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The hot seat

I like politicians. I can't help it. I like their exotic little personal cocktails of panicky insecurity and breathtaking overconfidence. I like their determination and the fact that most are well-intentioned. I like the fact that they mostly keep doing their jobs even though they can't be having very much fun, most of the time.

And I like having dinner with them. This isn't entirely a function of personal greed, although of course that plays a substantial part. The truth is that adding food to an interview changes everything. It renders virtually useless the evasions that are now traditional to the televised political interview. Try saying "As I have consistently promised, the Australian government will walk the reform road with confidence" while tackling a lamb chop, and you'll see what I mean.

Sharing food is the quickest way to get around the awkwardness of the journalist-politician relationship, a relationship that - even at its most civil - is plagued by an episodic asymmetry of need. Sharing food loosens the lips and gives everyone something to do with their hands.

You've got to be careful not to overdo it, of course, especially in the liquor department, where the aim is to induce pleasant emboldenment in the interviewee, while avoiding irretrievable soakage of one's own mental faculties.

(Sometimes, it goes horribly awry. I remember one dinner with several ministers at which a series of excellent confidences were imparted. The wine was flowing, so I absented myself to the bathroom regularly, in order to maintain a Biro record of the highlights on my leg. This seemed foolproof at the time, but less so the following morning, as anyone who has ever tried to read shorthand notes off a bedsheet with the aid of a hand mirror will instantly recognise.)

Anyway, for the last six months, I've been inviting myself round to politicians' houses for dinner, as part of an extended laboratory trial of whether any of the above principles hold true when four cameras and a substantial TV crew are added to the equation. The results are positive (as they are for the subsidiary investigation - whether a modern public broadcaster can be persuaded that going around to people's places, eating food and rummaging through their expired condiments constitutes legitimate paid work).

The subjects in the Kitchen Cabinet series - some of whom you'll recognise immediately, while others are well-kept national secrets - pony up all sorts of stuff. Thoughts on politics, of course, but much more besides. One of them confesses to having once shot a mud crab with a .44 pistol. One bakes her own dog biscuits - shiny, liver-based treats I declined to sample. One still has a recipe book she started in Year Nine. One startled me rather thoroughly by marching into his kitchen with a four-foot salmon clasped to his breast. Another has written and recorded a new alternative to the national anthem.

Selfishly, I chose only targets who can actually cook, and decreed that barbecuing does not count. Harsh, I know, but the rewards were many; a delicate watercress soup from Penny Wong, for example. Fragrant yellow curry puffs made by Northern Territory Country Liberals senator Nigel Scullion with creamy, sweet yabby tails. Tanya Plibersek's herbed spaghetti, whose heat alone was enough to cook, perfectly, the cubes of luminous ocean trout she tossed through it at the last minute. She nicked the recipe from Environment Minister Tony Burke, another surprisingly handy Cabinet cook. The brilliant primary colours of a tagliata, assembled jointly - amid spirited repartee - by Christopher Pyne and Amanda Vanstone.

Ask someone "How did you learn to cook?" and chances are what you'll hear in reply will be the story of a life. And nothing goes better with a political life than a glass of wine, and a plate of something delicious.

Kitchen Cabinet airs on Wednesdays at 9.30pm on ABC2 and is repeated on Mondays at 10.30pm.

This article is from the March 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.


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