By Alex McDonald and Linda Daniele
Budding food writers should avoid tasty adjectives, warns Sydney Morning Herald food columnist Helen Greenwood.
“Adjectives that relate to taste are to be avoided because they get used so much in marketing and advertising,” says Greenwood, who co-authored The Foodies’ Guide to Sydney 2008.
Greenwood writes a weekly food column for the Herald’s Good Living section and has been penning articles about food for almost 20 years. She admits she was a serious food bore for nearly 12 of those. So, what are the adjectives that really grate?
“Tasty is one. Delicious. Also crispy, which is not a word. Don’t ever use the word yummy, not even in spoken conversation, unless you’re speaking to your child.” For New Zealand-born chef Justin North, writing about food has been a natural extension to his cooking career.
Apart from two cookbooks, including his latest, French Lessons, North wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times last year entitled, “Dining in a Drought in Australia”. “I didn’t have an instant passion for food or cooking,” admits the chef, whose Sydney eatery Bécasse was named restaurant of the year in the 2007 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide.
“I opened my first business when I was 25 years old. Before that, I had little regard for the environment, organics and sustainability, or a true respect for produce. It was all about buying the best, wherever it came from. How much it cost didn’t matter, it was all about excellence. “When I first opened Bécasse, I couldn’t afford these luxuries. I bought all my food from local markets and farmers, because it was much cheaper. As I built relationships with these people, I started to get a better understanding of the land and the environment and the pressures our producers are under. It changed my whole philosophy on cooking and produce.”
Despite the current boom in glossy food magazines, cookbooks and newspaper supplements, Greenwood says the Herald has not been inundated with writers pitching ideas for food stories. She says: “There are a lot of people who want to be restaurant reviewers because that’s the glamour end of the food writing spectrum, or it’s perceived to be.”
Greenwood’s first food related project was editing a food supplement for a fashion magazine in the late ’80s. She thinks the idea that ex-chefs dominate the food pages is a misconception. “A food writer is a trained eater,” she says, citing Britain’s Elizabeth David as an example of a writer who was not a chef in a previous life.
The president of the Food Media Club of Australia, Stewart White, says it’s no surprise that food books dominate bestseller lists both here and abroad. He regards Phaidon, an imprint best known for its art books, as the market leader. “It’s had three of the best-selling cookbooks in publishing history,” says White, referring to The Silver Spoon, Pork & Sons and the Spanish title, 1080 Recipes.
White sees local books like Secrets of the Red Lantern, which cross over into memoir territory, becoming more ubiquitous.
Written by Pauline Nguyen, a UTS Communications graduate, with recipes by her brother Luke and her husband, chef Mark Jensen, the book interweaves the turbulent history of Nguyen’s family and recipes it has passed down through generations. The trio are joint owners of award-winning restaurant Red Lantern in Surry Hills.
Pauline Nguyen says her main motivation for writing the book was her daughter: “Her father’s story and my story are so different and mine was a story that needed to be told. I wanted to document things for my daughter, but at the time I wasn’t sure what direction that would take.” The Nguyen family escaped Vietnam in 1977 and were forced to spend a year in a Thai refugee camp before reaching Australia, settling in Cabramatta in Sydney’s west.
Pauline Nguyen describes workaholic parents who struggled to communicate emotionally with their four children. Her father was a natural entrepreneur, working tirelessly at the family’s landmark cafe Cay Du in Cabramatta. He was also a strict and harsh disciplinarian, Pauline says. The process of writing the immensely personal family memoir was difficult at times, she says.
“I had no intention of writing a book scathing about my father. There is a lot of love and respect there. I was just looking back to try and understand why things were the way they were. So I had to look internally, as well as to the history, to find answers so I could stop holding onto all the anger and all the hate.” Luke Nguyen adds: “Until now, all the family recipes were kept secret in our heads. Dad encouraged that, but he’s retired now so we can share them.”
Luke feels the autobiographical content in Secrets of the Red Lantern has a special resonance for Vietnamese-Australians of their generation. “There are a lot of them out there who don’t have a voice,” he says. “Thankfully, we’ve done this for them.” A need to document family recipes and stories was also the driving force behind second generation Spanish-Australian chef Frank Camorra’s first book, MoVida. “I’ve always wanted to do it,” he explains.
“I was concerned family recipes would be lost otherwise. I wanted to get exact measurements, work out what Mum’s coffee-mug measurement meant.” Camorra spent his first five years in his parents’ home town of Cordoba in Andalusia. The family moved to Australia, setting in Geelong, Victoria, where he saw his father learning to marinate olives and make chorizo and black pudding. “He wanted to eat them, so he had to make them,” Camorra recalls.
“All those things he’d taken for granted in Spain, the community here worked out how to do themselves. They did it out of necessity, trading recipes and techniques.” Camorra says visits to Spain to work and travel were a necessary part of the long process of creating MoVida. “I first went back when I was 20 and, on that visit, it was the home cooking that impressed me. The second time, it was totally different because Spanish food had come of age. The general standard had improved and, while there was still not the diversity of ingredients or styles of cooking, there was a much greater appreciation for their own cuisine,” he says.
Travels in the name of food are not a new phenomenon, and Aussie pair Greg and Lucy Malouf seem to have mastered another genre mix, the cookbook/travelogue. Turquoise is their fourth offering, combining travel writing by Lucy and recipes taken care of by chef Greg. Part Turkish travel diary and part cookbook, the Malouf mix gained international acclaim, awarded best international cookbook for 2008 by the International Culinary Professionals Association. Food Media Club’s White says the importance of good design in food books should not be underestimated.
“I think Kylie Kwong is interesting,” he says. “She trained as a graphic designer. She was then at Wockpool for Neil Perry. That’s a lovely history that you can trace through her career.” Victorian café owner Guy Mirabella is another designerturned- cookbook author, whose books include his recently released Eat Ate. He was responsible for designing Stephanie Alexander’s Stephanie’s Seasons and has received numerous awards for his work. With food styling and design obviously vital to publishing success, Mirabella says some of his greatest influences have been unrelated to food.
“It can come from watching films, listening to music, paintings, other restaurants or dinners in private homes,” says Mirabella. He sees Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook and “anything by Alice Waters” as the benchmarks in food publishing. As for the current take on innovative food, the latest crop of Aussie chef-writers express mixed feelings. Camorra worked for six months at a restaurant in Cordoba influenced by wizard of modern Spanish cuisine, Ferran Adria.
“It was all about innovation,” he says. “Foams, essences, savoury ice-creams and deconstructed dishes were all the rage. Learning the techniques was really eyeopening, but I don’t really enjoy it to eat. As a daily experience, it doesn’t turn me on.” North is also cautionary about innovative food for its own sake. He says: “I have been inspired by many, many great chefs and Ferran Adria is one of them. I think the key to this is some chefs, especially young chefs, get a little too carried away by what they see and read.
“They get a little blinded by all the excitement and lose track of their own philosophy and style. “The important thing to remember here is to look, learn and blend a little of these techniques to suit your own style. Draw inspiration without getting too carried away.”
First published in
Issue 4, 2008
Sydney Writers’ Festival