With the launch of Julia's latest book, OSTRO nearly upon us we thought we'd have a chat about her approach to food, cooking and family life in the age of social media.
Alasdair MacKinnon: Julia you are an incredible and inspiring home cook. As an advocate for organic food principals and eating in sync with the seasons I'm really looking forward to your book. Growing up I was fortunate to spend weekends with my aunt and uncle who lived on a small farm an hour or so from Melbourne.
They grew almost everything that later made it's way to the dinner table (animal and vegetable).
They were vehemently opposed to pesticides and chemical fertilisers, instead, composting and enriching the soil naturally. This wasn't something they thought of as special, it was partly a thrifty way to provide for their children and a way of living passed down from their forebears. I guess this informed my own eating habits and lifestyle.
Now as a proud home cook with a foundation in organically grown ingredients enriched by my time spent in the kitchens of Stephanie Alexander and Melbourne's longest running vegetarian restaurant, Shakahari.
I'd love to know more about your influences and how you developed into such a prolific cook.
Julia Ostro: I’ve always loved being in the kitchen. To me it’s a familiar and comforting space. So many of my childhood memories are of cooking with my mum, aunties and cousins. Without forgetting that food importantly a meal on the table, it has always also been a link to our culture and family history. In order to continue eating our traditional foods, our family would make a lot of things from scratch or source them from friends as you simply couldn’t buy things like rabbit or Maltese cheeses from the supermarket.
It wasn’t until I lived in Italy that I felt those values so strongly again and made me reflect on my early years in the kitchen. Making food from scratch and sourcing local and seasonal produce from people you trust was the norm and a celebration. It now defines the way I cook.
From quite a young age, I also found myself totally engrossed in cookbooks, keeping notes on flavour combinations or interesting pairings that I had never come across. I think the combination of my upbringing and this obsession with reading about food has lead me to become a reactive cook. I rarely head to the market or shops with a list, but rather let the produce or people influence my cooking.
AM: Tell me about your food philosophy and approach to home cooking and what lead you to publish?
JO: In believe in starting with the best possible ingredients and keeping it simple. The best ingredients are, not so surprisingly, what’s in season. The taste and quality, not to mention, price are all reasons enough to eat with the seasons. The thrill when eating that first peach of the Summer, or when fresh broad beans begin to pop up in the markets are true moments of pleasure.
For me, cooking is as enjoyable as eating – it’s relaxing and rewarding. I make a lot of food – pasta, cheeses, breads etc from scratch because it has some sort of process which allows me to be fully enveloped in the making. Being able to share this love of cooking was the driving force in wanting to write a book. I have always written my recipes down and shared them so having it documented formally is such a nice gift. I didn’t really feel rushed to publish though – I always wanted to write a book but also felt like it would happen when the time was right. I feel really fortunate that someone else saw it was my time and approached me.
AM: How important is the intimacy of Social media in developing a dialogue with your audience?
JO: It’s a rather strange concept – sharing your life day-to-day with thousands of strangers. Somehow though it is a really intimate community of people that genuinely support what you are doing. I think it’s so important to just do what you love and the rest will follow - being genuine on social media is how I’ve always strived to be. It’s easy to see trends and what other people are doing, but remembering that you have this community of people ‘following’ you, is lovely.
Of course, there are lots of things that I don’t share too. I think it’s valuable to assess what you feel comfortable sharing and sticking to those gut feelings. You don’t have to be everything to everyone! My social media is made up of mainly food and family and they’re my two of my most fulfilling aspects within my life – I think people appreciate that authenticity.
AM: I can see from your social media that you travel extensively. My cooking is always expanded and developed through first-hand experiences gained travelling.
JO: I absolutely love to travel and feel like these experiences have completely shaped and inspired my cooking. It’s not even about mirroring exact dishes when I arrive home, but more about trying to capture some sort of feeling that was associated with a dish I might have eaten, or seeing a technique and being able to use it in my own cooking. Even the supermarkets in other countries can be a great source of inspiration.
AM: The Boroughs has some wonderful Japanese connections, can you share with us some of your favourite Japanese places to eat ? - did you know we were actually in Japan at the same time in May this year ?!
JO: Recently in Kyoto, we had the most amazing meal at a small restaurant called Monk. The loveliest man, Yoshihiro, cooks a seriously incredible five or seven-course dinner, centered around the very large wood-fired oven in his rather tiny kitchen. Most things are sourced from his friend’s farm, just one hour away, and everything else has some kind of story. Set along the Philosopher’s Path – it’s calm, serene and really special.
Nori is such a wonderful cook so we don’t tend to eat Japanese food out here in Melbourne that often. I’m rather fond of Aka Siro in Collingwood though.
AM: Living busy Urban lives means many of us don't all have the option to grow food. In this neighbourhood of a East Brunswick we're fortunate to have CERES, they provide mostly locally grown organic veg, delivered to boot! We can shop locally and have access to food that matches our ethics. Tell me about your favourite local places to pick up ingredients, what's your kitchen staple ?!
JO: I love shopping at the weekend farmer’s market – there are always interesting vegetable varieties, kinds that just aren’t available in regular supermarkets. These small growers are so important to our biodiversity so I really try and support them when I can. For us though, we find buying everything organic isn’t financially feasible so I like to emphasise the local and seasonal when discussing ingredients for recipes. I think that’s when growing our own veggies has become a really important aspect of our lives. As I am writing for a large range of people, it’s important to be aware that not everyone will have access to farmer’s markets or the means to purchase organic vegetables, for example, and is why I usually emphasise the benefits in choosing local and seasonal first.
AM: Urban living has also meant that our kitchens have become smaller, it's inspiring that all your cooking comes out of your little kitchen .. We talk a lot over the counter about apartment living here at The Boroughs. What kitchen essentials would you recommend for someone cooking from a small kitchen? Space saving tips are always welcome !!
JO: I think people are always really shocked to see what my kitchen is like. For someone that cooks everyday, it’s very basic. The only electrical equipment I have is my stand mixer and an ice-cream machine, which doesn’t get used all that often. When you have the knowledge and skills to make things for yourself, with the least possible amount of equipment, you can make amazing food in tiny, based kitchens. A large mortar and pestle, some sturdy pots and a good quality kitchen knife are just a few of my essentials. We don’t have a toaster, or a microwave or an electrical kettle, which might seem absurd, but we grill our bread under the grill, reheat our food and boil our water on the stove. Our small space means maximising the already existing appliances and choosing equipment that has multiple-uses.
AM: Julia your beautiful family often features in your Instagram feed. It's lovely to see how good food and love go hand in hand. This I know to be true too as I met my love while shopping in an organic store, evidence that eating well leads to a good life. You share your love and goodness so beautifully and we really look forward to launching your recipes in the store, to sharing your love of food and welcome you and your family wholeheartedly. Thank you.
JO: Thank you very much! I’m so looking forward to launching Ostro at the Boroughs.