An interview with Christine Manfield

An interview with Christine Manfield

Christine Manfield is one of Australia’s most celebrated chefs; an author, presenter and gastronomic traveller who recently moved home from Sydney to the Tweed Coast.

One of the few women chefs who made a major impact on fine dining in the 1990s, Christine Manfield’s life as a restaurateur culminated in three ground-breaking, award-winning restaurants: Paramount in Sydney from 1993 to 2000, East@West in London from 2003 to 2005 (awarded Best New Restaurant by the London Tatler in 2004) and Universal, Sydney, from 2007 to 2013.

Variously labelled as the ‘Spice Queen’, ‘Dessert Queen’ and ‘Global Nomad’, more recently Christine has travelled the world documenting and bringing global cuisines to chefs and kitchen tables across Australia.

We interviewed Christine as part of the Tweed Artisan Food Weekend, 2020.

You have traded a city location for a beach house and ‘coastal kitchen’. What prompted you to make the move? Is there a risk?

Our move had been planned for a couple of years, but it turned out to be serendipitous that we made it when we did [because of Covid]. We have always been beach girls and loved this part of the coastline in particular. There are incredible artisan producers here and a fabulous food tribe.

Now is a time to give back. We already had many connections in the area, old friends and people in the industry who have relocated up here and we’re also making new friends. Our network expands every time we go to talk to someone.

Saying that, my toes are still firmly in the water and I’m still actively involved in my work life. Being here has allowed me to move forward and to use the same skills I’ve always used but in a different way.

There has been no chance for FOMO. The Sydney we left is not the same city it is now. It’s missing a lot of its soul. We got the glory days. Onwards to adventure!

To celebrate the regionality of the local area for the Tweed Artisan Food Weekend you will be creating and presenting a plant-based feast using seasonal, organic produce and local artisan products. What fabulous produce and practices have you discovered in the area?

I have just hosted two groups on a 5-day food adventure in the Tweed. There are lots of opportunities and food experiences to look forward to here and time to give back.

I have met up with Currie Country, for example, a family clan living in North NSW and Southern Queensland and we’re planning a series of pop up events together in December, such as Nungalgiri, their festival of summer, which will explore the indigenous story of food of the region. It’s a fabulous collaboration. Being able to ‘stop and be’ brings with it a deep connection with the land.

As one of the judges of the Delicious Awards, I’m already aware of some of the great produce here. It’s the same story here that is repeated by ‘switched on’ farmers everywhere, the story of regenerative farming. This year has been a wakeup call to the world on so many levels. We can’t put our head in the sand and ignore it. It’s a call to action.

Jill Dupleix once said: “Chris has always had the most fantastic radar for where things are headed, for where the sun is setting; where it’s rising.” Do you see the focus on cuisine changing, moving back to producers, for example?

Yes, for some there’s a focus on food security and food provenance, but we’re talking about an educated minority.

We only need to go to a supermarket to see what is really going on for many food consumers. It is so easy to give in to convenience. We need to change how food is marketed, moving away from food that is totally processed.

We need people to have confidence in produce not in packets. There are very authentic farmers’ markets here, in Mullumbimby, Murwillumbah and Palm Beach – they are some I’ve been to.

We also need more vision. Too often, we’re the country of ‘No’, hamstrung by bureaucracy. We’ve rediscovered the joy of outdoor dining, for example, and proven that we can do it. Presently Tweed Council does not allow picnics in a public space, even for groups of ten. Let’s change that and move forward.

Nigella Lawson said that you “…woke people up to the flavours and influences from around the world…” As a ‘global nomad’, what changes do you want to see on Australian tables?

In the past, we have had unrealistic expectations of long dining menus at restaurants, however that’s unsustainable. This year we have seen that a ‘set price, set time, pay per head’ philosophy is the only practice that will work.

We need to cook what is around us, what’s at hand. We should be celebrating the produce of the season rather than importing produce from America. Being up here and seeing what’s around me has changed the way that I cook too. We can use global flavours to enhance the fresh produce that’s close at hand.

We need to learn which fish come out of our waters, who our local butchers are, where our animals come from and be respectful of that. We must shy away from poor practices. All of us have a responsibility to change.

As an educator, where do you see the place of cooking and learning to cook in the family home?

One of the positive lessons to take from this year has been the resurgence of home cooking. There have many positive lessons to take away and remember: how we work, how we think about and prepare food, and how we respond to Mother Earth. The earth has had a moment to be able to recover, to clear the air and the water. This is a story repeated across the world, how the shutdown of industry and travel has brought change in a good way.

You support a number of charities concerned with equality and literacy. Why is it important for you to raise awareness of our need to give back?

My previous career was as a teacher and literacy educator, so I see education as a key, a basic human right, just as any right is. Education gives both opportunity and choice, and too many are being denied this right. It’s not just the domain of privileged white people.

I have always used equality in my work, the sharing of knowledge, and publishing of books to reach a wider audience.

I am also an advocate for women in the [hospitality] industry. We talk about equal rights for women but, despite more than 50% of the food industry being women, we have had little visibility through the media. I’m one of the few who has received coverage. Saying that, watching Junior MasterChef this year has been life affirming and brings hope for change. Let’s move forward on this.

Reference Websites:

Christine Manfield

Currie Country

Tweed Artisan Food Weekend

NOTE: Some photos credited to Destination Tweed.
PO Box 191 Tweed Heads NSW 2485