“Jessi loves to feed people and he can do it anywhere,” says his wife Jennifer. He did it as a boy in his Punjab village, getting up at 4am to water the fields, milk the buffalo and make yoghurt lassi for breakfast before heading to school. He did it in Jennifer’s miniature apartment in San Francisco. “He invited people over, I told him it was impossible, but amazing food kept appearing from my tiny kitchen,” she says. Even today, he’s known for rummaging in friends’ fridges and creating feasts, turning his hosts into honoured guests in their own homes. He’s tapping into a Sikh sense of hospitality. “It’s a natural part of my culture,” he says. “Everyone must sit down and eat together and the guest is considered God.” It also, simply, makes him feel good. “After a long day in the kitchen, cooking is a therapy for me,” he says. “It gives me huge satisfaction to know I made my meal from scratch.”
“Steak’s up guys,” says Curtis Stone, slicing into a hunk of beef, appraising it keenly, chewing on a morsel with faraway eyes, then passing slivers around for feedback. He’s not at Maude, his feted Beverly Hills restaurant. He’s not at home in the Hollywood Hills, feeding his actor wife Lindsay Price and sons Hudson and Emerson. He’s not even filming for a television show – All-Star Academy (like The Voice, but with cooking) and Kitchen Inferno (a game show, like a speedy MasterChef with more fire balls) are two US series he’s hosted recently.
He survives on four hours sleep, forages in the wild for ingredients and even makes the cutlery himself. Dani Valent meets Ben Shewry, a very unusual superstar chef. I don’t know what I expected Ben Shewry to be doing when I walked into the Attica kitchen two hours before dinner service. Arranging foraged flowers with tweezers, perhaps. Creating “soil”. Dehydrating fruit at the very least. Instead, he is taking up a whole bench – half the small kitchen really – moulding clay to create 100 butter knives shaped like mini Maori clubs. Crafting cutlery by hand? Doesn’t Shewry make it hard enough for himself already?
The prevailing narrative about children and food is that they’re eating too much, it’s the wrong food anyway and they’re eating it in front of brain-draining screens. They’re overweight, potentially diabetic and on track to number among the 65 per cent (and rising) of Australian adults who are too hefty to be healthy. But there’s a counterweight tale too, one of children who cook and eat healthy food, building good habits for their own lives and perhaps for their less aware elders. They are influenced by cooking shows on television, educational programs in schools, other family members and, sometimes, necessity.
It’s Friday night in Jacques Reymond’s kitchen and I’ve just saved a junior chef from a bollocking. The Birkenstocked underling has just burned some wafers, and it hasn’t escaped the notice of the eagle-eyed maestro. But nor has my presence – even as I’m backed against the door with notepad and pen – and that’s enough, apparently, to make Reymond dish out a glare rather than the expected yell. “He sees everything,” says my wafer-burning friend. “I would have copped a spray if you weren’t here.”
There are a few reasons that Claremont Tonic chef Dylan Roberts is glad to be feeding his friends by the Yarra today. He grew up in Wales and, even after 10 years in Australia, the shine hasn’t palled on eating outdoors. He’s serving food he loves to eat. “I like salads, raw vegetables and skewered stuff to grill,” he says. Roberts is also happy to cross-fertilise cuisines, which explains the lively tomato salad that swoops to Italy via Thailand. Above all, there’s the gratification of serving food to people who tell you how delicious it all is. “It’s a good feeling,” he says. “My friends are my number one fan club.”
Andrew Blake has a few hundred thousand regrets, one for every dollar he owed when his Southgate restaurant was shut down seven years ago. But he more keenly rues all the meals he missed with his two ex-wives and four children over the years. While he worked as a restaurant chef “between 1977 and 2002” Blake, 50, never cooked for his family. “I was always working, he says. “And, if I did get home, I couldn’t be fagged cooking, it was always takeaway. Perhaps that’s why he’s such a solicitous host this bright autumn morning, serving oyster shooters and buttermilk pancakes to his girlfriend, Jodie, his daughter Neredah and old friends.
“Everything that happened to me has made me stronger. I can walk, talk, I can cook. It keeps me happy.” Dani Valent profiles pizza pioneer Rita Macali, who survived a brain tumour and returned to open a brilliant new restaurant, Supermaxi.