My Career Path – right place, right time, right parents My early interest in flavour and conviviality was of paramount importance to my subsequent career. My mother an outstanding and a curious cook. She had no formal training but she prepared and served lovely food every day at a lively family table. I still believe that the luckiest children are those encouraged to take a broad and active interest in the table from their earliest years. I feel that my working life has turned a full circle. I started out training as a librarian, specializing in working in schools, and being part of the special excitement in schools after the election of the Whitlam Government when resources flowed and there was energy and new thinking about curriculum content. An ideal time to be a school librarian. In the 60′s one also noticed the first glimmerings of general interest in “creative” cooking in Australia. Picked up first of all in magazines and daily newspapers. The first signs of a food media. Existing restaurants were expensive, formal, exclusive and rigidly European. Interested young cooks needed the advent of the BYO legislation to have a go. Lessons of Jamaica House – My First Step 1966
- Enthusiasm and popularity are not enough.
- Physical burnout often the result of a personal vision that cannot be delegated
- There is a critical size for success – below this and one can never make it
- Pressure on relationship when the business pressure is equally intense. Babies and restaurants don’t mix
- This job is HARD
I retreated back to libraries for a few years but the itch did not go away. Stephanie’s Restaurant 1976 – 1997
- Heightened community interest by now (mid-70′s)
- Staff management issues for first time; staff benefits, training issues(I didn’t. know much more than they did),
- Dealing with the multitude of hidden responsibilities from rubbish removal to maintenance, to daily quality control and storage of food
- Financial realities – I was a rank amateur who loved to cook; overdrafts, interest rates, insurance premiums, utility costs, not to mention accurate costing of food that included allowance for wastage- I left a lot of this to my husband/partner who worried constantly.
- Importance of peer support – small group of restaurateurs who met together on an informal basis (The Staleys, The Schneiders, The Rogalskys, Mietta and Tony, Ian Hewitson, Ray Tsindos -hot arguments but useful information exchanged)
- Importance of travel and tasting and learning how others solved problems.
The 21 years of Stephanie’s Restaurant were demanding, challenging, physically exhausting, exciting, and influential. Much of the personal pleasure lay in inspiring others – my apprentices and younger people around me, and as always, the pleasure of actually creating, the chopping, the simmering, the alchemy and the satisfaction – nothing like it. And of course there was nothing like the adrenalin rush after a night on the stoves and a good service and happy customers. By this time I had also felt the need to communicate what I was finding out, and to allow my musings to be heard. I had after all been initially inspired by great food writing as much as by the experience gained at my mother knee. Increasingly I have been convinced that an appreciation of good food is centrally important to a good life and to a healthy planet. I was also very concerned that so many young people seemed to be culinarily impoverished. And I wanted to record my pleasure in moments shared and places visited where good food, friendship and tolerance met around a table. My first book was published in 1985, and in 2007 my twelfth book will appear. In 1996 I published The Cook’s Companion, an attempt to address the ignorance I found all around me. This book was reissued in a completely revised and expanded version in 2004. People from all walks of life, of both sexes, of all ages (but especially those under the age of 30) were tentative at best, unable at worst, to prepare simple great-tasting food for themselves without anxiety. The vindication of my belief that they simply need the right help is the sales of that book – more than 350,000 and still selling. I am very proud to have made a measurable difference to so many lives. Lessons of Stephanie’s Restaurant
- Necessity to stand back from the stove and take in the bigger picture
- Ongoing difficulty of delegating a personal vision
- Accepting that a compromised vision might be the only way to retain physical and mental health
- Appreciating value of key staff members and the importance of accurate job descriptions, and even more important, regular staff appraisals of performance
- Accepting that financial systems are of major importance but need to be handled professionally for maximum efficiency and effective time-management
- More and more pressure for good management, both within the kitchen and the front of house and the office
- Need for speedy turnaround of figures so that can quickly see whether all the effort is working
- The challenge to work “on the business” rather than only ” in the business” – this is still a problem for me as I am a practical hands-on person
- The importance of effective marketing – a very vague concept- profile has to be kept in public mind somehow
- Importance of friendship
- Importance of building confidence never destroying it
Richmond Hill Cafe & Larder 1997 2005 In 1997 with 3 other partners I opened a more accessible food outlet, the Richmond Hill Cafe & Larder. A great cafe with the best cheese rooms in the country, probably in the Southern Hemisphere, and a small food store attached. This enterprise has given me enormous pleasure and satisfaction. I can interact with the young cooks, cheese room specialists and waiting staff and the public and I only have to advise and taste rather than chop and peel. Lessons of 4th venture
- Love of good food is still the NUMBER ONE quality
- Being a chef is a young person’s job. Need energy to dash up and down stairs, to poke into cupboards, to bend and twist and lift boxes, and pull cool rooms apart on a daily basis, before one even starts on the boxes of artichokes or the fillets of beef.
- Accept the reality that each generation will re-invent the wheel to various degrees.
- An executive chef can be less hands-on, but to be effective still needs to know precisely what is going on in the kitchen and to taste the food CONSTANTLY.
- Management skills essential.
- Staff training skills essential.
- Ability to be assertive without being aggressive.
- Ability to accurately cost food and to interpret financial data
- Enthusiasm for the product and knowledge of how it is prepared.
- Personal organisation, maintain files, records, menus, supplier details.
- Ability to create a team that works well together.
There is always more than one way to do things. I am now consulting for the time being and have handed the reins to my former business manager Luisa Lucchesi and I find it delightful to watch the next generation take charge. Kitchen Garden at Collingwood College – July 2001 And most recently I have just returned to the classroom although in a purely advisory capacity -helping to establish a comprehensive gardening and cooking program for primary school students at Collingwood College, an inner-city Melbourne school whose students represent 36 nationalities, most of whom come from low-income families. Here I want to test my theory that if one catches them young it may be possible to broaden food experiences and change food habits. Persistence, passion and a great team keep the project and the dream alive. Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation – Feb 2004 I feel that I am completing the circle handing back to other young people some of the experiences that influenced me so profoundly. My Foundation has just been granted Deductible Gift Recipient Status and we will now move into serious fund-raising to enable more primary schools to consider joining this movement. This project will take as much energy as I am able to give. It is as far into the future as I want to look There has to be still plenty of time for reading, for travelling, for being with friends and family, and for eating and drinking good things.