Fitting All of Australia Onto a Plate
Chef Stephanie Alexander combines fresh ingredients from across the country in her menus
EAST HAWTHORN, AUSTRALIA — STEPHANIE ALEXANDER is giving a tour of her pantry. There are sardines, plump from gorging in the Indian Ocean. The rainbow chard - fresh from Victoria's Mornington Peninsula - are tender, three-week-old shoots. The farm-grown Western Australian rabbit is lean, the meat the color of pork, reflecting a controlled diet and lack of exercise.
The produce is Ms. Alexander's pride and joy. For the past 16 years she has worked hard to get farmers to try new crops and suppliers to send only the best. The effort has paid off. "Stephanie's," where Alexander is executive chef, has been voted one of the 10 great restaurants in the world and the best in Australia. Official testimonies to her culinary skill hang from the restaurant's walls.
"She is incredibly important in Melbourne food - she taught a lot of the new generation of chefs," says Michael Symons, author of "One Continuous Picnic: the History of Australian Food." Her style, he notes, is "global cuisine," which he defines as "fresh, seasonal, and climatically suited," as well as "thoughtful, individual, and constantly referring to ethnic or agrarian origins."
Last month the Australian Tourist Commission and the Tasmanian Development Authority sent Alexander to the United States as an ambassador for food to tempt travel and food writers Down Under. She traveled with her own pantry, requiring special clearance from United States customs.
Through her books and speeches, she has pushed her message: Food lovers ought to reject mediocrity. To ensure that she gets the best, Alexander has become a patron of produce: "I see myself as the person who wants to make it possible for a supplier or farmer to experiment with something and know he has a market," she says, "even if it is only a market of one, because I can give him an exposure he would find very hard to get by just plopping a product in the supermarket."
How does she do it? After she buys the food, she makes sure the serving staff knows where the food comes from and why it's special. "We are showcasing the product, working hard, and allowing the greater food-loving public to learn more about it so they can use it," she explains. A gastronomic tour
The results are on the plates in what amounts to a gastronomic tour of the country. The Victorian chard is braised in South Australian olive oil and combined with the Victorian flageolet beans. They taste like country beans cooked with a smoky ham hock. The Victorian squab gives new meaning to the word "tender," reflecting a diet of corn, wheat, safflowers, and peas.
Western Australian sardines are stuffed with South Australian currants and pine nuts, which give the fish a sweet taste. Anchovies caught off Freemantle, Western Australia, are threaded through a thick tuna steak from New South Wales. Sauces revolve around the produce: watercress sauce sprinkled over the Tasmanian salmon custard, a piquant herb sauce for the fowl, a tomato-and-cumin-seed dipping sauce to go with the Queensland barramundi. High-quality food is not cheap. The three-course meal at Alexander 's Temple of Food is a fixed price A$75 ($57) per person.
Alexander recalls her mother as an inspiring cook and practicing artist. From the age of 10 Alexander cooked alongside her mother, who told stories about the food they were making. "This combination of practical making and tasting and vivid storytelling has remained for me the most wonderful way of learning," she recalls. Spreading her love of food
Alexander spent 10 years as a librarian after graduating from Melbourne University. Her first restaurant, Jamaica House, opened with her Jamaican-born first husband, was a financial failure. With her second husband she opened Stephanie's in 1976. Her partner, Dur-e Dara, recalls that the concept of fresh food was unique back then. "It was just hard work every day," says Ms. Dara.
Alexander has found some special ways to spread her love of food. In 1986 she came up with the idea of bringing Victoria's producers in contact with consumers at a fair. Now, every February, the state holds a Harvest Picnic.
For those who can't make it to the picnic, there is Alexander's book, released last month in the United States, "Stephanie's Australia: Travelling and Tasting" (Charles E. Tuttle & Co., $34.95). The book is the result of scores of trips taken over a two-year period to meet the top provisioners and restaurateurs in Australia. What emerges is a perspective on the country and culture as seen through its food.
Alexander, for example, visits Ian Milburn, who lives in the Mallee, a large, grain-growing area about 160 miles northwest of Melbourne. She describes how Mr. Milburn, whose family has been on the land since the 1870s, has linked up with other farmers to produce high-quality squab and chicken.
The visit is about more than food; it is about the land and how it relates to Australia. Many people have seen Aboriginal festive meetings - called corroborees - with Aborigines marked with earth-colored paints. Alexander, though, recounts how she slipped out of bed early in the morning for a last look at Milburn's farm. She writes, "I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a stand of slender, straight saplings in full corroboree markings of purple, powdery ocher, and red-brown. It was a thrilling and moving moment of absolute understanding."
Such moments helped Alexander define what she wants out of her own restaurant and cooking. "My food will be produce-centered. The dishes I will create - the way I put together things will always depend on being inspired by a particular theme, a particular piece of food. I've done that for a long time but without having any particular reason," she says. "Now ... I see myself as firmly centered in Australia."