At the peak of culinary adventures
Now the interview!
1) Can you tell us a little bit about you or your company, also about your cooking school / cooking lessons?
The Sacred Chef began whilst working as food editor for WellBeing Magazine, as I was producing cooking recipe booklets for editions of WellBeing, and so I created a persona for the editorial, this then led to getting into creating Sacred Chef apron designs as a sideline business. The Sacred Chef then produced a number of articles for a variety of magazines, like Conscious Living, Sydney Eats, Nova, Eco Living & Holistic Bliss and through this an identity evolved, which was all about conscious cooking and eating. I have recently written a book, to be called House Therapy – Discovering Who You Are at Home, and this features extensive material on the kitchen and the idea of the kitchen gods we invoke when cooking.
The Sacred Chef Cooking School launched 6 months ago in response to numerous requests for cooking lessons from those around me. We have had immediate success with several hundred students having attended classes already. I think that my years spent in editing and publishing magazines has created a valuable body of knowledge and information in regard to nutrition and culinary lore, which is the perfect foil for my hands-on technical skill as a cook when teaching and imparting knowledge to students.
2) How long have you been in operation and how did you get started in the gastronomy industry?
I have been cooking professionally for over 30 years in restaurants, catering companies and cafes. I began as the commune chef in the Satprakash Rajneesh Meditation Centre, in Darlinghurst in Sydney – so I originally came from a vegetarian cooking background and trained under a chef in a vegetarian restaurant in Taylor Square. Since then I have worked with a number of wonderful chefs in a wide variety of establishments around Australia, like The Blue Water Grill in Bondi with Neil Perry at the helm, and have been inspired by a host of other influential chefs, such as Tony Bilson & David Thompson.
3) Can you tell us a bit more about the different cooking lessons, courses you teach?
I teach a variety of cuisine based classes – Thai, Spanish, Regional Italian, Vegetarian – and also classes that are more about the essentials of good cooking and eating. My ethos is that good food and good cooking are about abundance, generosity and awareness. I encourage my students to prepare themselves before entering the kitchen and to be present during the act of cooking, not thinking of other things and worrying about this or that. Cooking is a meditation and real meditation is not about closing your eyes, but about the witness state and keen awareness. Because if you are not awake in the kitchen you will cut yourself, burn yourself and generally bugger everything up. I also entreat them to banish fear from the kitchen and not be enslaved to recipes, and the tension of trying to get everything exactly right. I say if your cooking takes a fork in the road have the courage to follow it – this is what creativity is all about.
3) Learning to Cook is now more popular than ever. Who is your typical student?
My students are people wanting to escape the drudgery and limitations of their small repertoire of recipes, that they usually prepare at home. We all tend to repeat the things that we know best, and this is especially true of food. Often they are dishes that mum or dad used to cook, or someone else influential in their lives during some time. I find it fascinating that at this time, when there is a wider range of ingredients available in our supermarkets than ever before, many of us still are trapped within a set of meals that we prepare most days.
Often it is fear, and although the advent of TV’s Masterchef has been a boon to the popularity of cooking classes and the industry in general, it does perpetuate the belief that we are judged harshly by the recipients of our cooking, which I think is complete bullshit. TV distorts everything it produces to make entertaining programs, and so people think that commercial cooking is about ego and competition, when in fact there is a great deal of camaraderie among fellow chefs in the industry. Cooking is about sharing the beneficence of the land and about love and nurture.
4) How would you describe your cooking style and what influences your cooking?
My cooking is about flavour and complex textures, without being artificially tricked up, and reflects the quality of the produce, complementing it with sometimes contrasting and sometimes sympathetic flavours and ingredients. For me cooking is fairly easy and that is because I have surrendered to the process during preparation and I am not always looking for short cuts. I think you need to learn how to do things before you start mucking around with recipes and techniques. Being present whilst cooking is a big help, and that may sound pretty bloody obvious but the number of people I have had working for me or as cooking students, who are not here and switched on, is fairly numerous. Many people want to be able to cook yummy food and want to be good cooks, but they don’t always realise that they need to make substantial changes to how they have been going about it – there is a reason why some people are not good cooks afterall.
5) What do you love most about teaching?
Sharing knowledge and inspiration enthusiastically, to open minds and hearts.
6) For sure not all cooking schools are the same. What makes your school different… what makes your cooking school unique?
I have been told that my relaxed and yet professional approach is refreshing, empowering students to take risks and to have a go. A lot of cooking instruction can be pedantic and I imagine that as a vocation it may attract control junkies, bossy people who need to direct every moment, and this will not produce independent good cooks in my opinion.
7) The culinary industry in Australia seems to be booming , where do you see the industry heading in the next years? What excites you of things to come in this industry?
The hospitality industry, restaurants, cafes etc, is actually in a very challenging financial situation – with average profit margins around 1% or 2% on substantial turn-overs and million dollar capital investments. Penalty rates for weekend staff is a big issue and the number of businesses that I personally see going broke is concerning.
I think also there is a strong trend to stay at home more and cook great meals yourself, which is why cooking classes, cooking books and culinary equipment sales are all strong. I know that here on the Sunshine Coast, in QLD, the average food outlet is pretty ordinary, in comparison with the standards in the major cities, which I personally find is another reason to stay at home and cook myself a stunning meal.
Recently I have had around 40 McDonald’s managers and staff, from 3 different branches, attending my cooking classes – which may contribute to some improvement in culinary standards, here on the coast, who knows?
8) What makes a good future chef? and what makes a good student?
A good chef needs to be able to creatively respond to the set of ingredients and circumstances that he or she finds before him or her. In addition to creative flair it is all about organisational skills, time management, ordering, scheduling, checking and balancing the needs of customers, team, staff and the establishment.
A good student comes with a receptive mind, a willingness to work and to take risks. Also an ability to share who they are, what they know and to be able laugh at themselves; cooking can be about failures, tragedies and disasters, as well as triumphs and smiles.
9) A normal day in a cooking school is….
It begins with an enormous amount of cleaning and ends with an even bigger amount of cleaning. Inbetween there is a lot of fun, laughter and some tasty food. People sharing their tales of culinary adventures and much appreciation of the day itself.
10) Inspiration, recipes, what are your favorite cooking books?
I am not a big fan of cookbooks and the Internet has practically made them obsolete in my opinion, but there are some extraordinarily beautiful Australian cookbooks and they can make great gifts. I use David Thompson’s Thai cookbooks; Anna del Conte’s Italian recipe book; and that is about it.
I like to be inspired by eating great food and then working out how to reproduce it and then perhaps improve on it – the proof is in the eating.
When did you fall in love with food and cooking?
I remember being drawn to restaurants and exotic menu items as a child, trying things like snails and steak tartare when I travelled to Paris with my mother on a trip away. I had this desire to experience great food and was very aware of just how bad Australian food was in the nineteen seventies. I started cooking in high school, doing home economics – which was also a great way to meet girls at the time. I started in restaurants when I was seventeen and was soon the sous chef at Zorba the Buddha vegetarian restaurant in Sydney’s Taylor Square, in the early nineteen eighties.
What’s the first dish you can remember making?
I think something our of a Margaret Fulton cookbook – probably a spinach pie or a quiche. I know that I made so much butternut pumpkin soup in my early years, cooking in restaurants and cafes, that I stopped making it for about 20 years.
What is your background in vegetarian food?
I started at the Rajneesh Meditation Centre as the commune chef, moved to their restaurant in Talylor Square, managed their cafe in Oxford St Paddington, before moving to start Doc Dinkum’s Natural Cafe in Willoughby, Lauries Vegetarian Restaurants in Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, Randwick & Bondi before starting my own vegetarian restaurant in King St, Newtown called Rude Rumbles.
What is your favourite vegetarian dish?
I am currently doing a lot of tapas – goat’s cheese and tapenade grilled crostini; roasted red capsicum salsa, buffalo mozzarella and rocket pesto pizzettes; leek and tomato Spanish omelettes.
I also love Thai salads with crunchy raw veg, glass noodles, mint, chilli, fresh lime and toasted seeds and nuts.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about vegetarian food?
That it is an either, or, situation, when in actual fact 95% of all cuisines are about preparing vegetables, with the cooking of meat and flesh generally being for special occasions. Traditionally most people could not afford to eat meat every night, and whether it be French, Italian, Lebanese, Japanese and so on, these cuisines are rich in recipes for the preparation of grains and vegetables. Now we know, that it is far healthier to eat a diet with a wide array of vegetables, legumes and grains, so it is in everyone’s interest to learn how to prepare these ingredients.
Our diet, unfortunately, reflects the industrial approach to food manufacturing we have taken in the west and we eat too much fast food because we are inundated by its advertising. We need to understand that market forces will not, and do not, take into account our required optimal levels of nutritional health, and we are paying dearly for it, in health costs in our hospitals; when it is too late. Heart disease and bowel cancer, are our top two killers, and they are a direct result of our poor diets, in conjunction with our increasingly sedentary lifestyles.
What’s the one thing you hope people take away from your Real Food Festival cooking class?
That preparing meals with vegetables is both easy and very tasty – that you don’t have to miss out on meat – rather you can add in lots of delicious dishes made with sensational vegetable produce. It is a mind set thing, more than anything else, we all get stuck in doing the same old things in the kitchen, that maybe mum used to do, and we need to realise that the world has changed. There are now hundreds of fresh ingredients available, that were not previously available in our parent’s generation, so we need to source good quality vegetables and try new ways of preparing them beyond meat and three veg. Cooking classes are a chance to tap into some information and inspiration, get enthused about being alive, eating, drinking and creating something beautiful.