Mietta & Friends

Australia's top chefs and food educatorsin words and photographs

Joan Campbell

Joan Campbell

Joan Campbell claims to be "just a bush cook" - providing as good a reason as I've yet heard to leave Sydney, or any other city, for the bush.

Joan took to catering after a financial hiccup left her to fend for the family. Her natural flair for food and her sense of Sydney soon saw her business succeed.

She was invited by Ita Buttrose to write on food for Cleo Magazine and, in 1979, was snapped up by June McCallum, then editor-in-chief of The Conde Naste Publications, as a contributor to Vogue. And this was when her story really began.

For 15 years, Joan has been deciding what food appears in the upmarket Conde Naste magazines - and how it should look.

"People are essentially voyeurs. They love to know how other people live", she says.

Joan's great strength has been her ability to provide Australians with culinary snapshots of other cultures. In full flight, Joan will say things like: "If you want to do something very simple, try prawns with what I call the taste of Thai - just a toss of it, really - a bit of lemon grass and ginger and...we have quite a lot of Italian stuff here, and I'm not talking about dead serious Italian stuff, I'm talking about 'tastes of' Italian. People love that - they love those roasted peppers, and polenta's madly fashionable now. . ." - and so it continues.

Now the interesting things about these comments is that they were made in 1991 - when one of the cuisines was hot, and the other just coming to the boil. She saw the trends early, and was then able to consolidate them. She has a flair for capturing the imagination.

Her influence reaches far further than the few hundred thousand readers of glossy magazines for two reasons. First, the mass market women's magazines pilfer and popularise her visions. Second, as much of her work centres around restaurants, the chefs - particularly in Sydney - take careful note of what she does and also contribute ideas to her. It's an association that works for both parties.

Last year Joan was described by Richard Cawley in Sainsbury's The Magazine as creating culinary trends with a flick of her pen and nourishing the star chefs of tomorrow . . . in Sydney dining out with Joan ". . . is one of life's greatest pleasures. Her knowledge and appreciation of good food is always a lesson. The food will of course, be good, and the service immaculate, because chefs and waiters adore her. And though she may, on occasion, make a waspish comment about a colleague or rival, to talented chefs, particularly those taking their first steps up the ladder of success, she gives nothing but encouragement, praise and enthusiasm, seasoned with a good dash of her inimitable warmth and humour."

Joan's influence and awareness extends beyond's Sydney's boundaries and somehow she is aware of what is happening all over the world. Her great talent is an ability to pick flavours out of other countries' cooking and convert them into something that Australians can understand and taste. It is not a purist vision and it respects no culture but ours. However, I believe that it is a most important influence on Australian food.

Joan also has sufficient taste to avoid the pitfalls of the world cuisine mixture without definition. Hers is the 'jackdaw' approach; she appropriates things that glitter and makes them her own. This subjective approach, tied to taste and an understanding of the basics, is the basis of the best multi-cultural cooking.

No longer young, her sure eye and certain opinions still rule at Vogue - and long may her reign continue.

(Joan invited her daughter, Sue Fairlie-Cuninghame, Executive Editor, Food and Wine, Vogue Entertaining, to involve in the planning and to be present for the dinner. Considering how busy a schedule these two have it was a great honour to have them both with us for the evening. It was Sue who spoke, led the argument and got the questions after dinner in what proved to be the most heated and lively debate on food critics, young chefs who are too impatient, trends in food, plagiarism, lack of technique and a restaurant going public "who get what they deserve . . . if we accept ordinary food, ordinary service and ordinary atmosphere, then . . . that's what we will get." Strong words from strong women.)



Artichokes with broad beans and bacon
Seared scallops with green beans and baba ghanoush
Corn-fed chicken with lemon and onions

Mietta O'Donnell
©Mietta's 1996