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Stephanie Alexander

04 July 2012

Lining up this month’s Ruby interview with author and food legend Stephanie Alexander, the email that arrived to confirm time and place was marked in the address line: ‘Stephanie Alexander KGF’.

For a brief moment I thought I’d missed something crucial in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Had Stephanie been knighted? 

“Not likely,” she says, accompanying her exclamation with an “Oh, dear, dear, dear. What a thought.”

(It must be a Melbourne thing but listening to Stephanie speak I’m reminded of the Prime Minister. It’s in the accent and phrasing but there are definitely ‘hints of Julia’.)

Of course, KGF stands for Kitchen Garden Foundation – the branch of the food industry on which Stephanie now sits and focuses her unwavering attention and considerable abilities.

“I don’t consider myself a big picture person,” explains Stephanie, who has just returned from a week touring with friend and colleague Maggie Beer, as well as visiting one of the KGF schools in the Pilbara. 

“I tend to identify something I think is very important, focus and work very hard on it, taking up opportunities as they emerge in the process. I’ve always been very engaged with the detail, getting something off the ground and inspiring other people to join in.”

From her first business venture in Melbourne, Jamaica House, then her 21 years at Stephanie’s Restaurant, through countless books on cooking, including the life-changing “Cook’s Companion” to her most recent seedling in the garden, KGF, Stephanie’s attention to detail can only be described as meticulous. 

Aware of the reports on growing levels of childhood obesity, people’s poor eating habits and the inevitable health care and cost implications of these choices further down the track, Stephanie found the response by government and experts to the problem frustrating: yet another pamphlet, another set of guidelines, another trail of ticks on certain grocery items. 

That cautionary negative approach was failing. It was time for something different, she thought. 

Having read about and been inspired by the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley California in the 1990s, Stephanie was convinced that to get children back to basics – growing and preparing their own food for the table – would have greater impact on healthy eating choices. After all, it worked for her, she says, referring to her own childhood. 

Collingwood College in Melbourne was the first Kitchen Garden project and that was 2001. Now, funded to the tune of 40 percent of its costs by the Federal Government, the program has grown to 265 schools nationally.

“The key to getting support has been to persuade a corporate person or politician or philanthropist to actually visit a school and see what happens. I can talk and talk, but I am not as persuasive as those children,” says Stephanie about the primary school students involved in the program.

The role of the Foundation, Stephanie explains, is to provide skills, support and inspiration to schools to assist them in implementing and delivering a program designed to fully integrate into the primary school curriculum. It also has to ‘develop the business’. 

The program itself, works with children, engaging their curiosity, energy and appetites, to build in them the basis of positive lifelong eating habits. 

“They grow food organically and learn to cook the seasonal fresh produce without anxiety,” says Stephanie. 

“Being able to cook for yourself without anxiety is an essential life skill. TV shows where people are doing complicated things in the kitchen can sometimes make me impatient. They tend to be counterproductive. I want children to know they can make a risotto or a bit of pasta, work with vegetables in a simple way and create lovely food without getting themselves into a knot,” she says with some passion.

Eleven years on and Stephanie and the Foundation’s Board have set a target of 10 percent of all primary schools involved in the program in the next three years. She acknowledges, even with Federal Government help, there are challenges ahead, many of them financial. Fundraising is not a role she finds enjoyable but knows is very necessary: “I was surprised and still am about how often I need to talk about the same thing before awareness is created. You have to have a media spokesperson and spread the message and you have to do it all the time.”

It remains mystifying because from objective evaluation, and certainly her own experience, the schools have nothing but praise for the program, telling her: ‘It’s [KG] the best thing we could have for our children. It teaches them everything they should know and that’s not just about gardening and cooking but about working cooperatively, problem solving, being responsible. All the things education is about.’ 

As for the children, they tell her it’s their favourite part of school after sport, and then there are the numbers: not one school has exited the program.

Almost without doubt, Stephanie Alexander is best known for her phenomenally successful “The Cook’s Companion” (Penguin, 1996). The mammoth undertaking, from which she “did not lift her eyes from the page” for three years, and has sold more than 400,000 copies since publication.

“Writing ‘The Cook’s Companion’ was a major breakthrough in my life and a totally unexpected success,” says Stephanie, tapping on wood in a bid to ensure that success remains in her life.

“It has meant I am able to do what I do now. I was able to exit the restaurant world and choose a new direction. It still provides a modest income,” she continues.

“I thought it was going to be a great book, and I am very proud of it. There were some dark times during the writing process as I became momentarily cast-down by how long it was taking me to write.” 

The book itself suffers none of the personal angst, working so beautifully because it does what Stephanie believes all good cooking should do: it reduces anxiety. It reassures the reader there are more ways than one of doing something. 

“The A-Z structure and brilliant cross-referencing really explain what to do with an ingredient in a simple easy way – what to look for when you’re buying it, how to store it, a bit on its history, how to cook it, and simple recipes to use it in. Down the margins are quick informal ideas that expand its use,” explains Stephanie of the massive undertaking.

The sheer size and scope of the project would be enough to daunt even the hardiest of cataloguers, and Stephanie certainly admits to suffering her own crisis: “It was in the letter C. For some reason I’ve not been able to work out, C has more entries than any other letter in the alphabet.

“I thought I was never going to get out of it. Let alone finish the book. But I did get to D. In fact, once C was done I was about a third of the way through the book. My Publisher asked me, why didn’t I just do another letter and return to C? I could never do something like that. It’s just not the way I work.”

Portrait: Mark Chew


** Come and meet Stephanie at our next Women of Inspiration lunch to be held on Thurs 30th August 2012 at Union Dining Restaurant in Melbourne.
Tickets will be available in the next few days so be sure to keep an eye out.