Australia is experiencing a home cooking pandemic

Restaurant manager Alice Florence-Diffey has found a new love of home cooking.
Restaurant manager Alice Florence-Diffey has found a new love of home cooking.  Photo: Eddie Jim

Alice Diffey is no stranger to food, but as a restaurant manager she would typically be spending a Thursday night serving rather than cooking it. Now, like many Australians, with her workplace shuttered and an unprecedented amount of free time, she's seeking sanity in the kitchen, and she's not alone.

Since social distancing measures came into effect in March, Australians have been raiding both the supermarket shelves and recipe sites to fuel their newfound obsession with pickling, preserving, batch cooking and above all, baking.

Home cook Alice Diffey with her montblanc chestnut and cream pies, custard and raspberry pies, and spiced brandy pies.
Home cook Alice Diffey with her montblanc chestnut and cream pies, custard and raspberry pies, and spiced brandy pies.  Photo: Eddie Jim

Instagram is awash with images from amateur bakers, nurturing their sourdough starters and presenting first loaves like newborns. Recipe-sharing chain mail letters are in high circulation. Flour, yeast and other baking-related products have been in such high demand that Coles, Woolworths and Aldi have all imposed wartime-style rationing. 

Diffey sits at the pointy end of the #quarantinecooking curve. An industry professional and daughter of well-known restaurateur Gerald Diffey of Gerald's Bar, she's spending lockdown seeking out and recreating recipes from the restaurants she pines for.

Her weeks have been spent ticking off bouillabaisse from French Saloon, crab mac and cheese from South Melbourne's Hats and Tatts, and gnocchi fontina from Grossi Florentino. She says it's her way of "bringing all my favourite restaurants home with me".

Diffey's home-baked lemon meringue tart.
Diffey's home-baked lemon meringue tart.  Photo: Eddie Jim

It is not just dedicated foodies getting in on the act. Edwina Fitzpatrick, a producer for events such as Dark Mofo and the Melbourne Writers' Festival, says her frantic schedule meant she typically ate on the run while her home cooking repertoire consisted of "eggs on toast or stir-fries involving a lot of bottles and packets".

Under the lockdown, she has found herself making the likes of a roasted cardamom peach cheesecake over two days, including making her own condensed yoghurt, labne.

Data supports the idea that Australians are rediscovering their kitchen in droves.

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MasterChef, Channel Ten's prime-time reality cooking show premiered on April 13 with its highest ratings in five years. Curiosity over the show's new hosts, replacing the longstanding trio Matt Preston, Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris could be a factor. Yet spikes in searches for online recipes and tutorials suggest we are in the midst of a cooking renaissance.

Data supplied by Google to The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald indicates Australians have been most interested in cooking homely, rustic recipes since social distancing rules were implemented in March.

The five most searched recipes over the past 30 days in Australia were banana bread, pancakes, pizza dough, bread and cookies.

"Bread has been dominating recipe-related searches over recent weeks," says a Google spokesperson. 

Searches on Good Food have spiked by 250 per cent with most cooks seeking the basics. Soup, bread, simple cake and lasagne recipes were all among the top 10 results for the past month.

Good Food columnist Adam Liaw, one of the site's most popular contributors, has been topping the charts with comfort dishes such as potato rosti and self-help pieces on managing your fridge and pantry.

Liaw says "people are cooking in a way I haven't personally seen in my lifetime. That's not to say they're cooking differently, but for some people cooking is a hobby, for other people it's fuel and a way to get food on the table each night."

It's true that while some are cooking for pleasure and creativity, others are being driven by necessity.

Fitzpatrick gave up her house before stage three restrictions were imposed, with plans to volunteer on bushfire relief for two months. She was expecting to be busy, and instead is without work and staying with hosts. She says cooking is a way of meaningfully contributing to the household, and is planning menus days in advance.

Liaw thinks there is positive change emerging, even if people are cooking out of necessity. "It has become really apparent that knowing how to cook some of these things, such as bread, can actually be a mechanism for improving your way of life."

Hilary Van Leeuwen was already a self-confessed food obsessive before the pandemic. She works for a cookbook publisher, and prides herself on cooking. But with hours cut, she has moved from a city apartment to her parents' home in Geelong and found it has shifted her relationship with food.

"My parents have an extensive vegetable patch so I'm finding I'm searching for ways to cook what I have, rather than buying out-of-season, potentially imported produce to suit a recipe."

With the extra space and time, Van Leeuwen has also invested in chickens, and, having failed to gain satisfactory sourdough results from supermarket flour (which was also hard to find) she has developed a relationship with a local bakery.

Not everyone has access to land, but the panic buying of seedlings at inner-city branches of Bunnings indicates that as well as getting back to the basics in our kitchens, people are developing an awareness of food sources, and supply chains. It may be a positive legacy from the pandemic.

Most searched recipes, past 30 days in Australia