December 2024

Cookes In The Kitchen

Sophie Cookes Sophie Cookes Sophie Cookes Sophie Cookes Sophie Cookes Text: Caroline Clements Images: Sophie Cookes

Wooed into business by a lady with a plate full of cupcakes, Sophie Cookes started her culinary career scooping ice-cream for her best friend’s dad. She has since worked in kitchens with the likes of Wendy Fogarty, Maggie Beer and Greg Malouf. Now, one half of Cookes Food, Cookes is a chef in her own right, running a small food shop/cafe/catering company out of well endowed open-plan kitchen in the Toorak Village in Melbourne. Caroline Clements talks to her about how many turkeys she’ll be stuffing for other people in the lead-up to Christmas, among other mouth-watering matters.

Caroline Clements: How did you get into food and cooking?

Sophie Cookes: I always loved food and for a long time I thought maybe I just liked eating…it turned out it was more than that.

CC: Where did it all begin? Give us some back-story.

SC: I have always loved cooking. Always. I worked for my best friend’s dad scooping ice cream for years and spent the whole time trying to work back of house instead of front of house. It took ages, but I finally got in there. I worked under a pretty funny chef, he had a soft nature and really warmed me to the idea. Finally, I broke the news to my parents that I wanted to pursue cooking as a profession, they thought I was crazy.

CC: Did you cook much before you could see over the bench?

SC: I did cook a bit as a kid but I was terrible, nothing worked. Cooking has certainly been a skill I have had to learn and study. Perhaps I wasn’t born with a natural ability, but with I was born with the love for it.

CC: Where did you learn how to cook?

SC: I went to France and studied cooking for a year in Paris, I got pretty plump! Then I went to London and got the best experience of my like working at Petersham Nurseries under Skye Gyngell. I didn’t have an apprenticeship and she told me not to do it as I would probably get too many bad habits. She took me under her wing and I stayed there for two years. We became close and she is definitely my biggest influence. She taught me about produce and ingredients and why it’s so important to work seasonally. Whilst with her I got to work with the LEGEND Wendy Fogarty (head of UK slow food), Maggie Beer, Alice Waters and Greg Malouf.

CC: That’s a pretty good resume to begin with. Where did you take it from there?

SC: When I got home I could not for the life of me get a job. I applied everywhere and no one wanted a bar of me. It was very disheartening. So I worked in a café, which I did feel was a step backwards, but that’s how I met Nicole who came in to sell me cupcakes. We got to talking, realised a shared love for food and a desire to do something different, and started Cookes Food.

CC: But there are plenty of catering companies out there, what is Cookes Food ‘bringing to the table’ that is so different?

SC: Everything in catering seems too big, too many people, too many of the same menus and too many of the same foods, touched and tiny! Ever noticed how bad food is at a catered event, and the bigger the party the worse the food is? We wanted to create something smaller and more boutique. Catering for people who REALLY like food, restaurant quality food at a catered event.
We change our catering menus each season and try to work with seasonality and locality in our minds. We run small cooking classes to meet new potential clients and give them a window into what we do. Opening our doors as a café is simply a further extension of us. Its casual, simple and constructed with the best produce we can get our hands on.

CC: So are your suppliers all local?

SC: Yes, we use some great local suppliers, but we are happy to take food from anywhere really. This winter we had a lady who was bringing us massive pine mushrooms from her garden at home. She would bring in box loads, and they were so huge. We’d serve one mushroom as a dish and it would take up the whole plate. People were struggling to get through them.

CC: What cuisine most influences your cooking style?

SC: I love people more than places; Alice Waters, Maggie Beer, Skye (Gyngell), Damien Pignolet, Judy Rodgers, Ruth Rodgers and Rose Grey…to name but a few. They have a rustic, unpretentious, natural style of cooking which is similar to my own.

CC: What is you favourite restaurant?

SC: My favourite restaurant in Melbourne is Da Noi – it feels natural and warm, and Sean’s Panaroma in Sydney.

CC: What do you look for when hiring kitchen staff?

SC: I look for someone who cares about what they are making, who likes food – you would be surprised how many people don’t. But actually, even when we are flat out, it seems to run pretty smoothly just with Nic on the floor and me in the kitchen anyway.

CC: How many turkeys will you be stuffing this year?

SC: We are just about to start taking orders. Just about every second person that comes in says they will order one, so we may have a whole kitchen full of the birds. There is no room for error here, as you can imagine. If I miss one order, that would be someone’s Christmas Day ruined. The other thing is, turkey doesn’t have a long shelf life, so I can’t get started early. I am going to start the puddings next week though.

CC: What’s your favourite cooking utensil?

SC: Pestle and mortar.

CC: What would be your last meal?

SC: Spanner crab with a glass of pinot grigio.

CC: If you could have dinner with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?

SC: Frida Kahlo – in Mexico.

Cookes Food was begun by Sophie Cookes and Nicole Debono Two years ago. They have just released their winter menu for 2010.

Cookes Food

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