Helen Murray's Birthday Message for Stephanie

Friday, November 13, 2020

Stephanie and I met in 1958 as first year Arts students at the University of Melbourne and have been friends ever since.  She has always had entrepreneurial streak – one of her first was to offer hair-dressing services to fellow students in the residential college where we both lived – and this spirit, coupled with creativity, perseverance and just plain grit, has been fundamental to her success in multiple enterprises.

After she completed library studies she travelled to Europe on a French cargo ship (such things were possible in the early 1960s), and worked in France teaching English to education students, and spending time as an au pair with a French family. These three experiences gave her first-hand knowledge of the food-life of the ordinary French person, and I think formed the basis of her love affair with French gastronomy.  

After moving on to London where she worked for a time at the BBC, she met and married Rupert Montague. When they returned to Melbourne, they proceeded to establish Jamaica House, a restaurant in Carlton where the menu featured new-to-Melbourne Jamaican specialities.  This was Stephanie’s first venture into commercial restaurant life, with its multiple pressures, but Jamaica House became a popular dining option.  It also became the cause of considerable stress, and Stephanie left Jamaica House to return to her first career choice of librarian.  The love of food had not abated, however, and she was soon writing a weekly food column for The Melbourne Times, running tasting sessions for colleagues from Princes Hill High School, and gaining restaurant work experience at Mietta’s in North Fitzroy.

This led to the establishment in Fitzroy in December 1975 of Stephanie’s, a fixed price restaurant (that French influence again) where a three-course meal cost, I think, $10.00. In  1980 Stephanie’s moved to a lovely old Victorian house in Hawthorn, where it quickly became one of the most highly sought food destinations in Melbourne. During this period Stephanie travelled to Europe as frequently as she could, and was able to obtain invaluable experiences working with world-renowned restauranteurs. She would return to Melbourne brimming with new ideas which she could introduce to her own restaurant.  She also continued her writing career, adding to the articles she wrote for various magazines her first book, Stephanie’s Menus for Food Lovers, which was published in 1985.

In 1996 Stephanie published her mammoth tome, The Cook’s Companion. The impetus for this book was her growing belief that although Australians loved eating out, there was amongst the general public less understanding of how to incorporate and use fresh ingredients into their home cooking. The success of The Cook’s Companion, with its contents arranged alphabetically from Abalone to Zucchini and Squash, showed that Stephanie had indeed identified a real need in the Australian community, and led her to think further about how to introduce fresh delicious food to Australian children.

The answer seemed to lie with some uniformly available school-based education program, based in the primary school years when children’s food tastes and habits are still developing.  Imagine if every child was able to have a gardening and cooking – and of course eating - program as an integral part of their school experience.  

This came to pass in 2001, when the first kitchen garden program commenced at Collingwood College in inner Melbourne.  Weekly gardening and cooking classes were scheduled for all children from Grades Three to Five, and the children loved them. Stephanie expended huge amounts of time and energy on this program.  Her activities ranged from being hands on in the kitchen and garden working with kitchen and garden specialists to design tasks and menus that children could manage to lobbying government departments and ministers for support and funding, and encouraging schools to reach out to their communities for support and donations. Gradually the program spread to other schools, and it became apparent that the movement needed some legal footing.  In 2004, The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation was registered at ASIC as a Company Limited by Guarantee, and Deductible Gift Recipient status was granted by the Australian Taxation Office.  The Foundation had arrived.

In the twenty years since the first classes were held in Collingwood, the Foundation has gone from strength to strength, but always with the awareness of the precariousness of its financial position.  At different time over the past twenty years State Education Departments have provided  funds for the introduction of kitchen garden programs to some schools in their states, and in 2009 the Federal Government departments of health and education collaborated to support the Foundation in bringing the program to ten percent of Australian state primary schools, but currently the Foundation receives no government funding, and is reliant on corporate partnerships and philanthropic support. As I write this in November 2020, it is pleasing to report that the Foundation now supports Kitchen Garden Programs in over 1500 Early Learning Centres, Primary Schools, Specialist Schools and Secondary Schools across Australia. 

And what of Stephanie in all this?  What qualities and characteristics have enabled her to achieve this success? I think first has to be her vision.  In all her endeavours, she has had a vision of what she wanted to achieve.  Then she has been able to identify like-minded individuals with whom she can share her vision, and who willingly work with her in the attainment of this vision.  Creativity is an important part of the mix, as is an emphasis on quality and beauty and abundance. All visitors to the Kitchens of schools running Kitchen Garden Programs are impressed by the beautiful displays of fruit and vegetables that are a feature of each class, and the printed materials produced by the Foundation are well designed, slightly quirky, and beautiful. There is a generosity in what is offered, coupled with prudent common sense.  Other personal qualities that have led to Stephanie’s success include a dogged work ethic that underpins all her accomplishments.  If something is to be done, it will be done now if not yesterday.  Procrastination is not part of her make-up. She has enormous energy which she devotes to her ventures.  Endearingly there is a lack of confidence, a feeling that what has been achieved isn’t good enough – in fact, might be no good at all.  There is genuine self-deprecation, which can be exasperating when it is so obviously unwarranted. 

And now she has reached her eightieth birthday.  She says she feels old – objectively, she IS old, and her energy is diminished, but the vision is still there, and if her past history is anything to go by, surely she will find herself engaged with fresh fields and pastures new.  

Helen Murray, Chair, Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation

< Back to Latest News