Food for Thought Alesha Bilbrough

Alesha Bilbrough The Firecracker Chef

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8 May 2023

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Alesha Bilbrough should be more famous. The kind of person who needs their own TV show. She’s a chef who grew up loving everything about food, especially the making of it, the speed and efficiency of the task at hand. Her voice down the line is fast and frank. I’m ringing to talk to her about her cookbook Food for Thought which she authored, photographed and did almost everything it seems except to actually publish the thing.

“She’s a real firecracker”  the publicist says to me when she forwards her contact details. 

“Hello, kia ora, g’day. My name is Alesha Jean Bilbrough-Collins… I’m super fucking awesome. No that’s not arrogance talking, that’s me learning to love myself, believe in myself and know that I am. And so are you.” 

Not the usual opening to a cookbook, a bit confronting, but then so is the author. 

“I just do what I love doing” she says “ I just can’t be bothered with all the wank”

What she loves doing is cooking really good food and serving it to people who appreciate it.

After years of cooking in kitchens, working under Ottolenghi and owning her own restaurant, she’s found a new way to carry on doing the thing she loves and a new place to do it in. Upper Moutere valley, 30 minutes out of Nelson, with the bird song outside her kitchen on a plot of land that she owns with her partner John. 

“We’ve got our own water well “ she tells me “and we’re currently revamping the vegetable gardens in light of the recent storms”

“Look at it this way,” she says ”I don’t want to be paying $10.00 a kilo for fucking onions. We all need to be more resilient.”

Resilient is a word that comes up again and again in our conversation. I guess if you get to survive the adrenaline pumping intensity of the restaurant trade with all the drama and stress that entails you get to be resilient.

Alesha always knew she wanted to cook. She did a chef’s course in Christchurch when she was 16 years old and has never stopped working in kitchens. The cookbook is a culmination of the skills she’s learnt and the places she worked in. When she left to go to London in the early 2000’s she ended up walking past a shop window in Islington where the food was being prepared – salads and baking – right there in the window – the frantic stressful chaos of cooking hung out for all to witness.

“I just knew I wanted to work there. It was my kind of thing. So I went on their website and wrote to them and then Yotam Ottolenghi interviewed me and I got the job. I worked alongside Sami and Yotam and also Tamar (Honey & Co). They are legends and were amazing to learn from.”

Back on this side of the world she has spent years working in Melbourne and New Zealand in cafes and restaurants which included setting up her own business Bear Lion which sells a range of products – preserves, jams, a bold mélange of quality New Zealand awesomeness’ says her website.

I can hear in her voice how happy she is with the new life she’s sought and found.

“City life is not for me. I’d rather hang out with a tree if I’m being honest”

Her new life is as a freelance cook with a commercial kitchen in her own home. Every Saturday she sends out an email with the weekly menu and people order and collect it on a Thursday bringing their own containers. She does a lot of catering, the usual weddings and celebrations and more unusually she’s made herself available to go out to people’s homes and cook their weekly meals for them so that they can spend more time with their family.

“I will arrive and I will use whatever food they’ve got in the fridge. I’ve had people buy it for friends who have had a baby. One guy brought it for his wife. I come in and prep a whole lot of stuff. Some for the freezer, a whole heap of salads. You always get a husband who wants lasagne.”

She grew up with parents who were both into food

“My father is a hunter, my mother a preserver. I remember my grandmother making food. I was always surrounded by it. It just makes sense to me. I can remember food and I get tastes. Working in a kitchen I like the efficiency of getting things done at a fast pace.”

She describes her own food preferences as “Anything as long as it’s from the earth”

“Do chefs really know where their food comes from?” She asks me, partly because she herself didn’t when she first started out in the industry.

“I was 16 and didn’t give a rats. I’d eat at Mcdonalds, didn’t have the time to question anything, didn’t care that much either.“

But that’s evolved as she got older. These days she is fascinated with all the links that food has to health. An episode of chemical poisoning turned her mind. She’s reluctant to talk about it but says she felt her health deteriorating. She’d wake in the night and feel her whole body shaking. She started having heart palpitations, food issues, and food intolerances to the point where she had no energy and couldn’t do anything. She travelled to Auckland for some tests which revealed she’d been exposed to glyphosate. She’s careful and wary of what she puts into her body. 

Her new book is alive with the possibility of flavour and the certainty that these recipes will blow your mind. What is it that successful and passionate chefs communicate? The desire for you to experience the same pleasure as them, a nostalgia for taste.

“When people sit down to eat I just want them to stop for a minute and really think where that food on their plate has come from and how far it has travelled. How much water has it taken, has it had a chemical free life? At the end of the day what I want is nutrient dense food and for people to understand we can’t just take this for granted anymore”.

She believes the word cheap and food should not be in the same sentence and she’s angry that we’re not respecting farmers the way we ought to. Her new life on the land has taught her how tough it is to survive as a grower.

“People grumble about the price of a cauliflower but how much money do people spend on coffee or magazines. It’s about priorities.”

Her years of working in kitchens have left their mark. The back breaking hours of standing at a stove. Now if she stands for a couple of hours she’s in agony but she refuses to believe it’s something she can’t deal with. 

“Hold on a shit, (which is a phrase she uses a lot) did I mention resilience?”

Just as in any trade that is subject to the whim of an audience she has seen food trends come and go but she’s always done the ferments, continues to make feijoa vinegar, some krauts, keeps her sourdough happy. She doesn’t buy from the supermarkets, gets her flour from Millwood Downs.

“Canterbury used to be a big grain growing bowl and now all our grain is coming in from Australia. We need to be supporting all our grain growers and becoming a more resilient country.”

Her biggest discovery recently is noticing how much we don’t need to eat. She’s started 

fasting and tries to do it regularly

“You have to learn to listen to your own body. Cereal companies have a lot to answer for.

It’s really hard being a woman and working out what you should consume”

Other things have changed since she’s got wiser like giving up coffee,

“It was one of those things – ‘chef, here’s your coffee’ I was always being handed a cup. Now I don’t like the vibration it sets up in my body. Ceremonial cacao though, I’ve got into that recently and it really works for me. It gives me a boost but I don’t get the jitters that coffee gives me.”

So many cookbooks are being published every month. But I tell her it’s refreshing to get a different approach to cooking intelligently and to read recipes that surprise you.

The book was a sort of lockdown project and she simply sent the submission out to a number of publishing houses and embarked on it with the same intensity as working in a five star Michelin restaurant. High standards, the discipline of it. 

This is a book that will make you hungry for all the right reasons. She uses pickling liquid as an ingredient, coconut sugar as a sweetener, and loves a mix of raw and cooked combos. My favourites – a dish of Miso Eggplant, Avo Puree, Corn, Almonds, Chilli and the Sourdough and Gherkin Cornbread. Another favourite is the recipe for Date Pudding With Espresso Syrup, we were lucky enough to be given the recipe. You can find this here.

Throughout it all is a cheeky genuine voice that doesn’t give a damn.There’s a lot of attitude and a bit of sermonising about how to live a better life “Don’t be a stingy bitch” headlines a paragraph. The writing is eclectic 

There are some unusual layouts in the cookbook but I only imagine she pulled on her big chef pants and demanded they stay there. Three quarters of the way in there is a download on being sober and a chapter on concussion and how to get through it. She mixes memory with the desire for nourishment. I get it. Life will shape you, food will nourish. 

The book is a mélange of recipes gained from years of figuring out what works best and trust me they do.

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