Yumi Stynes: “Not drinking is the price I pay for having an awesome life”

The presenter on giving up alcohol, having a four-year-old sous chef and travelling long distances for Japanese ingredients.
Chris Chen

You grew up in rural Victoria. What’s a strong food memory from that time?

I remember my parents cooking sukiyaki in our home as a winter treat for friends. The friends had never had anything like it. We’d eat on the floor with chopsticks in front of an open fire: everyone’s faces would go red from the heat and all the adults would drink way too much.

Your family would travel 350 kilometres to visit the nearest Asian grocer. What do you remember from those shopping trips?

Japanese ingredients were so precious to us because they were so hard to get! My mum, Yoshiko, loved adzuki beans: they’re used in desserts and are somewhat baffling, but her passion for them was contagious. Even now that all those ingredients are much easier to get, my mother still prefers to stock up when she goes to Tokyo. Her friends bring back great sacks of Japanese rice and it’s a valuable trade among the Japanese community of Melbourne.

You wanted to be a chef at one point. What inspired this?

I always deeply enjoyed the “mud pies” aspect of cooking: getting your hands in there, mucking around physically with something, being tactile with ingredients. But a big part of my attraction was the fact that you could do a dinner service, feed a bunch of people, then knock off and not think about work until the next dinner service. I realise now that the head chef doesn’t get to do that!

You’re the author of The Zero Fucks Cookbook and Zero Fucks Cooking: Endless Summer. Are your kids fans of your recipes, or are they tough judges?

My kids are my staunchest recipe testers. Unfortunately, I am the only cook in the household, so in spite of working three jobs and parenting four children, the burden of feeding the family lands on me every time.

On your podcast, Ladies, We Need To Talk, you’ve been upfront about your relationship with alcohol. How do you feel about drinking these days?

I still sigh longingly when I read magazines like GT. I think accompanying food with good wine is extremely civilised. Wine and I should be friends, but we’re not, so I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I will never drink again. I’m running half marathons, I’m skiing, I’m extremely fit and healthy and my productivity is through the roof. Not drinking is the price I pay for having an awesome life.

Your parents met in Japan and your mum moved to Australia to be with your father. You’ve since travelled in Japan with her. What has that been like?

My mum and I relate to each other a lot through food. Eating together transcends language, politics, culture… and tiredness! One of my favourite memories was from when we took my daughters to Tokyo. We visited my uncle’s temple and underestimated how long it would take to get back and the girls were in a rage of hunger. We bought fish cakes and Dee Dee, who was very little, shoved three into her mouth. She was not going to miss a mouthful.

What’s been your most meaningful career achievement?

I co-wrote a guidebook on how to deal with getting your period. Welcome to Your Period (Hardie Grant Egmont, $19.99) has done wonders to help de-stigmatise menstruation and make it less daunting to youngsters. It’s just been translated into Spanish, German, Russian, Chinese, Korean and Afrikaans.

What’s helped you deal with challenging experiences?

Eating my feelings! Also, daily vigorous exercise. Surrounding myself with loving people. And always trying to better myself.

Your cookbook recipes include everything from agedashi tofu to chicken yakitori. Are there any dishes that were taught to you by your mother?

As kids, our favourite dishes that Mum made were the most simple. She made Googy and Rice (the recipe is in The Zero Fucks Cookbook). It was deeply comforting to us and I make it for my own children every second day. It’s hot rice, raw egg and soy sauce.

Have you passed down any dishes to your own kids? And are there any willing chef’s apprentices among your children?

My son is four years old and my most devoted culinary student. He has his own aprons, which he puts on, and he drags me into the kitchen, hoping to cook. He has to stand on a stool to reach the benchtop and lugs around great bowls and chopping boards, entreating me to “cook something”. He flicks through cookbooks and discusses which recipe he wants us to make. Mostly he loves sweets, but I’m hoping to get him trained up in main meals so I’m no longer the only cook in the house.

Yumi Stynes is the author of The Zero Fucks Cookbook and Zero Fucks Cooking: Endless Summer (Hardie Grant Books, $39.99 each). She co-hosts 3pm Pick-Up on Kiis FM and presents the podcast Ladies, We Need To Talk.

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