“Sharing food experiences has always made me happier than anything else”
– Stephanie Alexander
The Weekly Review feature article, 1 Mar 2017
Stephanie Alexander’s number flashes up on my car’s Bluetooth. I’m running late to a shopping expedition with the Cook’s Companion herself, and she has called to let me know there’s road works going on around Camberwell Market and to suggest a shortcut. Her advice saves me 10 minutes of bumper-to-bumper traffic and offers a taste of the pearls of wisdom to come.
Originally trained as a librarian, Stephanie gained acclaim through her eponymous restaurant, a stalwart of Melbourne ne dining for 21 years from 1976 to 1997. But it’s her work in food education – for adults, through books such as The Cook’s Companion, and children, through the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation – that has earned her an Order of Australia honour and a place as one of this country’s culinary doyennes.
For Stephanie, food is as much about narrative as an opportunity to bring people together, and it’s her ability to turn simple shindigs into colourful anecdotes that make her books so enjoyable.
Her most recent tome, e Cook’s Table, released late last year, brings a lifetime of edible experiences together into a series of 25 menus inspired by occasions – special and everyday.
Through day-by-day planners (some spanning weeks, if not a month, beforehand), shopping lists, and service instructions (such as when to clear the plates), this is the book that proves while you can take Stephanie out of her library, you can’t take the library out of her.
It’s this nigh-on-encyclopaedic knowledge of food that I most enjoy mining when I finally arrive by her side at Camberwell Market’s worst-kept secret: King sher Seafoods. The fish here gleam with freshness, eyes plump, guts intact.
Fresh fish is easy to pick once you get the hang of it – it’s the squishy bits you need to look out for. If everything in the window is sliced up into fillets, that sounds alarm bells for Stephanie. The best way to find a good fishmonger, she suggests, is to use your nose; “if it smells fishy, avoid it”.
“Finding a fishmonger you can talk to is of utmost importance,” she says, pointing out a couple of smaller whole fish to John at Kingfisher.
Whole fish are more flavoursome, Stephanie offers, selecting some red mullet that she says “instantly remind her of Europe”. She’ll pop them straight on to the barbecue, encased in a hinged fish grill (bought from specialty store Costante Imports in Preston), so she can flip easily while protecting the delicate flesh.
She picks out some King George whiting, “rightly considered a luxury”, which are destined for a pan with some butter.
While the fish is finessed, we stop in at Camberwell Market Florist, quickly finding ourselves laden with textural natives and Christmas lilies that Stephanie has ordered in advance.
She keeps several jugs of flowers at home – a small one by the door “that doesn’t last as long”, and a larger flamboyant jug, out of direct sunlight.
The avid gardener has plenty of tips for keeping cut flowers fresh longer: don’t let leaves dangle in the water, strip them carefully, recut them, even just a little bit, and change the water every couple of days – “painful, but necessary”, she advises. The Cook’s Table lists “selecting flowers” as a job two days out from the big day.
Next stop, Toscano’s, a third-generation greengrocer at Victoria Gardens. Stephanie loves the family atmosphere, and especially the rarer specialty items, such as rapini (aka broccoli rabe), needed for one of the recipes from the Puglia chapter of The Cook’s Table.
Thee recipe – Cucina Povera but Deliciosa – has already caught my eye. I love the simplicity of flavours – vibrant chilli against the deep green of sauteed rapini – and I adore the sentiment of making do and being adaptable, creating breadcrumbs using a tea-towel and a plastic bag (like a gastronomic MacGyver).
We stop for a cup of tea while Stephanie surveys her shopping list, comparing it against the seasonal ingredients that caught her eye at the market this morning. Her chat speeds up as she plans the plates ahead, process giving way to sheer delight as the breadth of possibilities present themselves.
She’s resolved on the rapini, but the red mullet transforms into Damien’s saffron fish veloute (page 112), borrowed from Damien Pignolet and now preserved in A Dinner of Memories chapter in The Cook’s Table.
The book offers more than just one dinner of memories. It’s a dedication to the myriad dishes she has cooked and had cooked for her, tables she has set and sat at, and joyful moments that have been formed through sharing a meal.
“Sharing food experiences has always made me happier than anything else,” she says. It’s something she clearly loves to share as often as possible – through table and through tome. ●