One-on-one with Alice Zaslavsky
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INTERVIEW

One-on-one with Alice Zaslavsky

Alice Zaslavsky first burst on to screens with her infectious energy on MasterChef eight years ago. Since then, she has become a well-respected cook, food writer and broadcaster.

Alice Zaslavsky. Photos: Ben Dearnley
Alice Zaslavsky. Photos: Ben Dearnley

WHILE memories of food are inextricably entwined in Alice Zaslavsky’s past, they in every way anchor her present. When she purveys fresh produce, she is taken on a journey back to her birthplace in Georgia, to weekends spent at her grandfather’s dacha. There she foraged the earth of his vegetable garden and was allured by the small orchard.

Alice’s warm face lights up as she remembers how her grandfather taught her to make “semechki” – toasted sunflower seeds – the memory forever impressed upon her calloused finger, she proudly shows.

And then there are the generous bowls of borsch she grew up with ­– “The colour, the smell, the flavour … Mum’s borsch tastes like no one else’s,” she effuses.

In Praise of Veg by Alice Zaslavsky.

It is no coincidence then that the humble beetroot – “the dark prince of the vegetable world”, as Alice calls it – and over 75 other vegetables ­are at the centre of her newly released cookbook, In Praise of Veg.

Erupting with energy, the almost 500-page modern kitchen companion is a joyful celebration of vegetable bounties. But it is not a purely plant-based book, rather it is a “plant-forward” source of inspiration, says Alice, explaining the premise is “to start with veg and build a dish around it”.

“I believe many of us have a desire to flex our ‘flexitarian’ muscle – to grab more greens, reduce the load we put on the environment, and take more care with the proteins we choose. But often we don’t know where to start, and aren’t at the point of cold tofu quite yet,” she pens in the introduction.

While Australians may traditionally be known for their love of “meat and three veg”, Alice observes a turn in the tides of the nation’s collective psyche, sharing that “veganism” was one of the most popular online search terms for 2019. Citing David Attenborough’s latest documentary, A Life on Our Planet, she reiterates the case for consciously treading lighter and rethinking our consumption of meat.

Within the pages of In Praise of Veg, the recipes – which are refreshingly grouped together according to the colour of each vegetable – are a collision of traditional and modern. It is a symbolic extension of Alice and her journey from the former Soviet Union to a new world – Australia.

“Growing up in Georgia … my diet was vegetable-heavy both by culture and necessity – a Caucasus cuisine with an abundance of fresh produce, bartered behind the Iron Curtain,” she shares.

At six years old, she left with her parents and older brother for Melbourne, where she would eventually graduate from Leibler Yavneh College.

“I learned a completely new language, a completely new culture, and for a long time, I didn’t want to feel different. I really didn’t lean into my Soviet past and history.”

Indeed, it wasn’t until Alice appeared on our screens as a contestant on MasterChef (season four) that she says she realised her heritage was “something special” – “not just my Georgian and Eastern European background, but also my Jewishness” and the cuisines it encompassed.

During MasterChef, the contestants went to Italy, where they spent time in Rome’s Jewish Quarter. There, she learned of the many dishes that we have come to associate with Italian cooking that in fact, have Jewish roots. Alice speaks fondly of the restaurant she discovered in the Jewish Quarter, owned by an elderly couple who survived the Holocaust. She ate their carciofi alla giudia, a traditional Jewish-Italian dish of fried artichokes, smothered in garlic and herbs. Inspired, she cooked the dish for famed Italian chef, Massimo Bottura the next day –”and it felt like a real homecoming”.

“I think there are moments like that all the time. Food is so evocative and so multi-sensory, they’re memories that really embed themselves in your heart and in your spirit.”

Alice’s fun, resourceful and accessible approach to cooking – while respecting the old, injecting the new, and “getting to flavourtown as quickly as possible” – resonated with many. She is now a known food literacy advocate, resident culinary correspondent of ABC News Breakfast and ABC Radio National, food editor of The Weekly Review, creator of food podcast, Nomcast, and author of Alice’s Food A-Z, the first cookbook to be given a Notable gong by the Children’s Book Council of Australia.

Reflects Alice, “I think what I’m trying for with everything that I do is to move people back to the sense of wonder.” 

Grate borsch, Alice’s take on the adored dish made by her mother throughout childhood.

With Nigella Lawson praising Alice as “a force of nature”, it’s fair to say it has been quite the upward trajectory since she left her career as a middle school humanities teacher for MasterChef eight years ago.

“Although, I’ve continued to be a teacher, I suppose,” she considers with pause, “But just in ways that don’t necessarily bind me to a classroom.

“Whether my classroom is a live stage hosting Nigella [Lawson] at Hamer Hall or a TV screen beaming in first thing in the morning on News Breakfast – I’m always continuing to hopefully do what it is that I set out to do as a teacher, and that is to inspire, to encourage and to share.

“I want to encourage people to be open-minded, open-hearted – and open-mouthed,” she says with a big laugh.

Alice likens herself to a magpie who has picked up and acquired skills over the years. 

Mushroom-stuffed potato zrazy with satsibeli from In Praise of Veg.

“Everything that I’ve done in my life, all the way from Georgia to now, I have gleaned knowledge and wisdom – or tried to – and applied those skills to do more.”

And In Praise of Veg is a natural culmination of that journey.

“This is the most me thing that I’ve done to date. It’s full of life. It’s full of colour and joy,” she says.

“My purpose is to bring all of those things to people’s lives and to continue to bring it into my own life. Because ultimately, the best teachers continue to be students, so, I’m nowhere near finished. I’m nowhere near done!”

In Praise of Veg by Alice Zaslavsky and photography by Ben Dearnley is published by Murdoch Books and available at inpraiseofveg.com or good bookstores. RRP $59.99.

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