Over the past six weeks that I've had this blog, visitors will have become familiar with the name of Tessa Kiros, if they weren't already. I've rhapsodized over her Cinnamon & Cardamom Buns, incorporated her sinfully delicious vanilla ice cream into my SHF5 entry, and even devoted one of my very first posts to signing the praises of her second book.
After a series of what can only be called serendipitous events, the author of 'Twelve' and 'Falling Cloudberries' and I met recently over the phone. We had a lovely chat about everything from our families to recently published cookbooks, and I hung up the phone feeling privileged to have spoken with her. Fiercely intelligent and a spirited conversationalist, Tessa fielded my questions with grace and an easy laugh. I realized almost immediately that her feet are planted firmly in the groundwork that is her family; she doesn't seem the least interested in becoming a celebrity, which I find nothing short of amazing in our day and age.
The questions below were answered by Tessa via email, and my sincerest thanks go out to her for the incredible kindness and generosity she showed to me. My thanks also to the staff at Murdoch Books; in addition to facilitating my "meeting" with Tessa, they have kindly agreed to donate a copy of 'Falling Cloudberries', to be given as a prize to the winner of a contest I'll be announcing within the next week. Make sure to check back for details!
It's obvious from both of your books that you've always been surrounded by family and friends who are passionate about food, and that you are as well. Do you think that passion is an essential quality in a good cook?
I think that passion definitely helps, although it is not strictly essential to prepare a good meal. But it is essential for staying power- so, to make many good meals. People can probably feel a person's passion in doing something and are pulled towards that.
How have you evolved as a cook? Also, could you talk a bit about any training or experiences you've had that have impacted your growth?
I have always been interested in mixing things -spices, etc- together from a very young age. I started off waitressing in London where Angela Dwyer was head chef. She was probably the biggest culinary influence in my life. I used to watch the food and the way it was on the plate...and think...I want to know how to do that. So, I asked her if I could and she put me on the pastry section. After that, I worked with chef Albert Clark, who I also thought was fantastic. Then I followed my instinct and travelled to Sydney, where I worked in a restaurant for a couple of months, then to Mexico, where I lived with a family. Before I got there, I made sure they could cook well, and the same on my Italian trip. The thing that has always pulled me in most are family traditions, watching and learning the way the people from a place that I love do their stuff and blend it with their everyday lives. It makes my heart sing! There are a few people, friends of mine who inspire me, and I love the way they cook. It might be just the way their potatoes look, or how they put something together, the way it just holds itself on a plate, that you know is the way you like it. It is a yes or a no.
Who or what else has been a strong culinary influence in your life?
My mother, travel, and most recently, my mother-in-law.
What inspired you to write 'Twelve'? Had you always wanted to be published?
I was newly living in Italy with my husband, Giovanni and surrounded by his family of cooks - which is the reason I came to Italy - to immerse myself in the cooking and life here for a bit. After the birth of my first daughter, it was probably one of the first times I had to stay in one place. I was totally inspired by the clear way people eat in Tuscany - no questions - just what is in season is accepted - when the produce is at its best tasting, freshest and also less costly. It makes sense. Also by the beautiful rustic presentation that they are so good at - it is what appeals to me most. I loved the grandmothers making jams and preserving artichokes and things....and their table habits - seems like they know what they are doing. I started writing down the monthly goings-on in a diary and it became a book. I wanted all the recipes for me - so even just one single book.
'Twelve' was self-published at first; had you tried to interest a publisher, or was that always your intention?
I wrote to many publishers, but none of those that I chose were interested. I had enclosed a couple of typed recipes, a colour copy of one or two of the photos, and a brief passage on my personal history. I think most companies would have preferred to do their own photos maybe and not already have the book finished, I don't know- but I had many 'no thanks' letters. Obviously at that point I thought, "I have the whole book finished, I had a whole team of friends helping me put it together, I want to publish it!", so I did it myself. It was the only thing to do at that point; I printed fifteen hundred copies and sold them all.
My publisher now, Murdoch Books, was not one of the companies that I had approached by letter. When I presented myself at the Frankfurt book fair with a copy of 'Twelve' under my arm, they were immediately hospitable and enthusiastic about republishing it.
Had you always planned on writing 'Falling Cloudberries'?
I think 'Falling Cloudberries' has always been there for me, and it was just a question of churning it out. It had, like 'Twelve', a life of its own.
You worked with the same creative team on both books; could you talk about your relationship with them and what kind of difference it made to your process?
My creative team are all amazing life-long friends, apart from the photographer, whom I met through my stylist just before 'Twelve'. I knew he was the one to do the books and we have become great friends. We all worked well together, felt the music together and moved with it. I never need to explain much- they just know. There is respect, trust and integrity in the process. This, together with the hard work and know-how of Murdoch Books, has made an incredible difference in the process. I couldn't do it any other way, and I certainly couldn't have made these books without them. Everybody was a link to the final state of each book. Without one of these links, the books would have been something different.
Both books are such a joy to read! You were able to combine absolutely gorgeous design with rock-solid substance, in the way of warm, personal writing and clearly written, approachable, and -most importantly- successful recipes. Those things don't seem to come together very often in cookbooks; have you noticed that yourself and did it influence the development of your own books?
We were all strict, yet spontaneous and trusting of everyone. We worked hard and with integrity. I think the combination of this, along with the essential follow-through, support and professional side of Murdoch Books, contributed to a sound book. It's the way I wanted to give my books away.
It seems that so many chefs are celebrities now and present their own television programs, in addition to running businesses, writing books, and developing product lines. Would you ever be interested in exploring that route?
I normally would go with what my world offers me, if it feels right. My family are my priority, and so I don't really know where I could fit in those other things, given that I live in Italy.
You're married and have two children- do you ever find it a challenge to balance your career and family?
Sometimes it is a challenge, but I suppose anything would be. I think I have been very lucky. I work from home doing things that I love and can still be with my children full time. The challenge is just organising myself and my time in the best way possible.
Are your daughters interested in cooking at all?
They are interested, probably in the way most children are. They love to knead bread, and whip cake batters and lick the beaters. I like it when they work in the kitchen; sometimes they ask me if they can do their own thing and mix every imaginable thing together, from soya sauce to bath salts. I think this is good for them!
What is your favourite weeknight dinner? Could you share the recipe with us?
I don't have just one favourite recipe, but what comes to mind is the Lentils, Rice & Red Onion Salad (recipe to follow) from 'Falling Cloudberries'. It is rather quick, with a bit of a tang, and I think it has something for everyone. It covers the food groups and deals with my 6-year old's conversion to vegetarianism, so I have it there all in one.
Are you working on another book currently?
Yes, I am- I would like it to be about family foods.
What are your plans for the future?
I would like to open a shop, with kitchen-to-table type of things. My cookbooks and my own style, whatever goes, with some cooking involved. I have it very clear in my head- many things that I love in one place. I just need to find where it is going to be! Beyond that, my dream together with Giovanni is to have a small hotel on the sea somewhere.
If you were to have a motto in life, what would it be?
I really think...if you are going to do something, do it well.
LENTILS, RICE & RED ONION SALAD
by Tessa Kiros
2 RED ONIONS, chopped
2 teaspoons SALT
5 tablespoons OLIVE OIL
2 large GARLIC CLOVES (1 chopped, the other left whole)
1 large RIPE TOMATO, peeled and chopped
500 g (2 2/3 cups) BROWN LENTILS
750 g (3 3/4 cups) LONG-GRAIN RICE
JUICE OF 1 1/2 LEMONS
1 SMALL RED CHILLI, seeded and finely chopped
150 g (5 1/2 oz) PLAIN GREEK YOGHURT
This is more or less what they make in Peru: I have just added the yoghurt. The red onion salad gives the lentils such a lift and is also very good served with grilled (broiled) foods. I love this after it has been marinating for a few hours, even overnight, and has taken on a special fuchsia tone.
Rinse the onions and drain in a fine sieve. Keep about a quarter on one side and put the rest in a bowl. Cover with cold water, sprinkle with the salt and leave for 30 minutes or so.
Heat 3 tablespoon of the oil in a saucepan. Add the handful of onion and the chopped garlic and saute until golden. Add the tomato and season lightly with salt and pepper. Cook for 5-10 minutes until the tomato has melted and the water evaporated and you can see the oil actually frying. Remove from the heat and keep aside.
Rinse the lentils and pick out any hard odd bits. Put the lentils in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil over high heat. Drain, then return to the saucepan. Add about 1.5 litres (6 cups) hot water and season with salt. Bring back to the boil, then lower the heat slightly and cook, uncovered, for about 20 minutes. Add the tomato mixture and cook for another 10 minutes or so, until the lentils are soft but not mushy and there is not much liquid left. Stir occasionally to make sure they don't stick to the pan. If it seems like the lentils are drying out, add a little more water.
Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a saucepan and add the whole clove of garlic. Add the rice, season with salt, mix through and cook for a minute. Add enough water to come about 3 cm (about an inch) above the top of the rice and bring to the boil, stirring once. Cook uncovered for 3-4 minutes, until a lot of the water seems to have evaporated and there are some holes on the surface. Drizzle with a tablespoon of oil, cover the pan and lower the heat to a minimum. Cook for about 15 minutes, or until the rice is dry and steaming, then fluff it up with a fork to make sure it hasn't stuck to the pan. Remove from the heat and leave the lid on if you are not eatin immediately.
Drain and rinse the soaked onion in a fine sieve. Mix with the lemon juice and chilli and a splash of olive oil and season with salt and a little pepper. Arrange a pile of lentils, a pile of rice, a small pile of onion salad and a dollop of yoghurt on each plate- some people will eat them separately while other like to stir it all together on the plate.