One of the joys of being a Melbournian is the array of free festivals and lectures on offer throughout the year to keep mind and spirit in good check (that is, if you can bear travelling on public transport to get to the locations they’re usually held at). Last week Ruby Assembly attended a Melbourne University Alumni lecture featuring Stephanie Alexander and Annie Smithers. For a wintery night, the Old Arts Lecture Theatre was pumping with a wide variety of folks looking forward to hearing a yarn or two from these two icons of the hospitality industry. Today’s blog is a brief wrap-up of the content, and includes a little video coverage too. Enjoy, foodies!
A little on Annie Smithers (inset above) first. Annie spent her formative years in hospitality training under the tutelage of Stephanie Alexander. The two exude lovely and respectful energy whilst chatting – it appears that Stephanie bucks the ‘hellish Gordon Ramsay’ apprenticeship model with her training. Annie has just finished her first cookbook – ‘Garden to Table’ – and has restaurants in both Kyneton and Trentham – most famously Annie Smither’s Bistrot. Annie also has a monthly column in Epicure.  Annie says that she has been fostered kindly by Stephanie who has stretched her to grow, and encouraged her to pen her first book. ‘Garden To Table’

is about decent home cooking and reconnecting with the earth, preparing food that is loved and shared and cared for. Annie notes that as a child she didn’t have much interest in experimentation with food – she favoured the heavy foods of the day such as steak béarnaise and chocolate mousse. Annie feels that Aussies have become confused about food, looking for perfection in presentation without thought for the origin or sustainability of the produce utilised.  Annie’s 1 acre farm feeds 240 people a week  at her Bistrot, and she supplements the garden with locally sourced dairy and meat. Her food philosophy is that sustainability is a life project – which isn’t restricted to only our consumption of food. Clothing, travel, waste management – fancy restaurants with many Chefs hats aren’t necessarily sustainability focused – this is the ‘confusion’ she indicates at in the consumer. She says renowned restaurants with a high degree of theatricality and technical finesse are compelled to be ‘perfect’ (perfectly formed produce without an odd shape, color etc.) because of the calibre of client, and the expectations they hold due to the prices these restaurants command. Annie doesn’t think that this kind of fine dining destroys the sustainability movement’s goals however.
Stephanie Alexander (inset above) is one of Australia’s best-know cooks, and she has also recently finished writing a ‘first’ – her memoir ‘A Cook’s Life’. Well-versed in authoring cooking books, Stephanie notes that the journey of writing  a memoir is harder than writing a series of recipes! The process created opportunities for Stephanie to talk about issues she hadn’t before with her kids and siblings. Stephanie grows most of her vegetables in her front garden (like Mother Ruby Assembly!) Stephanie says that pottering and growing veggies in the front yard begins conversations, connecting people with their neighbours. She notes that the popularity of farmers markets is the result of the huge change in the local food industry in the past 20 years. These days city dwellers can regularly attend Farmer’s markets where they can actually meet and learn from the people who grow their food – the potato man, the mushroom man, the beef man.
During Q&A time, one of the audience members asked Stephanie how to go about writing a recipe. Stephanie responded that there is an art to writing good recipes – it centres around not leaving anything to the imagination. You can’t assume a reader’s knowledge, and must provide full details! Stephanie also spoke about the Kitchen Garden program and how her project now influences 30 000 kids a week – giving them a sound understanding of the process of identifying, growing and preparing healthy food.  Absentee levels drop when the Kitchen Garden classes are active in primary schools, and the program has a full curriculum associated with it such as maths for measuring and weighing food, art and design for decorating the kitchen garden, and understanding cultural difference (i.e. rice can be made into a risotto, a pilaf, a sushi roll). Stephanie is confident that the program breeds tolerance and understanding, and that primary schools would like to have a Kitchen Garden program. For more on the Kitchen Garden program, watch our short video excerpt from the talk below.
After the event, the Melbourne University Alumni group treated the foodie crowd to ample wine and delicious canapes. All in all, a wonderful event with the perfect mix of education, discussion and socialising!