Mietta & Friends

Australia's top chefs and food educatorsin words and photographs

Stephanie Alexander

Sunday lunch service and Stephanie's eye is everwhere, the cheese under the salamander, the chicken on the plate
Photograph ©Tony Knox 1995

Stephanie Alexander

Stephanie Alexander has both steered and charted Australia's culinary journey. Her books and articles have brought food to life for many of us, and in her restaurants she has practised everything that she has preached.

While her food has set new standards, her words have provided some with the inspiration and determination to become professional chefs, and others simply with the incentive to add magic to a planned dinner party.

Stephanie
Stephanie and one of her chefs cross during service
Photograph ©Tony Knox 1995

She has persuaded all of us, at one time or another, to try an unfamiliar ingredient from a specialist supplier, or to visit the source of an item of produce we admire. More than any other chef in this series, Stephanie's words will be a vital part of her legacy.

Her food memories are highly evocative, her references rich and varied. And her next book, due to be published in September '96 is one that consolidates her knowledge and learning, and exhibits the value of her librarian's training. It will be a practical guide, "a sort of ABC" to help people discover the potential of everyday ingredients. Stephanie puts a huge amount of energy and thought into her writing. Her study/office at her Hawthorn home is stacked floor to ceiling with reference books and filing cabinets. Her research is painstaking and she fights the restaurant demands to maintain at least one day a week in her study.

Stephanie Alexander started her restaurant career at Jamaica House, Carlton, with her first husband, Monty. She recalls with surprise and a certain amount of horror the way in which she worked with newly-born daughter Lisa in one corner of the kitchen, and a curry pot in the other.

Jamaica House was a great success - it continues today under different ownership and at a different address, but still in Lygon Street. It gave the young Tony Bilson experience at the stoves before he opened his own restaurant, Pomme d'Or in Kew, in 1971. Stephanie and Monty separated and Stephanie married Maurice Alexander with whom she had a second daughter, Holly.

In the early days of Mietta's, North Fitzroy, we spent much time with Stephanie and Maurice talking and sharing our own thoughts on restaurants. We felt that Stephanie's passion for food should not be allowed to remain private, and persuaded her to come and work at Mietta's. Her return to the stoves was enough to convince her to open her own restaurant - just up the road from Mietta's.

Stephanie
Stephanie prepares her Goats Cheese Souffle;
Photograph ©Tony Knox 1995

In those days, 1976, Stephanie was devoted to the French provincial dishes described so lovingly by Elizabeth David. Her seminal flavours were "ripe olives, olive oil, garlic, salami and other sausages, speck, stracchino and ricotta cheeses, rollmops, wine and honey-soaked cakes, poppy seed cake, broccoli, fennel, globe artichokes and coffee", she recalls. "Not a stalk of bok choy or gai lan, or a sprig of coriander in sight in those days."

The dinner she planned for us as part of our Great Chefs of North Fitzroy was evocative of her early Fitzroy menus. The dishes of two decades past held up well, though it is interesting to compare that menu with the one for our Culinary Coming of Age Dinner Series. Consider the use of squab rather than rack of lamb, scallops with a Japanese dressing instead of a French provincial inspired mussel and saffron soup, and an Australian goat cheese first course instead of a French standard - rillettes.

Her culinary journey is thus defined - from the dominance of French Provincial and Mediterranean influences in the 1960s and 70s to her mid-90s food which she describes as "essentially Eurocentric with a few Asian ingredients that nibble exotically and tantalisingly around the edges."

Indeed, Stephanie's progression from serving idealised French dishes to being the champion of Australian cooking and Australian ingredients parallels the journey that food in this country has taken over the last 20 years. She has led by example.

For this dinner series, Stephanie defined her dessert of a chocolate pudding embellished with the tastes and textures of rhubarb, sago and rose-geraniums as "a frankly sentimental finish."

"We always had rhubarb in the back garden during my childhood, and Mum's cherry sago was a family favourite," says Stephanie. "My mother grew this particular rose-geranium at our family home on the Mornington Peninsula. Cuttings followed her to East Melbourne, and then back again to Mornington. In the meantime, both my sister Diana and I have always made sure we had a plant growing somewhere, and I have planted some in the garden of the restaurant.

Stephanie

Stephanie directs the traffic
Photograph ©Tony Knox 1995

Continuity is very important to me - remembering those who went before, and paying respect to earlier culinary traditions.'

For Stephanie, Australian cuisine is 'the sum of its parts, the product of a pluralist society' and, as she says: 'We should be rightly thrilled with the vigour and good tastes that spring from the dishes cooked by so many very different Australian chefs.


Recipes

Goat cheese souffle
Rose geranium and raspberry sorbet
Rhubarb and raspberry sago

Mietta O'Donnell
©Mietta's 1996