long as I can. I am also fully aware of the importance of every member of the teams I have worked with, and the wholehearted support of my closest friends and family.  Food and wine and friendship matter more than almost anything I can think of. Together they involve skill and craft and patience, and understanding of difference, and appreciation, and the desire to bring happiness to others. Brushing past scented leaves in a garden, looking over a vineyard with the vines glowing gold in autumn sunshine, picking parsley outside the back door, pulling a cork from a bottle of wine, cutting into a ripe cheese, appreciating a wonderful apple, setting out a picnic on a bush table, debating the questions of the universe over a fine wine … all these things seem to me to confirm our humanity and to make me want to live for another day, another meal. In the end, I still believe there is no greater joy than sharing food, conversation and laughter around a table. (http://www.stephaniealexander.com.au/)

Photograph, Simon Griffiths

Website: http://www.stephaniealexander.com.au/

Cookbooks by Stephanie Alexander