Restaurant Industry is Moving towards Sustainability Initiatives: Stephanie Alexander, Australian Celebrity Chef

In an exclusive interaction with Prerna Lamba, Stephanie Alexander (Australian Cooking Icon and MasterChef Australia Guest Judge) shares her experience and journey in the hospitality industry. She also talks about recent trends in the food & beverage industry and her Kitchen Garden Foundation.

Tell us about your experience and journey in the hospitality industry?

My most important experience in the hospitality industry was a restaurant called Stephanie's Restaurant, which went for 21 years. It was a very important restaurant in Melbourne. I really broke new ground and showed people a way of enjoying fresh food, which seems so obvious, but it wasn't particularly obvious at the time. I also trained a lot of terrific people who went on to run important restaurants themselves and many of those people are still friends of mine today, and they have been training other people. So it's a nice contribution to have made.

What was the inspiration for you to become a chef?

Basically, I just had a very good cook for mother. I had actually gone to the university and became a librarian, which was what I really thought I was going to do. But I always loved good food and it just sort of happened. I was very happy about being a librarian. Having said that, I wanted to share my love of food with other people and it was a time in Melbourne when a few people who were opening restaurants, who hadn't done any training. They had come to the industry as enthusiasts rather than qualified chefs and they all became very important in the development of restaurants. But that wouldn't happen now because people are much more aware of the qualifications. In those days it was possible to start up, just work and make your reputation or not, it either succeeded or it didn't. And I was lucky that it did succeed.

Is there a chef you admire the most? Who and why?

Well, there are so many. There was a very great French Chef known as Alain Chapel, who I admire enormously. He ran a beautiful restaurant in the countryside in France.

There are a lot of people in Australia that I think are excellent chefs. In my own city of Melbourne, there is a man called Andrew McConnell who has about five different restaurants. I think he's very talented and I like his food very much.

What is your favorite cuisine? How many different types of cuisine are you capable of producing?

My background is really with European foods, so French and Italian are my big loves. Probably, most of the time I'm cooking things that are based in classic French technique. Although, we live in the world today where there are so many ingredients available from so many different countries. I might be using a French technique, but I might use a Chinese ingredient, that sort of thing.

Tell us about your signature dishes?

I really don't have one, but I think, I suppose it would be a big green salad, which I love. And until very recently used to always grow my own salads, but I've now moved into an apartment which doesn't have room for the vegetable garden. The green salad is something that I have every day and I have it with all sorts of things, a little bit of roast chicken or some grilled fish.

What trends are you noticing in the food and beverage space globally?

Certainly, there is an increasing interest in sustainability, knowing where the food comes from and organic food. Also, a great interest increase in people who've got special dietary requirements, which is not just vegans and so on, but all sorts of weird and wonderful combinations, which makes life exciting or difficult for restaurant people, but that's definitely a trend.

Organic food is becoming more or less expected in a certain level of restaurant. The customers would go into a good restaurant would expect that the chef has put effort into getting good, fresh ingredients from somebody who they respect.

How do you do to stay current on new trends? Describe two or three of the most interesting industry trends.

I read a lot, I have subscribed to various food magazines, which I read every month. I don't necessarily do anything from them, but I read them and I don't watch cooking shows on television. I know that a lot of people do, but I don't. I eat out when I can with friends and I think actually as far as I'm concerned, I'm not particularly interested on the latest trends. I just want to eat beautiful food and I'm perfectly capable of cooking it for myself. If I want to go out, it's because I want to have a really lovely conversation with a friend. So I choose a restaurant where I can hear. Now that is a big thing, as many restaurants seem to think that they need to blast you with music, and I dislike that intensely. So I choose a restaurant that is comfortable, quietish and have beautiful food so that I can converse.

As you mentioned about the awareness about sustainability has increased now. How important is sustainability in the F&B sector?

It is very important and I think practitioners are becoming more and more aware, and all the restaurant industry is really trying very hard to change practices so that they improve. Probably the biggest example, there was a big article about it in a food magazine last month, restaurants giving up plastic wraps and that for a restaurant is a really big thing. Everything is stored in takeaway plastic containers and everything wrapped. Restaurants are really looking for different ways of storing foods that they don't have to use these disposable things, which we know are filling up our rivers and the ocean.

What is your perception of India and Indian cuisine?

Beautiful but I, I know it's very varied, and I've just been in Delhi and Mumbai. But other than that, I have experienced myself from the Southern part of India. Maybe I will one day I'd like to, but as I know it's very varied, regional and really exciting with great ingredients.

What is your favourite Indian dish to cook and eat?

Probably something with vegetables, as they are very highly skilled with vegetable cookery, and with lovely spices and a little bit of something coconut.

Tell us about your Kitchen Garden Foundation?

Well, it has been going for 18 years, started in 2001, and it is going from strength to strength. We now have 2000 schools in Australia, in every state and territory, and they range from very little schools with only 12 students to very big schools that might have a couple of hundred students. It is mostly in primary schools but we also have quite a lot of early learning centers for preschool children, really little kids.

The biggest game for children who are involved in this program is that they learn to be much more open about new experiences. They also learn about growing, and they certainly learn about sustainability and organic agriculture because that's what they do. We see them turn into real little enthusiasts, they really enjoy growing the food, picking it, and learning how to cook really simple things. And then they get tremendous pleasure out of sitting around a table and eating together. The sad thing is that for many children the impression of sitting around a table with other people is something they don't do very much anymore at home as they are all on their screens nowadays.

What are your future goals going forward, personally and related to Kitchen Garden Foundation?

Well, we've worked very hard on the Kitchen Garden Foundation, and I think it's in a pretty good position at the moment. It has got some corporate backing and we work very closely with government agencies. We tried to get more money out of government, which we currently had have not been very successful, but the schools themselves love this program. There are more and more schools putting up their hands and saying, we'd like to have a kitchen garden program in our school. We are no longer out there trying to recruit extra schools. We now think it's up to the schools to decide if they want to join rather than when us rushing around to recruit them. And what wager as an organization is support those schools to make sure that there are online resources for them, including recipes, garden plans or anything they need, is on our website. We also provide professional training for the people who deliver the program, the actual educators. So it's a well-oiled machine and it's working very well. 

Personally, I'm working on a book, which is about home cooking and I imagine that it will be my last book because I feel I've written so much, I've got nothing further to say.

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