Up Close with the Chef from Down Under
Growing up in Australia, Curtis Stone always had good food at his fingertips. His mom and grandfather both grew vegetable gardens and fresh food from the ocean wasn’t far away. His passion for sustainable, seasonal foods comes not only from his upbringing, but also from years of working in some of the world’s best (and toughest) kitchens. I caught up with Stone before his cooking demonstration at the Charlotte Shout Festival in North Carolina. The busy celebrity chef sat down with me to discuss travel, his philosophy on good food, and his upcoming projects.
CURTIS STONE ON SUSTAINABILITY:
Stone began working at the Savoy Hotel in his hometown of Melbourne when he was 18. He eventually made his way to London, where he worked in some of Europe’s finest restaurants, including The Grill Room at Café Royal, Mirabelle, and Quo Vadis.
“I think great chefs always have a passion for the ingredients,” says Stone. “When you’re buying food at a good quality restaurant, you have to use everything. That’s sort of drilled into you. We’d buy the whole side of beef or the whole baby pig, so you couldn’t waste anything. The cost was already high because you’re buying premium ingredients.”
Stone’s cooking philosophy – using naturally produced and seasonal ingredients – carried over into his television ventures, including TLC’s Take Home Chef. For the past two years on the program, Stone has helped to bring flavorful, sustainable meals to tables across the nation. After casually accosting people in the grocery aisle, Stone goes on to cook for people in their homes, where he’s learned a thing or two about the challenges ordinary people face in the kitchen.
He now thinks of America as “home” and is quick to defend the country’s international reputation of being wasteful with its resources, especially when it comes to food.
“There’s a lot of talk about ‘green’ at the moment, and I think it’s amazing the direction we’re going,” says Stone. He continues, “The more people learn about food and how it’s produced, the more they question whether or not they want to feed that to their kids.”
“The beautiful thing about America is once America says there is a better way of doing things, everyone gets on board. And sustainability and recycling are becoming more important in the States,” he says, and believes going “green” ultimately comes down to personal responsibility and making good choices.
In the end, says Stone, we get what we ask for when it comes to food. “I spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia, and what stands out is all tomatoes there look different.” It’s easy to blame supermarkets for selling chemically treated produce that all looks the same, but, Stone says, “supermarkets will do exactly what we tell them. If we say we want to pay less for our tomatoes and we don’t care if there are a few spots on them, then that’s what we’re going to end up with.”
“In my opinion, organic is natural; it’s growing something how it should be grown,” Stone says. “To take shortcuts, to use chemical pesticides and hormones and steroids and antibiotics and all these nasty things to get food available cheaper, I think that’s not normal.
That should be frowned upon as opposed to organics, which should be praised.”
CURTIS STONE ON TRAVEL
While London may have been where Stone’s impressive career as a chef took off, it also was the final stop on a three-month trip he took with his best friend. The duo allowed themselves 100 Australian dollars per day, but realized that it didn’t go far, especially after partying in the Greek islands. Practically broke, he made his way to London, began working and says, “I completely fell in love with traveling, and I live for it. It’s so exciting for me to go and see different cultures and a different attitude toward life.” And food – “There’s a real respect for food [in other cultures].” A good meal isn’t taken for granted, Stone says.
“I remember the first time we went to Italy, we stayed with my mate’s family. The granny had this farm and with four houses, three for the granny’s kids. Every Monday, the granny would bake all this bread in a big wood oven. She’d make 20 of these huge loaves and leave them in the oven outside. Everyone in the village would come by and pick up their loaf of bread and leave stuff [in exchange]. So there would be tomatoes and fresh eggs and this and that.
They had this community system going on, and it was sort of unbelievable coming from Australia, where that sort of thing didn’t happen,” Stone says.
While the men of the family were at work each day, the women gathered in the granny’s house to prepare lunch – homemade pasta and wine, freshly baked rolls, and meat and vegetables that they raised.
When businesses shut down at 12:30 for the siesta, the men returned home for a three-hour family lunch before returning to work.
“I think to myself, ‘Where did we go wrong? Why don’t we do that?
It’s bloody great,’” says Stone. “And that’s what I love about traveling. You go to these places, and you think to yourself: I’m so in tune to what you guys do, and I want that as part of my world.”
LESSONS FROM THE ROAD
When it comes to relaxing, Stone says there’s one place where he can’t help but slow down. “My brother-in-law is from this little island in Fiji, and there’s nothing to do there, so you have to relax,” he says. “They get electricity for two hours a day and there’s no television, so at night, you’re like, well, I guess this is when I’m supposed to sleep. It’s what nature is all about.”
One aspect of the island’s communal culture that sticks out in his mind. “From 70-year-olds down to 17-year-olds, the women all swim with a net in a group out 100 yards from the shore. They drop the net, and all spread out in a circle, then they catch the fish, and all tow it back in.” After pulling their catch in, he says, “they start with the biggest fish and throw them all into little piles until all the fish are divided up. Then each family takes a pile of fish home. That’s about as exciting as it gets in Fiji – you do a bit of fishing, and swimming around, and you go to bed really early when it gets dark.”
Stone’s travels through Southeast Asia have proven slightly more adventurous. “Somewhere like Thailand – you just walk onto the street and anything can happen. If you have to get from point A to point B, you need a tuk-tuk driver to stick you on the back of his motorcycle, and you have to ask him to take you somewhere. And before you know it, he takes you to some guy who puts you on a boat and takes you to this bloody market. It’s wild.”
When he’s not at the mercy of a tuk-tuk driver, a drive through Southern France offers spectacular views… and romance. “I took my ex-girlfriend to Nice and Genoa, and we drove that coast,” Stone says.
“You drive down through Monte Carlo and then to Cinque Terre, and it’s just so beautiful, and the people are so romantic. They know you’re with your girl, and they want to make it special.”
- Nat Geo Expeditions
This may have been an unfair question to a man who can probably find good food wherever he goes, but I had to ask where is his favorite place to go for its food. “That’s tough,” he says. “Probably the countryside of France.” But then he takes it back. “I went to Sicily, and there’s a place called Taormina, which has just beautiful food – so rustic, so authentic. It’s a touristy place, but not a lot of international tourists.”
And, if Stone could plan his dream trip, where would he go?
Africa. “I’ve been to northern Africa, to Egypt, and I’m going to South Africa in two weeks, so that’ll be exciting. But I think Africa is so different from what we know. It’s still so raw.”
Curtis Stone will be in Johannesburg, South Africa from Oct. 30 – Nov. 2 for the Good Food and Wine Show. Stone’s Kitchen Solutions will be available at Williams-Sonoma in November and are packaged in 100 percent recycled material. And he is the new face of AOL Food, which has short clips of Stone preparing simple dishes. He also has a new cookbook that will be available in April 2009. Relaxed Cooking with Curtis Stone
even features a chapter of things to eat on the sofa. “Why wouldn’t you eat something on the sofa? It’s a great place for food,” Stone says. I think we can all agree.
Photo by Yahoo! Answers Team, via Flickr.