Food News

"You have to listen to the rice popping": chefs and restaurateurs share their family kitchen secrets

From perfect roast potatoes to the cleaning power of fresh lime, we speak to nine chefs and restaurant operators about the family cooking tips they swear by.

By Jordan Kretchmer & Georgie Meredith
Durkhanai Ayubi (standing) and her mother Farida Ayubi (second from right) at Adelaide's Parwana Afghan Kitchen. Photo: Alicia Taylor
There are some things in life you just know. Little tips, tricks and rituals absorbed from family members that have never been questioned; like the way you tie your shoes, or where to store the Vegemite (always cupboard). In the kitchen, those pearls of wisdom become ingrained, forming the bedrock of a cook's foundations. From the basics, such as how to chop onions or adding salt to pasta water, through to more sophisticated and intricate behaviours tied to family and cultural heritage.
For Parwana's Durkhanai Ayubi, those nuggets of knowledge are steeped in Afghan tradition and passed down from her mother, while for Fico's Federica Andrisani, they come from her Italian father Giuseppe. We speak to nine chefs and restaurateurs about those life lessons and how they live on in the kitchen.
Introduction by Georgie Meredith, interviews by Georgie Meredith and Jordan Kretchmer.


Stanley and La Mexicana, Brisbane
Cooking with my grandmother in Fiji always revolved around seafood – fish, prawns, mussels, etc. And of course nothing is cleaned, peeled, gutted or scaled by your local fishmonger over there, so we would do everything ourselves in the laundry basin outside. For a huge family get-together we would clean and fillet fish, and peel prawns for hours. Our hands would smell of seafood and often we would be pricked by some of the sharp spikes on the prawns and fish. My grandma would always wipe my hands with half a fresh lime, rubbing it into my palms and squeezing it all over my hands, followed by a wash with soap and water. The smell would immediately disappear and the wounds would never become infected. We still do this at Stanley, and whenever a chef is cutting lemon cheeks they save the offcuts for the team to help wash their hands in the kitchen.
Louis Tikaram, head chef of Brisbane's Stanley and La Mexicana.


Baker Bleu, Melbourne
When I first moved out of home in the early '00s my mother gave me an old Kenwood food processor with all the attachments. It was already 15 years old at this point. Many people had moved onto stick blenders, mandolins, and mortars and pestles by this point. This thing is still going. I think it's one of the best machines for a home cook. You can mix bread dough, short pastry, pasta dough. It's also great for pesto, sauces and even smoothies. It's the king of the kitchen. But most likely forgotten – so many should rediscover it. It's probably under your bench.
A young Mark Russell with his mother.


Bennelong, Sydney
My grandmother, Marj Cockerill, was an incredible woman – a publican in Stratford-upon-Avon and wife to Bill, a returned SAS fighter – who loved to bring people together over a Sunday roast. Each Sunday, the pub (which was named the Black Swan on one side of the sign to appeal to the theatre goers, and the Dirty Duck on the other, for the working class of the village) would bring the neighbourhood together under the thatched roof of the pub for roast pork, yorkies, and roast potatoes with all the trimmings.
When Marj would make the long journey to Australia to visit, she would recreate this special feast for us. And when she returned to England, my dad would cook it for us, trying to emulate his childhood and his mother's wonderful ability to bring people together. Now I try to do the same with my family using Grandma Marj's tips. They are:
  1. To make the best crackling, use white vinegar – put the pork in the fridge for 1 hour and then rub it in white vinegar, sit it, score it and then rub it in salt before cooking at high heat for 50 minutes and then low heat as per the size of the pork.
  2. Pour the Yorkshire batter directly into the roasting pan with the excess dripping left in the hot pan from your roast. The flavours combine into one delicious yorkie, which can be shared among the family. It's a winner.
  3. Always steam your potatoes, drain them, let them cool down and then rough them up by shaking them around in the pot. Once they are beaten up a little, roast them in duck fat at 180°C for up to an hour.
A young Rob Cockerill (in blue hooded jacket) with his grandmother Marj. Photo: Supplied


Parwana Afghan Kitchen, Adelaide
My reflections are all based on Afghan cooking and what my mum passed down to us as kids and what I now cook at our city store. Rice is a massive part of our cuisine, it's the central dish that ties everything together. Everything else sits around the rice. It's a really multi-stepped process that requires precision and intuition. So I think everything that my mum's taught me about Afghan cooking is the importance of intuition; look and feel and sound.
With the rice, for example, one of the steps is that you have to look to make sure the rice is elongated and doubled its original size – rather than just putting the timer on. It's more of a visual thing. The next part of it, when we bake the rice and let it cook in its own steam, you have to listen to the rice popping. That's when you turn it off and let it cook in its own heat. By doing that, you end up with really elongated rice that is separated and not sticky or clumpy. It speaks to you from inside the pot. Hearing Mum do it and watching her teach us was really cool. And now rice is one of my favourite things to cook every day.
Durkhanai Ayubi (standing) and her mother Farida Ayubi (second from right) at Adelaide's Parwana Afghan Kitchen. Photo: Alicia Taylor


Fico, Hobart
My mother and father live in Fano, in the Marche region of Italy, which is famous for fresh truffles. It's close to Alba where the best white truffles come from. My father is a doctor and has a lot of friends that he gives free advice to – and they return the favour with truffles. He says if you're ever making pasta with truffles, to put a little bit of fresh garlic inside because the flavour will become a lot stronger. Add the fresh garlic at the end when you're emulsifying the pasta. When they make truffle paste, it's mostly garlic and olives because it enhances the flavour. So I always do that now.
A young Federica Andrisani with her father Giuseppe. Photo: Supplied


Moon Mart, Sydney
Somyeon (thin, wheat noodles) are something my grandma always cooked when it was hot; too hot to make a proper meal. I grew up with her in Ulsan, South Korea, and it's very hot in summer. She would say "it's too hot to eat, I don't have any appetite today," and I would get excited because I knew she was about to make one of my favourite dishes. It's just a simple dish of somyeon, kimchi and cucumber, dressed in soy and sesame oil. Maybe because it is so simple, the way you cook the noodles becomes more important.
When cooking somyeon, once the water boils, you need to add half a cup of cold water and do this twice. Once the noodles are cooked, you have to wash them under cold water very roughly as if you're washing laundry by hand. This gives them a bouncy texture and gets rid of any flour smell.
My grandma also taught me that when you wash rice, always throw out the first two to three rinses quickly because dehydrated rice will soak up the bad water. And to get the best rice texture in summer, soak the rice for 30 minutes. In winter, soak it for around an hour. Koreans eat rice every day so it's good to know how to cook it properly. In Korea, little kids learn to say "bap jo" when they're hungry, which means "I'm hungry, give me food" but literally translates as "give me rice".
Eun Hee An, founder of Moon Mart. Photo: Jun Chen


One of my earliest influences was my grandma, who taught me the bond between people and cooking at a very early age. She is British-Indian, and I have fond memories of making paratha bread together. She never weighed anything and showed me how to make the dough by feel. It's a dish that's so simple but there are so many things you pick up along the way. She used ghee in everything, especially paratha. She was pedantic about making sure that all the liquids were room temperature, tepid or warm, never cold. She was very particular on which brand of atta flour to use and to never buy it in a container, rather an aluminium sealed bag.
By doing this, the flour stays fresher and the end result tastes much nicer. She also had a special paratha pan, but the closest alternative would be a non-stick pan. There's enough ghee in the pastry that you don't need oil in the pan, and you should always start on a moderate to high heat, so the dough doesn't stick. If it's too low you won't create a nice seal. Also, you start off with say 30 seconds each side to get the first colour, then you continuously move it every 10 seconds, so that it cooks evenly.
Emma McCaskill (right) with her grandmother Beryl Daniel. Photo: Dan Purvis


Greenhouse, Melbourne
My nan was an epic home baker. She was actually a chef and worked in catering kitchens. She also had six children and has 20 grandchildren, so she spent a lot of time baking and cooking. I spent a lot of my school holidays with her and we'd always cook together. No one else really kept the cooking tradition alive except for me becoming a chef. She made lots of typical, Country Women's Association kind of stuff; lemon slices, cream cheese slice and beautiful puddings. She showed me that the secret to great pastry was freezing and coarse-grating butter on a box grater to get even, crispy pastry. Because the butter is frozen and really cold, you're able to distribute it evenly throughout the flour. It also stays really cool, so it doesn't melt and absorb into the flour – it keeps its integrity.
A young Jo Barrett at work with flour, eggs and water. Photo: Supplied


Hello Auntie, Sydney
We migrated to Australia in the '80s when I was very young. I've been eating Vietnamese food all my life, but most of my professional career has been in Western kitchens. When I started working in restaurants, I started cooking more at home. My mum would always correct what I was doing. Sometimes we'd have arguments, because I'd say "This isn't what they are teaching me!" But I've learned a lot from her.
When making phở, for a clean broth, you should soak bones overnight to remove the blood. I've never worked in any Western kitchens where they rinse or wash the bones or soak them, instead they usually roast them. I never took much notice of it, until I started cooking a lot of Asian food, where it makes a lot of sense. I soak the bones overnight, so when it comes to making the stock it's a lot easier to make it clear because the impurities have already come out.
Hello Auntie chef and owner Cuong Nguyen (right) with his mother Thi Da Tran. Photo: Supplied
  • undefined: Jordan Kretchmer & Georgie Meredith