Annie Smithers loves her vegetable garden and cooking. With ninety per cent of the produce she cooks at her restaurant Du Fermier coming from her own garden, to say that Annie cares about the food she cooks is an understatement. Annie articulates her passion with such enthusiasm that I left wanting chooks, a vegie garden and more of Annie’s food.
I’ve read that from the age of 8 you knew you wanted to be a cook or a butcher?
Yes. About then I thought that’s what I’d quite like to be. I feel really comfortable knowing that I have never really wanted to do anything else. Regardless of the fact that it gets really tough sometimes in terms of running a small business or just the sheer hours, the actual cooking of it never loses its magic. There’s always something special.
It’s an art isn’t it?
No! It’s not an art, it’s a trade.
Not everyone can cook though.
No not everyone can cook. Not everyone can read or do maths either.
But it makes people happy.
It does make people happy and that’s the beautiful thing about it.
I’ve heard you say you just like to cook ‘good food’. What do you mean by that?
There are so many genres of food and so many fashions and fads. Obviously I have been through a few in my life, having cooked for 30 years, but now I really like to just cook the food I like the most which is proper classic European based farmhouse type food that is instantly recognisable by the public and has a sense of comfort to it. When I look at the extraordinary things that someone like Dan Hunter does, I actually can’t cook like that, that’s not in me. It’s not in my training. I love to go out and have special occasion meals of that ilk but it’s not what I do. I just cook.
There is such an obsession with food now. I feel as though the generation before us weren’t quite so into cooking.
There does seem to be a generation missing and it’s pretty much my generation. The 50s to early 60s were still very much home-baking and vegetable plots. Women didn’t work nearly as much. It was a different context to what it is now. In the sixties through to the end of the century there was an Americanisation of our existence but also the rise of the machines and the rise of the supermarket. Then the rise of the convenience meal. Somewhere we got lost and stopped cooking.
Have there been people along the way who have influenced you?
Stephanie (Alexander) is the obvious one. I did my apprenticeship there. She is my mentor, but above anything else, she is my friend and I think to have had that level of guidance and care throughout my cooking life has been incredibly important. The challenges that she has faced and the things that she has done are extraordinary. They are inspirational to a lot of people but to have had her as a constant for 30-odd years has been invaluable.
Also Carol White who runs Lavandula, the lavender farm outside of Daylesford. I learned a lot from Carol’s sense of gardening and space and design and just the environment. It was the first time I got my head out of the egotistical ‘I am’ world of concentration, the drudgery and the adrenalin of the kitchen. Carol would come and say “Annie, Annie, come and look at this”, and she’d take me down to the lavender patch and say, “now count down 5 rows in and 4 plants across and tell me what you see,” and it’d be the blue wrens had just hatched. There was nothing more beautiful than arriving at work every day from the beginning of December until the end of January and seeing the fields of lavender changing from green to purple. She was certainly one of the reasons I’ve gone into the gardening side of it. My time there was so incredibly precious. So, Stephanie on the cooking side and Carol on the gardening side have both been pivotal influences in my life.
If you’ve taken something through from a seed, you must have a lot more respect for the vegetables.
You do and it’s funny, they all tell a story. You know that there was a hot wind for that week or that it was really puggy or wet. They tell you this as they’re growing or in the finished product. Almost like tree rings. You look at them and think, that’s right, you had to cope with that, you poor little thing. There is no wastage, because everything is precious, there is a greater respect for it. It’s a very beautiful thing to have.
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