Stephanie Alexander - Cook, Restaurateur and Food Writer

Stephanie Alexander
'Once I was in the restaurant business I found that people really were starting to be interested in why things were done and the stories behind the dishes. So I started to write and my first book was very successful.'
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After training to become a librarian, Stephanie Alexander had a career change and pursued a career in the hospitality industry. Since then she has started a number of successful restaurant businesses as well as written inspirational cooking books, including Stephanie's Menus for Foodlovers in 1985 and The Cook's Companion in 1996.

In 2001 Stephanie created a comprehensive gardening and cooking program that aims to create pleasurable food education experiences for young children. The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation is currently in 27 schools around Victoria and will grow to incorporate 190 schools around Australia over the next four years.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I didn't know what I wanted to be when I was growing up – for a while I thought I wanted to be a writer, and I knew I didn't want to be a teacher. I was always interested in cooking but I didn't ever see it as something I could do professionally – there were fewer options in my day.

Where did you pick up your cooking skills?

I learnt to cook at a very young age. My mother was a great cook and so she was a constant inspiration for me. I haven't studied food at all – well I suppose I could say that I've studied it by eating it – but I've never had any formal training in being a chef.

When did you decide that cooking was going to be part of your career?

I made the decision to pursue cooking when I was living in London and working as a librarian, which I was qualified to be. Big moments in your life are always to do with emotional things – I got married and was going to come back to Australia and my then husband thought he'd like to be an importer, and I thought that if he was going to import interesting products then we should open up a little coffee lounge, Jamaica House. I sort of fell into it just because of my personal circumstances, rather than making a strong decision to pursue a particular career path.

What was involved in setting up your first business?

Jamaica House was probably a model for what not to do in business. We're talking about the 1960s, it was a long time ago, and there wasn't much competition. I had a three-week-old baby and we went into business with our eyes closed, rather than open. I don't think either of us had any business experience, we just had a lot of enthusiasm to work hard.

What did you learn from this experience?

I learnt that while you must have a passion for good food and be able to inspire other people, this is not enough. You need to also have a business that's based on reality – someone has to understand the financial aspects of the business. My next business, Stephanie's Restaurant, ran for 21 years and was very successful because it was organised to operate as a well-run business.

Why did you decide to start writing books?

Once I was in the restaurant business I found that people really were starting to be interested in why things were done and the stories behind the dishes. So I started to write, and my first book, Stephanie's Menus for Foodlovers, was published in 1985. It was very successful and I think it struck a chord with the public because they were very interested in what I had to say.

I've tried to use all my training that I've had in different areas. I completed an arts degree, so I'm pretty comfortable with words.

Have you done much travel?

I've travelled mostly in Europe, but I have also been to a few places in Asia. As a young woman I lived and worked in London and France. These days I travel for stimulus and to set up house with friends. I enjoy lovely holidays where I can go to local markets, buy the local food and then come home and cook beautiful dishes.

Which country do you admire the most?

These days it's a toss-up between France and Italy. But it would probably have to be France, because I'm much more comfortable with the language.

Where do you find inspiration for new recipes?

I'm usually inspired by what's available. If there's something beautiful in the garden, or I go to a farmer's market and I see something that's just fresh and gorgeous, I buy it and then I think about what I can do with that ingredient. My dishes are always driven by the produce and the time of the year.

What is your favourite meal to prepare?

There is no such thing as a favourite meal when you're driven by the produce and the season. Today it's cool and autumnal here in Melbourne, and in the garden I've got some peppers on the bushes and the very last of the tomatoes, so I might very easily make a vegetable dish with olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and red peppers and perhaps have that with a little bit of fish. My meals are always inspired by what I can put my hands on that's in tip-top condition.

What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

It depends – if I'm working on a book then I'll do a lot of cooking, testing and writing. I'm also more or less fully engaged in being the patron and operating board member of my Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation.

What is the purpose of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation?

This foundation was set up in 2001 and provides pleasurable food education for young children in Victorian schools. The Federal Government has allotted $12.5 million to assist the spread of this idea into 190 schools around the country over the next four years. In each selected primary school, a teaching kitchen is constructed that allows an entire Grade to actively cook and sit together to enjoy the dishes they have made. The school will also have created an extensive vegetable and herb garden, and an orchard which the children care for. The school employs a part-time kitchen specialist, and a part-time garden specialist. Volunteers are also sought from the school's wider community.

All classes are hands-on, in small groups, and the children quickly become familiar with different tastes and textures, and with all aspects of environmental science. Along the way the program also teaches important life lessons (being considerate and working co-operatively) and constantly acknowledges the excitement of cultural difference. The students' willingness to experiment with a broad range of food expands very, very quickly and they carry this information home to their families. Classroom teachers expand the concepts touched on in the kitchen and in the garden into units of work that are especially meaningful to the children after their practical experience in the garden and the kitchen.

Do you have a good work-life balance?

I try very hard to maintain a good balance, but I probably could do better. I always place a high priority on spending time with my family and friends, and I enjoy doing exercise and reading books that are not related to work.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently working on a book about families cooking together. It's a long way off and I doubt it will see the light of day for at least one year.

How long does it take for one of your books to be published?

It always surprises people how long it takes a book to get published. Even when I've finished writing, the production process these days tends to be quite long. I always have the ideas for each book that I write – I have so many ideas I never know quite where to put them all!

What advice do you have for people who are interested in a career in the hospitality industry?

There's going to be ongoing growth in the hospitality industry, and this will bring many, many opportunities for people at all levels. But I would like to feel that people who go into this industry truly love good food instead of just thinking of the lucrative job. This industry has great demands on stamina – you've got to keep pretty healthy because you work long hours and stand up most of the time. I want people to be interested in what they're going to do, not just thinking of a career as a meal ticket.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

I like to feel that I'm involved in something that is going to really change the way we think about food. With the work that I'm doing with the Foundation I think that we're starting a revolution, and that's a pretty inspiring thing to be part of.

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