Food & Culture

Julia Zemiro: how I eat

The TV personality on her family’s Bondi restaurant, hosting Eurovision, and her love of smørrebrød.

By Lee Tran Lam
What are your memories of food growing up?
My French father bought a business on Bondi Road called Home Cooking Restaurant. It was the early '70s, so a three-course meal was $1.20. It wasn't fancy. It was English home-cooking: vegetable soup, a roast of your choice with potatoes and vegies, and a dessert of say, tapioca and rhubarb, or steamed pudding with custard. We lived upstairs. It was in a stretch of street where we had Greek, Czech, Chinese and Hungarian businesses around us. It was a lovely community.
What was in your school lunch box?
Dad made "English" food for the restaurant, but we had French food with way more flavour. Dad gave me artichokes with little jars of vinaigrette and soup in a Thermos, even though I secretly wanted a devon sandwich.
Did you ever cook for your parents?
My parents divorced when I was nine. Whether I was staying with Mum or Dad, I made excellent cups of tea, coffee and toast with jam. Mum was a great cook, and was very keen on healthy eating. I would often cook for the two of us. Whereas with Dad, I talked a lot about food. Once a week, we'd see a movie and have dinner, and we would talk through the cooking process, the ingredients, the taste. It was the best of both worlds really: practice with Mum, theory with Dad.
When you were a teenager, you were a waiter at your dad's French restaurant, The Crabapple. What are your memories of that time?
I had a good personality and luckily didn't have to open bottles of wine tableside. I would go out the back with my waiter's friend and struggle, or I'd just give it to Dad.
Was being a waiter good training for your career in the entertainment industry?
Absolutely. It is a performance in that, no matter what kind of mood you might be in, you have to go out there and be nice to the customers. I then got a fully performing waiting job at Bobby McGee's, an American-style restaurant in Darling Harbour. All the waiters were dressed as characters: Carmen Miranda, Zorro, Superman, etc. I took the Heidi costume, and changed it into a Hungarian goat herder called Magda. If musicians and street performers do their hard yards busking and playing at dives, mine were spent serving lots of people in busy places: keeping them happy, juggling plates.
You've acted, you've hosted shows (RocKwiz, All Together Now) and you're the 2019 Adelaide Cabaret Festival's artistic director. When did you realise that you'd made it?
RocKwiz on SBS opened all the doors in that it showcased what I could do. It directly led me to my jobs with Eurovision, Julia Zemiro's Home Delivery and All Together Now.
What is it about Eurovision that fascinated you?
The songs in languages other than English. Full stop. The "wacky" costumes were funny, sure. But many singers were dressed in whatever was fashionable at the time and just sang beautiful songs. Thanks to SBS for broadcasting it for over 30 years.
You've now hosted Eurovision for SBS for many years, from various locations. Any particularly challenging moments?
In our first year, in Moscow in 2009, we didn't know the lay of the land. Every day, we were refused entry to the stadium and had to talk our way in via our interpreter. There was just me, my co-host Sam Pang, our director Paul Clarke and Andy Topp, our incredible one-man crew doing camera and sound. The four of us would lug camera cases around the stadium to a "new" entry point every day. I think they were playing with us.
Of all the places you've broadcast from, which country has the best food?
The reality of the Eurovision job is that we ate pretty average food backstage in the stadium or at the hotel. There's not a lot of time for fancy meals. We ate some delicious food in Baku, Azerbaijan by the bay. And Sweden always had the healthiest backstage food.
Is there a meal that will stay with you forever?
Smørrebrød in Copenhagen. I adore it. Rye bread, egg, salmon, roast beef, frikadeller, with a beer and an aquavit chaser. It's the eternal picnic.
How did it feel to host the first official Sydney dinner for French President Emmanuel Macron?
Surreal. It was one of the few jobs I've had where I was able to use French and English. I was given licence to be cheeky. During the breaks, the French officials kept saying how much they were enjoying how relaxed it was. Macron was attentive and laughed easily, and allowed me to take a selfie with him at the end of the night.
Do you have any standout memories from your time as a judge on Great BBQ Challenge?
That you actually can't cook everything on a barbecue. Some things need an oven. Like cakes.
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  • Author: Lee Tran Lam