The first recipe I ever learned was my mum’s chicken and sweetcorn soup. I remember carefully rinsing the tin of creamed corn with water, pouring it gingerly into the enamel pot to poach, thickening the simmering sunshine liquid with beaten egg, and adding fragrant soy sauce, white pepper, and spring onion to balance the flavour. Today, this soup tastes just the same as when I was eight years old.
It's now been over seven months since Orchestra Victoria last performed together as a full ensemble; it’s an interval that feels equally like the longest of years and the briefest of minutes. Life that was planned around, and shaped by, the public practice of music has in its absence become muddled and indistinct. Schedule and routine are distant memories, and opportunities for creative pursuit thin on the ground. In this strange world, where the evening downbeat can no longer serve as a steadying focus, many musicians have turned to alternative means of filling their emotional cup; reading, or knitting, or building objects out of wood and stone. For me, equilibrium has come in the planning, composition, and enjoyment of food. Cooking, like playing the violin, has long been an integral part of my life, but this pandemic lockdown has slowly brought into focus the extent of my dedication.
Along the way, I’ve realised how intensely the act of preparing our dinner makes use of essential qualities developed through a career in music. The works in a concert program are selected and ordered in a specific way for all manner of reasons: to create and sustain a mood, or highlight disparate moods; to provide cleansing respite from technical or aural challenges, or simply to have a good time. The same is true of planning a menu, or aligning the flavours in a single dish; each element exists in balance to harmonise precisely with others and each task brings its own set of challenges. One dish may demand of the cook fireworks and dramatic flair, while another rewards calm restraint and lightness of touch; the patience required to master a difficult page of an opera score is vital when caramelising finely-sliced onions, or gently stirring a saffron risotto, while the steadiness of nerve that is relied upon when lunging into a fiendish audition excerpt serves well when charring chillis over the hottest flame. Some recipes call for simplicity and subtle understatement, letting fresh ingredients stand for themselves without over-complication; others feature layers of additions that together create more depth and complexity than any one component could alone. My santoku chef’s knife fits soundly in my right hand, as familiar as my violin bow; its particular weight, balance, and sensitive response are the result of years spent together in service. The same is true of my battered wooden spoon and warped bamboo chopsticks: a vast array of techniques has been honed through countless hours of polished repetition, until each tool becomes a natural, trusted, extension of my fingers. My ears too are a crucial guide, as the changing frequency, volume, and pace of a sizzle or a simmer acts as a precise cue to begin the next step. And in each moment, as with every breath of a well-loved string quartet, the trust in my experience and faith in my preparation are invaluable in finding the confidence to lift my eyes from the pages of a recipe; to react, improvise, alter, and adjust, to create the result I seek.
Ancient societies mapped their calendars around the harvesting of crops and the visible changes and moods of the natural world. Without the framework of a performance schedule, I’ve turned to gradually unfolding edible projects to track the passage of days and weeks. My north-facing kitchen windowsill, long a haven for flourishing potted herbs, now hosts a variety of curious-looking jars, containing salty tangles of Korean kimchi, Japanese shoyuzuke, and my partner’s bubbling sourdough starter. Sometimes it’s the concept of resting time that brings a dish to life; a deeply-spiced mushroom curry seems somehow to taste more delicious after a night in the fridge, like a frustrating bar of music that magically yields after not being practised for an afternoon. We also suddenly have time, and the luxury of evenings free, to roll fresh ramen noodles on a Tuesday night, or stir a gently-simmering pot of butter beans laced with lemon and olive oil, every half hour through the slowness of a rainy morning. At the same time, with performance opportunities all but impossible in the foreseeable future, these ventures are a cherished lifeline to creative expression. This creativity is multi-faceted; one moment, it’s analysing a flavour and adding the perfect dash of white wine vinegar or sesame oil, the smallest ornament that brings a phrase to life; the next, it’s finding a way to marry together a seemingly disparate collection of ingredients, because it’s past curfew and there’s nothing else in the house. Creativity in the kitchen means assessing with honesty, critiquing with humility, redefining our understanding of ‘success’, and, in the words of my resident baker, being able to act as impresario, composer, conductor, performer and audience all in one. Cooking, like musical performance, is, in the end, un-perfectable, but if intentions are honest and true, it's an implicit triumph.
Rebecca's cooking, photographed during the pandemic.Photos Rebecca Adler
My upstairs neighbour is a classical music devotee, and long-time subscriber to The Australian Ballet. After the opening of each new production, it’s not uncommon to find a card or package of biscuits on my doormat, with some words about her enjoyment of the night before. Now, isolated indoors with no Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev to attend, she’s turned back to cooking. Burnished roast chickens, and creamy rhubarb and custard - familiar flavours from her childhood in England – serve now as an evocation of family and comfort. The notion of cooking as therapy is far from original, but at this moment the cliché feels well deserved. At its core, every aspect of cooking makes me happy. I devour recipe books the way others consume novels, poring over their pages for the next piece of soulful inspiration. As our world reduces to a 5km radius, I relish the adventure of new dishes that, at least in the imagination, transcend travel restrictions. Navigating the colourful aisles of the grocer’s for provisions feels, even in the current environment of mandatory face masks and ubiquitous hand sanitiser, akin to browsing in a sheet-music store, every corner bursting with possibility. Folding a hundred wontons, while gazing out our kitchen window towards the abandoned Palais Theatre and eerily silent Luna Park, has become an act of concerted mindfulness and deep self-care, nourishment for both body and spirit. Without the sense of achievement attained by performance, the accomplishment of keeping ourselves fed and healthy for another week takes on a new significance. How beautiful it is to realise that this precious pastime can assist in such a myriad of ways to fill the gaps exposed by the darkening of our stages.
In one of my favourite films, Nora Ephron’s Julie and Julia, the character of Julie Powell has this to say about cooking: “I love that after a day when nothing is sure, and when I say nothing, I mean nothing, you can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate, and sugar, and milk, it will get thick.” A dear colleague, known for his culinary prowess, describes the feeling of preparing beautiful meals in lockdown, and even doing the dishes afterwards, as a way to close the door on an out-of-control world, knowing he’s created a safe and protective home within. Which is exactly the point; for me, cooking is home. It’s security, alchemy, memory, artistry, excitement, communication, curiosity, discovery, and transformation. For me, the only comparable practice that encapsulates these same qualities, in all their infinite variety, is that of music. For many years now my vegetarian sweetcorn soup has been chicken-free, but its message remains the same; just like music, cooking is an act of love. Until we can play together, and once again raise our glasses around the communal dinner table, that is what will endure.
With my sincere gratitude to MS, YY, SMA, MH, and RGS for their extensive musings.
Recipes inspired by my lockdown saviours: Hetty McKinnon, Meera Sodha, Adam Liaw, Steph and Chris from CCD, and Nami from JOC.
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