Tomato, onion and cheddar tart. Barley risotto with pumpkin, sage, roasted radicchio and balsamic. Mussels with sausage, capsicum and fregola sarda. Grilled lamb leg spiedini with flatbreads and harissa-ish oil. Strawberry and brown sugar galette.
You may wish to pause here to mop the corners of your mouth, or spend some glazed-eyed time in your own private flavour fantasy. These recipes are just a soupçon of the 100+ contained in Danielle Alvarez’s new cookbook, Always Add Lemon – an elegant, accessible and ingenious compendium of sweet and savoury for people who love to cook food, that their friends and family will love to eat. A young US chef of Cuban heritage whose lore and passion for food was inspired by an education in her mother’s kitchen, The French Laundry, Boulettes Larder and the famed Chez Panisse, Alvarez is now the head chef of Fred’s restaurant in Paddington. A sandstoned and welcoming sanctuary of fine dining, Fred’s often requires advanced bookings, such is the demand for their delicious, seasonal, farm-to-table food.
Always Add Lemon is Alvarez’s first cookbook, produced in hardback by Hardie Grant with sumptuous photographs of completed dishes bringing colour and texture to almost every page. Aside from the practical procedures of, say, how long to leave chicken marinated in buttermilk (24 hours, in a refrigerator), if you should drain a bean (you should not), how to season a John Dory fish (you’ll have to read page 147 for that one), the book is infused through and through with Alvarez’s generous character and positive, food-loving philosophy. Recipes are written in a conversational, non-judgmental tone, peppered with useful and personal asides that will reward and delight the careful reader. Slipped inside, in pages not signposted in the chapter headings, there appear brief and sincere homages to the people who have shaped her culinary life. On page 93, for instance, she writes on “Cooking like my Cuban grandma Aida” – how her food felt like “a warm hug” and would likely be called ‘ugly delicious’ in modern times. On page 6, there are her eight ‘rules’ for cooking. One of them: “Find your favourite wooden spoon. Keep it”.
This book is perfect for the home chef who loves a challenge. The always-aspiring kind, who isn’t just interested in the final product on the plate, but who cooks for the pleasure, creative potential and rich and accepting learning environment that a kitchen can enshrine.
On a brief reprieve from her head chef duties, Alvarez talked with me on where her love of food derives, her signature style of the long, love-filled cook, and why she’s not a fan of ‘restaurant-y’ meals.
In the introduction to your book, you speak about your Cuban heritage and its ‘live to eat’ culture. What are some memories of your family making and sharing food growing up?
My mum always had the house that everyone gathered at. Before that, it was her mum – but eventually she got too old to be entertaining crowds of say, twenty to thirty people. I just remember mum always with a wooden spoon in her hand, an apron on, preparing from early in the morning.
She was really organised. She’d get everything ready, then she’d turn everything off, go and set the table, get dressed up, look beautiful. She made it look effortless. I have such fond memories of people sitting around the table enjoying the food, raving ‘‘you can taste the love in her cooking”. I thought that was the nicest compliment.
What cooking traditions did your parents pass onto you?
When I was a kid, it was pretty much all Cuban food. It was what my mum knew. So, a lot of braised, meaty dishes, definitely always some rice, some beans on the table in some form or another. Then at some point, my mum started branching out – I suppose once we were old enough to be interested in new things, and she had a bit more time to get creative. That was the point where I was like ‘Oh right, cooking isn’t just rice, beans and braises. There’s a whole world of food out there.’ She introduced me to that.
It also coincided with the advent of food TV. It really inspired me. The shows I connected with most were with Ina Garten and Nigella Lawson – they were women that made food look so enjoyable. I grew up on the south side of Florida, Miami, which is a pretty shallow place, where people are constantly dieting. Food never felt like something evil to me, something to be feared. I always thought food made people happy and want to converse. I appreciated people who took the artform of cooking and learned how to use it to create something enjoyable and pleasurable for friends and family.
I do believe in healthy food, healthy people, but not to the extremes of fad diets. Saying any food is ‘evil’ is never something I connected with. I remember seeing those scenes on TV of Nigella supposedly late at night, opening up her fridge and biting into a donut. I thought that was great. She’s a gorgeous woman – why not?
You’re the head chef at Fred’s restaurant in Paddington. Yet you’re not a fan of food which is too ‘restauranty’. What does this mean?
When I saw ‘restauranty’, I mean I don’t like food that feels really tortured. Sometimes you go to a restaurant and people insist on telling you how many different things they’ve done to the food. How many ways they’ve cooked it before it ended up on your plate. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s never been my style. I like to keep things simple, and really taste the ingredients for what they are.
Have you turned to any particular food associated with comfort or nostalgia during this strange year of 2020?
Like a lot of people, I turned to baking – which I haven’t done in years! Before this year, I can’t remember the last time I’d baked a cake at home. It was in the early days of the Sydney shutdown in March, that I decided I would bake a cake – a brown butter, buckwheat and apple cake. I felt like snapping images of it, and put it on my Instagram. I’ve never had such a response to anything.
It just proved to me that, especially during that moment, something like baking can be so therapeutic. If you follow the instructions, you should get a pretty consistent result. Delivering it in a beautiful sweet package is always nice, too. It helped me through some bored periods; and since you can’t eat everything you bake, I started giving food away. It brightened people’s day.
Always Add Lemon isn’t for the person who wants to whip up something in less than 20 minutes. What do we lose when we take supermarket shortcuts, and what’s behind your love of the long cook?
Something I’ve learnt to accept a little more this year is that you really can make delicious, beautiful things quickly. You can use shortcuts. You absolutely should when you have a busy life. Making a homemade meal and getting it on the table is better than ordering sad takeaway all the time. I don’t want to sound like I’m above that, because I definitely do it myself.
With the book though, I wanted to share a few things from my journey about what delivers flavour and results in a lot of ways that something quick never could. There are some recipes [in the book] that are fast and achievable for a weeknight dinner. But the ones that appeal to me most are a little more about the process. I love being in the kitchen. I feel the more a recipe can allow more time in the kitchen making something, the better. That’s the heart of it.
In terms of flavour, there’s a lot you can develop over time. Some flavours, like umami, you can turn to with condiments. But you can also achieve that with a long, slow braise. That feels more natural to me.
You describe yourself as someone who is always up for a fresh challenge. Do you think being a risk-taker is related to being a good cook?
I think there has to be an element of boldness. But importantly, the kitchen is a safe space to be pushing that part of yourself which might be afraid. I tell my chefs at Fred’s all the time: how you behave around something like food is a metaphor to how you look at things in life. If you’re constantly thinking you can’t do something – that dish is too scary, I’m afraid to be on that section in the kitchen – you might be holding yourself back from bigger things in life. If you’re going to take risks, what better place than the kitchen? I mean, hopefully no-one’s going to die from this thing that you made. It will help you experiment, taste food from different cultures, open yourself up to different ideas.
I don’t ever want to get in a space where we’re only doing things that are safe, and we’re not pushing ourselves to try something we haven’t done before. That begins to feel stagnant and boring.
The title to your book and your frequent refrain in the kitchen is ‘always add lemon’. What is it about this citrus fruit?
It’s not always lemon. It could be any kind of bright acidity. Maybe it’s the latin cooking – we’d always squeeze a little bit of lime juice before eating. I developed a taste for that brightness from a really young age.
When I worked in California, it became a thing. The menu would change every day but right before service we would stand before what we had made and make edits. Often, the only thing that something needed besides from a little more salt, was a little squeeze of lemon.
It just made the dish come to life, and it brought the flavours together. It made everything more interesting. That’s how I feel – you’re adding a little bit more brightness at the end.
Interview by Kate Prendergast
Photographer: © Benito Martin and Jess Johnson taken from Always Add Lemon by Danielle Alvarez published by Hardie Grant Books $50.00
Always Add Lemon by Danielle Alvarez was published in November 2020 by Hardie Grant. Grab a copy at Roaring Stories.