THE FOOD LIFE
DANIELLE ALVAREZ'S EXCEPTIONAL TASTE
As we continue our series of celebrating women at the pinnacle of their craft. We talk to Danielle Alvarez, the star chef, author and recently appointed Culinary Director at the Sydney Opera House, whose visionary menus and seasonal recipes have helped redefine the Australian food scene. Here, Alvarez shares her favourite holiday recipes, her tips for staying motivated, and the gifts she’d love to give – and receive.
BY NATASHA INCHLEY
You first learned about food by cooking alongside your mother and grandmother, but when did you realise that it was more than a passion, that it would become your life's work?
“Not until I was in my early 20s. I studied arts history because I didn't know what to do at university, but I was always really drawn to the creative side of things. I had spent a lot of time cooking every weekend, making these elaborate meals for friends, I was always the one hosting, having people over but had never worked in a restaurant. I decided to enrol in culinary school, which was a big leap of faith, but from there I was totally hooked.”
You went on to cook for some of the most inventive restaurants, most notably, Chez Panisse in California and Fred’s in Sydney, and you were labelled a member of the new guard by the New York Times. What do you think sets your philosophy apart, and what has been the secret to your success?
“I was incredibly influenced by my time in California, I loved working directly with farmers, bringing their food to the restaurant, changing the menu almost every day to suit what was happening in the fields and then putting [the grower’s] name to it. So for me, it has always been about simple food sourced carefully, and menus that change often so you can come in and taste different dishes.”
Your latest book, Recipes For A Lifetime Of Beautiful Cooking, is an exciting new edition, it’s the perfect title given there is such elegance in what you do:
“I felt quite intimidated by that title, but ultimately that’s what I wanted to create, a book of recipes that are timeless, not following trends, even though they do relate to who I am in this moment.”
How does ‘who you are in the moment’ influence your style of cooking?
"We're all evolving and changing and growing, and I've realised that I don't want to stay stagnant for long. I like to evolve and change with the times. I know what my values are, they’ll always be there. I'm happy to learn and change and question things. I am constantly tweaking.”
Congratulations on your recent appointment, Culinary Director – House Venues, at the Sydney Opera House. How does one go about creating visionary menus when there is such iconography involved?
“I'm super proud of the appointment at the Opera House. I think there are always several challenges that come with writing menus for events and then also for the Opera House because it is, indeed, such an iconic landmark. I really want to make sure that I stay true to my values and ensure that the focus is on incredible Australian produce. I want to give an experience that celebrates everything that makes Australian food beautiful, prepared with care and attention to detail.”
There's that connection factor too with your cooking, where people feel an emotional pull, a kind of warmth:
“I've had people say that to me before, that there's something about my food that makes them feel something special and maybe even get emotional about it, which blows my mind. There is a lot of thought that goes into my food always, and although it may seem simple, with just a few elements on a plate, I’m always influenced by the time of year, the weather and so on. I think perhaps people feel really held or looked after in a world where so often little thought is given to the person dining but rather the person making it.”
Can you tell us about the recipes you chose for Oroton and why they're perfect for holiday entertaining?
“The reason these recipes are so good for entertaining is because they feel very Australian – roasted prawns with ginger and chilli jam, that is just incredibly umami and delicious and easy to put together. You can make the chilli jam in advance and then all you do is spoon it over the Australian prawns, bake them all together, and serve with a little squeeze of lime. It takes minutes, you don't have to have a hot oven going all day.
For dessert, a pavlova, because I can't think of anything else more iconic for an Australian Christmas. I've made it with roasted cherries here. In the book it's with roasted apricots, but the cherries have been so inspiring right now. The cream is flavoured with the pit of the cherry, it has an almond-y flavour, and it just looks beautiful.”
And when it comes to Oroton’s new collection, which pieces would you give – and love to receive?
“The gift that I would love to receive is a pair of Lilium Drop Earrings gold earrings that have the most beautiful little drop shape, they would be perfect with everyday wear, but also a really nice way to dress up an outfit. The gift that I would love to give is the beautiful Picnic Scarf with the postage stamp motifs. A scarf is such a beautiful gift, this one has a beautiful quality, especially for travelling, you could tie it around the handle of your bag to add a pop of colour, tie your hair up in it, or slip it around your neck if it's feeling a bit cool in the evening.”
Lastly, what are the top lessons you've learned for staying motivated, what keeps you moving forward?
“I think you have to seek out inspiration, you have to make sure that you're doing things that make you feel less anxious and more excited. For me, that’s travelling, which is a luxury, so I certainly have to work hard to be able to do that, but I see it as an essential part of my work; travelling, eating out, observing what other people are doing and having a curious mind. I love learning. I love seeing how other people do things, I'm always paying attention, and I think going through life with that sense of curiosity has always served me well.”