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Conversations with Alice in the universal language of food

Aviva Lowy
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Published: 27 May 2022

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Media personality and cook, Alice Zaslavksy, tells Aviva Lowy about the pleasures and perils of ‘authentic’ cooking, ahead of a panel at Melbourne Jewish Book Week

IF THE STORY of Alice Zaslavsky, cookbook author and multimedia personality, teaches us anything, it’s that you can’t keep a good cook down.

And teaching is the whole point.

Zaslavsky, once a Melbourne high school teacher, claims that she just happened to be at the same place where they were doing the 2012 MasterChef try-outs when she thought she’d enter the competition to garner some cred with her students.

After making it onto the show, she outlasted many of the other contestants to survive into the final handful. From there it was a hop, skip and a jump into her own ABC radio show, TV segments, a weekly column in The Weekend Australian magazine, public speaking and social media.

Serendipity? Probably not.

It’s a fair bet that even if she hadn’t put up her hand for that initial TV competition, Zaslavsky, 36, would have found her way into the culinary cosmos.

“I had an extraordinary interest in food,” she says. “I was already doing the Chef at Home Course, giving up all my weekends to learn more about cooking - [and] a teacher’s weekends are very precious.” 

Zaslavsky had even managed to work food into the school curriculum. “Food is such a universal language. Even if the students weren’t interested in history, geography or English, using the lens of food, or even literally bringing food into the classroom to hook them in, really made it much easier for them to be spongy and interested in the material.”

She also recognised that the kids didn’t have much food literacy, “so even though my remit was not to teach them that, because I have a personal interest, that’s kind of what made me choose to go that way.”

I’ve got 60- and 70-year-olds telling me they’ve learned something new from my recipes. That makes me feel like I’ve still got a classroom. It’s just bigger now.

The celebrity profile of MasterChef provided her with a “jetpack opportunity, she believes.  “I’m so grateful to the franchise for what it’s afforded me and the doors that it’s opened. But you need to have the chutzpah and the skills to step through those doors and carry out those tasks.”

Now that she’s traded the classroom for the microphone and the camera, is she able to use her teaching talents to talk about food?

“I use those skills every day. I’m always thinking about who my audience is and what I want to convey. You always walk into a classroom with a key piece of information you want to target in that lesson. That’s exactly what I do now.

“And people don’t stop learning just because they leave school. I’ve got 60- and 70-year-olds in my inbox telling me they’ve learned something new from my recipes. That’s really exciting and it makes me feel like I’ve still got a classroom. It’s just bigger now.”

The MJBW panel: From left, Alice Zaslavsky, Dani Valent, Joanna Hu and Tony Tan
The MJBW panel: From left, Alice Zaslavsky, Dani Valent, Joanna Hu and Tony Tan

The Jewish Independent readers will have a chance to enter Zaslavsky’s “classroom” when she chairs a panel discussion at Melbourne Jewish Book Week this Sunday at Glen Eira Town Hall. The session is titled Telling Authentic Stories through Food.

I ask her about the term “authentic” which has become a focus in food media debates, where chefs and writers have been accused of cultural appropriation and even cancelled. Food, which was once a vehicle of inclusion, bringing various cultures together, has become so politicised that it is also a vehicle of exclusion.

“I think there is a fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, and the key to the latter is actually knowing what the rules are,” says Zaslavsky. “Then you can break them, having reverence and a reference point.”

She cites as an example a sauce recipe with a South Sudanese background included in her cookbook, In Praise of Veg. “I approached a friend of mine who has that background and I got her to taste a couple of versions and asked her a bunch of questions about it. So it wasn’t like I was plucking it out from the internet and saying, ‘I’ll just add that in’. I think food is all about context and content.”

In her latest book, The Joy of Better Cooking, she includes a recipe for taco rice, introduced to her by a Japanese-American friend. “John’s not going to write a cookbook, but I have the privilege and a platform and an opportunity to share that story and share that dish, which I think is just so delicious.”

There is a fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, and the key is knowing what the rules are. Then you can break them, having reverence and a reference point.

Zalevsky concedes that she is, however, operating in a fraught space. “It can be really paralysing. There is a level of fear around ‘am I allowed to do this? Do I deserve to write this recipe?’” She thinks the answer is yes if you do it with respect.

She’s discussed this topic with the other panellists - chef and author, Tony Tan; food writer and recipe creator, Dani Valent; and Joanna Hu, who has been front of house at famous restaurants, Vue de Monde and Fat Duck.

“Joanna has just co-written a book called Chinese-ish (subtitled ‘not quite authentic’) that’s literally about this very thing. What makes it a Chinese dish and what makes it a Chinese Australian dish? So many of us are in a third culture cooking world, myself included. So how do we integrate our history with where we are currently and with the future of food?”

The Jewish Independent

As well as recognising and respecting the cultural traditions of a dish, food presenters are also expected to be conscious about recipe ingredients. Outspoken US food writer, Alison Roman, asks if she must be responsible for discussing tuna sustainability issues if she is making a tuna dish. Has the burden of being someone who popularises food and cooking become too great?

“I don’t think so,” says Zaslavsky. “It’s not a burden; it’s a privilege. It’s an opportunity for us to agitate and advocate for a more sustainable food system. I’ve seen first-hand the impacts of climate change and of monoculture and of the willy-nilly ways in which we are trying to make food products instead of food.

“I think it’s also a really fine line between agitating for more conscious and conscientious consumption and recognising that not everybody can afford the $8 tin of line-caught tuna. It’s a complex conversation which is why panels like this are so useful.

I grew up loving fruit and vegetables. I assumed everybody did. It took me to my thirties to realise that’s not how other people think.

Zaslavsky, who grew up in Georgia, describes her background as Russian, Ukrainian and Lithuanian: the perfect example of a Jewish Eastern European milieu. “Georgia is so food-obsessed, my upbringing was all about food and feasts. I remember holidays at my grandfather’s weekender, his dacha, we would be eating persimmons and pomegranates and figs, enjoying the bounty of nature. I grew up loving fruit and vegetables. I assumed everybody did. It took me to my thirties to realise that’s not how other people think.

While her childhood love of vegetables abides (Zaslavsky calls herself a ‘vegelante’), does she still cook the famous Georgian kinkhali (dumplings) and katchapuri (cheese-filled bread) of her youth?

"My husband is gluten intolerant so those sorts of dishes don’t get much of a guernsey, but thankfully my mum cooks all that sort of stuff, and other Soviet and Jewish dishes. This year for Pesach, mum did gluten-free matzah balls.

“Gluten-free kneidlach mix is wild. I love that on the box it says: ‘this does not replace matzo because the mix is made of potato’ and that’s technically not a thing. So it tastes like potato chips. But, yeah, I’d like to cook it more.”

CLICK HERE FOR DETAILS OF THE MJBW PANEL DISCUSSION

About the author

Aviva Lowy

Aviva Lowy started her career as a radio journalist with 2JJJ and the ABC. She has written on a broad range of subjects, from food and travel to science and health.

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