Christine Manfield is surrounded by recipes. At home, her collection of cookbooks numbers about 3,500 (at last count, anyway) while in her office the shelves are stacked with about 300 tomes. Then there are her own works, nine and counting, and the Cooking the Books events she runs with her friend (and former publisher at Lantern Books), Julie Gibbs, where the pair select one of their favourite cookbooks, serve dishes from it and lead a conversation about the author and their work.
Asking Manfield to select just one favourite book from her vast library was out of the question. She settled on three key works that shaped her career, which began at Petaluma in the Adelaide Hills and was followed by several of her own establishments, including Sydney's Paramount and Universal.
Here, the chef talks about her connection to Elizabeth David's books, Charmaine Solomon's The Complete Asian Cookbook and Middle Eastern Cooking by Claudia Roden.
You're an avid collector of cookbooks. When did you first start seriously building your library and how many books do you think are in there today?
It's pretty vast. I've really been collecting since the late '60s or early '70s. I think someone gave me the first edition of Margaret Fulton's first book and it went from there. A little time after, Charmaine's book came out and that marked a pivotal change in what you could do in Australia. We were exposed to all these new ideas about food which had previously been very colonial and at best Euro-centric.
Let's start with that Charmaine Solomon book, the Complete Asian Cookbook. Can you sum up the spirit of the book?
It's an introduction to the cooking styles of each of the countries that she writes about. When it came out there was no one in the world writing so broadly about Asian food: from Southeast Asian countries to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It was sort of like an Elizabeth David or Julia Child book: it targeted the home cook and opened up our food vocabulary to different cooking styles that previously we were ignorant to.
Seriously, there weren't that many food books around at that time. You can't even begin to imagine [if you're living in the world today]. This was around the time when pizzas first started appearing in a restaurant, when basil was seen as a hard to get ingredient. That's reflected in the simplicity of [Charmaine's] recipes, the substitutes she was forced to use. She would probably write quite differently today.
What were your favourite dishes to cook from the book?
Curries. And dabbling with Chinese food and spice. That flicked the switch in my head about how important spice is at giving incredible depth of flavour.
What role has Claudia Roden's Middle Eastern Food played in your journey as a chef?
Her book was revolutionary, well before Middle Eastern food became popular in the way it has done. Elizabeth David said the same thing. She brought a whole new series of layers to the food culture, especially in London where David was living. She broadened our horizons in terms of what was possible to cook and understanding the context of food in history. You've just got to look at today's culture – Ottolenghi, Paula Wolfert – to see that we've benefited from the benchmark she set.
With the Middle East, it's such a rich part of the world and has been affected by so many civilisations. Just by being there, you can taste it. Take hummus: the way it's made in Lebanon is different to the way it's done in Syria. Both cultures are rightly proud of how they do it. Food can allow you to explore and get to the underbelly. It's a great way to connect with people, it's immediate.
You came up with the idea of Cooking the Books to honour giants of the cooking world. How do the events work?
It's a book club where you eat. Everyone feels quite special about being part of the club. Everyone comes with that sense of curiosity. We do research and have a conversation around the table about the author and what their contribution has been to food culture. We try and dig up facts that not everyone would know. Then we personalise it by getting a love letter [from the author]: something really lovely that we read our dinner guests. It's about acknowledging their work and paying tribute to it.
The two series we have done have all been women writers. It wasn't intentional or designed that way; I don't know what it is but it's women that have led the way. Julie and I just sat down and wrote separate lists and put them together and they were exactly the same people.
What cookbook do you return to again and again when buying gifts for people?
If it's one of my nieces or nephews who has left home at a tender age I might give them something really basic, but I always try to raise the bar a bit and expand their horizons. Books written by chefs are presents that I would give to my staff when I had a kitchen team. They like to see what other chefs are doing. The story of the restaurant often appeals more to people in the industry more than home cooks.
Do you make a point of reading the stories that go with the recipes in a cookbook?
Totally. Especially if you've been to a place, you can reflect on your own experience.
How were you introduced to Elizabeth David's work?
It was the '70s before I fell upon her writing. I got French Provincial Cooking from a friend who was obsessed with all things French. They said, "Here, read this if you want to read more about French food and the principles of cooking French food". It was more approachable than reading Escoffier, for example. It was all about produce, seasonality and flavour. Her mission was to change the way people ate in post-war UK after spending time in France and seeing how rich and meaningful their food culture was.
What did you learn to cook from the book?
I remember learning to perfect the art of the omelette and cooking lots of vegetable dishes. It was something I tended to gravitate to more in winter when you want cooked things. I remember thinking myself really, really clever knowing how to make a good French onion soup. I had to cut down bread rolls to have with it because finding a baguette in 1971 was impossible.
In 1979 I travelled to France for the first time and it was like I could just dive straight in. I felt like I'd found my calling. It was seven or eight years later before I made the jump and decided to see where the possibilities of cooking would take me and it was just through that initiative of travel. It just sparked something.
And now travelling has become travelling with a sense of purpose. And that sense of purpose is food. As soon as I arrive somewhere I dump my bags and head straight to the market.
Do you travel with cookbooks?
I had three books in my bag when I went to Italy recently. They were bloody heavy, but it's essential. I took The Food of the Amalfi Coast (even though I wasn't cooking there, I wanted to read it in context); a general Italian cookbook I can't remember the name of and Rachel Roddy's Five Quarters. She lives in Rome and also Sicily and moves between the two. She writes beautifully and is sort of the modern day version of Elizabeth David.
What other contemporary cookbooks have you enjoyed?
Darina Allan's Grow, Cook, Nourish – she's the woman who owns Ballymaloe. It's about her kitchen garden and her cooking school, cooking the food that you grow and the importance of that. I've been doing a lot of Italian stuff because I just finished a Food Safari cooking trip there with a small Australian group. Like any highly evolved country in the world, each region in Italy is distinct from the next. While people very much recognise that in Italy now, they probably still haven't come to terms with the even richer diversity of India, for example.
Christine Manfield's latest cookbook is an expanded edition of Tasting India: Heirloom Family Recipes (Simon & Schuster, pbk, $49.99).
Cooking the Books will return in 2019. Sign up to the newsletter at christinemanfield.com for updates.