Cooking royalty commits to preserving Australia's food history

From left: Julie Gibbs, Kate Gibbs, Guy Grossi, Lisa Havilah, Neil Perry, Louise Keats, Suzanne Gibbs, Peter Gilmore, ...
From left: Julie Gibbs, Kate Gibbs, Guy Grossi, Lisa Havilah, Neil Perry, Louise Keats, Suzanne Gibbs, Peter Gilmore, and Kylie Kwong at Bennelong Restaurant. Australia's leading chefs have committed to donating oral histories and objects to Australia's culinary archive.  Photo: Louie Douvis

From donating handwritten recipes to digging up customer letters of complaint, Australia's leading chefs have committed to creating the first nationwide culinary archive.

"Food is integral to Australia's culture and we felt it was important to create a space where the history of restaurants, cooking and produce can be held," says Lisa Havilah, chief executive of Sydney's Powerhouse Museum which is helming the project.

"Once complete, we hope the archive will not only benefit the community as somewhere histories can be remembered, but serve as a source of inspiration and knowledge for future chefs."

The Australian Culinary Archive project officially launches today with contribution commitments from chefs such as Peter Gilmore, Neil Perry, Kylie Kwong, Andrew McConnell, Ben Shewry and Guy Grossi, plus the family of cookbook author Margaret Fulton. The broad scope includes restaurants, home-cooking, food production, organics, biosecurity and farmers' markets.

"We want the industry to really own it so the archive becomes a repository for Australian culinary knowledge and innovation," says Havilah.

It is expected the archive will take at least two years to collect, encompassing oral histories, recipes, critic reviews, customer complaint letters and restaurant designs; and objects such as artworks, restaurant furniture, food moulds and awards. The archive will be catalogued at the Powerhouse but digitised wherever possible to make it accessible to all Australians and emerging chefs. 

Book publisher Julie Gibbs has been appointed as head consultant for the archive and says she feels "like the luckiest person in the world" after being given the job.

"I'm travelling all over Australia to interview incredibly influential people about the paths they've trodden and see what treasures are hiding in their storerooms and cupboards," she says.

The archive will date back to 1968, the year The Margaret Fulton Cookbook was first published. Fulton's daughter, Suzanne Gibbs, with granddaughters Louise Keats and Katie Gibbs, will provide the collection with cookware and ceramics featured in the home-cookery queen's celebrated recipe books.

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"Mum introduced Australians to the idea of Finnish ceramics and took them away from all the English stuff covered in roses," Suzanne Gibbs says. "There's also an incredible ornate silver dish that appears in many photographs across the cookbooks, holding fruit, lobster, rice, you name it."

Neil Perry is donating an original Rockpool chair, custom made for his Sydney restaurant in 1988.

"Rockpool was one of the first super-designed restaurants in Australia so it's exciting to have that piece of history," he says. "The archive is a fantastic idea. It will be great to chart the history of people instrumental in getting Australia's food culture to the incredible point it is now."

Melbourne chef Guy Grossi is sifting through his own restaurant archives at Grossi Florentino for paraphernalia to gift the Powerhouse.   

"We have menus and photographs at Florentino that date back decades ago, long before my family and I took over the site," he says. "They're items that really show a progression in the way Australians eat."

Working in conjunction with the Powerhouse Museum's existing Indigenous collections, the culinary archive is also aiming to provide a definition for "Australian food".

"It's something we're grappling with all the time," says Julie Gibbs. "We want to find that point when French technique, Asian flavours and native Australian ingredients began melding in our kitchens."