This month’s Mount Zero Hero is Josephine Prendergast, who works for Melbourne restaurateur Con Christopoulos across his Spring St venues: The European, City Wine Shop, Melbourne Supper Club, Siglo and the Spring Street Grocer.
After losing her mother at the age of 13 ‘Jose’ discovered a passion for cooking when she took on the responsibility of cooking at home.
While this passion was side-lined when she first left school, it never left her and eventually it brought her back to working in kitchens. where she apprenticed - learning all she could.
Jose has worked in the Melbourne restaurant scene for close to two decades, in many well loved and respected establishments including The Botanical, Pelican, Benitos, The European, Degraves Espresso and Gill’s Diner.
In that time, she has worked in a variety of roles, from front-of-house, to cooking and some “baristing” thrown in for good measure.
Her interest in the old adage ‘food as medicine’ or more simply eating to support and improve one’s health, an ethos inspired by her grandmother Honey, has led her to study Ayurvedic cooking and naturopathic food preparation as well as starting her own family focused cooking classes ‘Calm Down Cooking’.
Calm Down Cooking was born from a recognition that like-minded parents where keen to access wholesome and fun recipes to make in evenings, recipes they could share with their kids. Recipes that would help them (and their families) wind down and relax together after a busy, stimulating day, using ingredients that are nourishing, healthy and delicious.
See two delicious recipesfrom Jose this month.
Thanks for your time Jose. Can you tell us a little bit more about your background and how you got started in the industry?
I was lead to the industry somewhat accidentally. I’d always loved cooking, albeit ‘just at home’.
My mum passed away when I was in my early teens and she had done the lion’s share of the cooking. I realised not only was it helpful to cook, because I was home from school earlier than my Dad and other siblings, but that I actually loved doing it.
I loved reading cook books, buying produce and trying new recipes. I’m sure my family suffered through some not so delightful dinners - but I loved practising!
I was dissuaded from pursuing cooking at the end of high school by careers counsellors, but after starting and deferring university, I found my way into a commercial kitchen and then an apprenticeship. I had always loved cooking but found I also loved the adrenalin of service. I got hooked and didn’t return to university.
What do you love about your job today?
I still enjoy working in the industry immensely and I’m really passionate about passing on cooking knowledge. I think it’s important that the art of cooking doesn’t get lost and with more and more convenience food around (and ways to get it!) I meet adults who claim they can’t cook, or haven’t learned how.
I believe that cooking is an invaluable life skill, both to nourish and look after yourself and also to celebrate family, friends, and the seasons.
I have tried my hand at most styles of cooking, different cuisines and from café to fine dining and I very grateful to have a wonderfully varied job across all of Con Christopoulos venues.
Cooking is one of the best ways I know how to show love and care. It can be just a regular dinner or taking the time and effort to cook for someone you love who is unwell, or just had a baby or hasn’t had any time. What a gift, even for someone who “has everything” they still need to eat!
What is your favourite dish and why?
My favourite dishes to this day, are pretty much anything I ate at my grandma “Honey’s” house.
I recall the aroma of big pots of strawberry jam, roasts... the first time I ever tasted tuna, the smell of rosemary and her seemingly endless jar of shortbread.
I have so many memories of food that are related to her cooking and food ethos . Through her I learned to appreciate an approach to cooking that resonates with me today. For her, cooking was more than just the recipes on a page, or indeed the end dish, it was more about who she was cooking for and the quality of the ingredients. Dedicated to quality ingredients she cooked seasonally and her pantry was prepared for people popping in – she made cooking magic.
I sat with Honey when she was too frail to really cook anymore and wrote down family recipes with her. So any dish of hers is my favourite as it symbolises, learning, traditions, family and love.
I do also have a very good memory of a crumbed chicken dish I ate in Cadiz, Spain almost 20 old years ago. It was coated in a magical mixture of almond and lemon, and it was really so simple, but I’ve never been able to emulate it correctly! I’ll have to go back to investigate further if I can ever find the bar again!
Where do you source your produce?
At work, we are committed to sourcing our produce from local companies with integrity - such as Mount Zero Olives.
There are a lot of Australian companies who are now producing and competing in areas where for a long time the default attitude was ‘imported was better’ (olive oil, truffles etc).
It’s so exciting to see a bigger push towards a local and sustainable food industry who believe and invest in their own products.
While we still import some products that just are undeniably better, food producers here are now really playing on the world’s stage in so many ways - how lucky are we?!
What’s the most heard feedback from your customers?
“I love this place!” (It feels great to hear that in any of the venues!)
What’s your favourite kitchen tool?
I’ve a bit of a kitchen tool fetish. Some tools I love looking at but I don’t use – things like mini items that have no practical use really, but are super cute. I also like weird and wonderful tools like a spurtle! But practically, my go to things tools are a microplane and a mandolin.
What would you be doing, if you weren’t in the food business?
I have no idea! And whatever it was, I’m pretty confident I’d be cooking a lot after work!
What word would you use to describe your favourite Mount Zero Olives product?
Pure. I’ve recently been out to the olive grove and to the pink lake and I’m so impressed that such a big production is capable of being so thoughtful and sustainable. I kept looking around for all the machinery!
We are forever creating a ‘Foodie’s Bucket List’. Please add your favourite place to eat out – somewhere everyone MUST GO!
I have so many favorites in Melbourne it’s so hard to pick! But a favourite food of mine (and an occasional indulgence because I don’t eat much meat) is Bolognese pasta. Daggy I know, but it’s the ultimate comfort food for me and when it’s good, it’s amazing!
So I’d recommend Emilia Trattoria, it’s the closest to perfect that I’ve tasted outside of Bologna.Sometimes it’s nice to go out and eat something inventive or challenging that makes you wonder just how they did it and sometimes it’s nice to eat the best of something with such history and that everyone can make (in varying degrees of goodness!) and wonder how they get it so so perfect!
Do you have a favourite ‘foodie’ moment from art, film; or novel or poem – or perhaps a wonderful moment in your own life you’d like to share?
Recently I watched re watched ‘Ratatouille’. Although it’s a kids' film, the sentiments are very much in line with my own thoughts on food – that anyone can cook.
It’s also a more accurate depiction of a commercial kitchen than many movies or television shows, which is endlessly amusing for anyone who has worked in kitchens - an animated rat is doing the cooking!
Do you have special plans or dream projects planned for the year ahead?
I spent time in Spain and Morocco in my 20s and I’d love to go back - but I’d also add in Greece, Turkey and Lebanon. I’d treat this trip as more of a serious a culinary education.I recall eating some amazing dishes but this time I would take more effort in remembering, recording and savouring them!
Well make sure you share any new tips with us! Thanks for your time Jose, and for sharing two of your delicious recipes with us this month!