Stephanie Alexander happy to hold your hand in the kitchen
Nothing warms Stephanie Alexander's heart more than seeing little dirt- stained hands scratch in the vegetable garden.
Tiny fingers pluck the fruits of their labour from schoolyard potagers destined for the kitchen. For many it's the first time their tastebuds are tantalised by the foreign flavours of some fruits, vegetables and herbs.
Alexander's name is synonymous with the book regarded as the "bible” in Australian kitchens. But for the doyenne of domesticity, The Cook's Companion isn't her proudest achievement. Rather it's her philanthropic feat in the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation she founded in 2001 to ignite the palates of schoolchildren.
Her efforts to sow the seed of healthy food habits into classrooms resulted in Alexander being appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2014.
Today, more than 1500 schools have adopted the program across Australia, including more than 50 in Queensland.
"It's the fuel that keeps me going,” the 77-year-old says. "When I see the enthusiasm and the children explain to me how much the program means to them, I feel a real glow of pride. It's the most important thing I've done.”
Teaching others to cook remains at the heart of what Alexander does, almost five decades since she swapped library shelves for the kitchen pass.
It's no surprise her latest book, The Cook's Apprentice, the 18th in her catalogue, was initially inspired by years of training young apprentices and the need to teach teenagers basic cooking techniques for adulthood.
"As I go around the country, I'm realising there are a lot of adults, for all sorts of different reasons, have simply not learned how to cook. They feel paralysed by anxiety,” she says, on the leg of her Queensland book tour.
"Sometimes people have lost the cook in their family, through divorce or death. They realise sooner or later, they need to look after themselves and that includes cooking food.”
Alexander grew up in a small seaside town on the Mornington Peninsula. With her bookish ways, she went on to do an arts degree at Melbourne University to train as a librarian, and later a Diploma of Education.
At 21, she left Australia to travel the world, namely France, where she became bewitched by the culinary world.
"I was very fortunate to come from a family that loved good, fresh food,” she says.
Alexander's antipodean approach to food can be credited to her mother, Mary Burchett.
"My mother was a very good cook, but more than that, she was interested in food as a way of expressing culture. She was interested in how people from different parts of the world used a fresh ingredient. As children, we were the beneficiaries of that.”
Some of Alexander's happiest memories are coming together for a meal, but she says the dinner table is in decline.
"I grew up at a time just before television became major in people's lives, so the family table was a very important part of my day until I left home to go to university at 18.
"If everyone is independently chomping down a meal elsewhere in the house, eating convenience food, or food that's been dumbed down so that it doesn't offend anyone's powers - is not the way to raise children who need to continue to feed themselves for the rest of their lives.
"A lot of the social interaction between parents and children and grandparents that can happen when you get together [to share a meal] is lost.”
Alexander's first foray into the restaurant world followed her return from London with first husband, Jamaican-born Rupert Montague. They opened Jamaica House in Carlton just weeks after the birth of Alexander's first daughter, Lisa. She admits the time was trying and later led to the couple's split and the restaurant's closure two years later.
Seven years later in 1976, Alexander remarried Maurice Alexander, a barrister, with whom she had a second daughter, Holly. She opened Stephanie's Restaurant in Fitzroy, then in a grand homestead in Hawthorn, where she traded for more than two decades.
The grandmother doesn't regret never training as a professional chef. The Cook's Companion "changed her life”.
More than 500,000 copies have sold, and 22 years after it came off the press, she is reminded of its value in Australian kitchens. The latest, a grease-covered copy with the cover torn from its spine, was presented to her at a recent book signing. Alexander takes that as the ultimate compliment.
"I doubt that I'll ever do another one. By the time of the second revision, I'd added another 300 pages and another 10 chapters, simply because Australian food has moved and changed so much in 22 years.”
The Cook's Apprentice is somewhat of a prequel to The Cook's Companion.
"I love that I am able to pass on to other people my nearly 50 years of experience at a level that is encouraging, rather than frightening them with super glossy pictures that they can't possibly hope to emulate or telling them they can finish something in five minutes,” Alexander says.
"I want to feel that I'm almost holding the hand of somebody who's reading the recipe and they can say 'I can do that'.”
The Cook's Apprentice (Lantern, RRP $45) is out now.