In 2010, Callum Hann nabbed second place in the second series of MasterChef Australia and, despite being just 20 years old, wowed the judges and viewers at home with his exceptional cooking skills, as well as a genuinely delightful personality! Callum is the founder of Sprout Cooking School in Adelaide and is now travelling around Australia sharing his love of food and cooking with young people all over the country. His second cookbook, I'd Eat That!, has just been released and I greatly enjoyed having a conversation with Callum about the book, and food and cooking in general.
Callum, thank you for speaking with me today --may I say it’s lovely to make your acquaintance. You were a firm MasterChef favourite in our household. Congratulations on your achievement! It must have been a huge thing for you.
Thank you, it’s lovely to speak with you too, Liz. A lot of people ask me did it change my life going on the show, and I can’t think of a bigger way to change my life. In terms of the career path I was heading in, it completely did a back flip. I feel very lucky to have been part of it.
Well done also on the Sprout cooking school at Adelaide Central Market, how’s it all going for you?
It’s a great place. We’re surrounded by all the fresh produce, which is so good. One of our really popular classes is called ‘Market to Plate’, where we take people for a tour around the market tasting things on the way and then we buy the produce, take it upstairs and cook it together. Tourists and locals alike seem to like that class. Even the locals who shop at the market regularly find something new to discover and explore.
[I tell Callum that the Central Market is ‘heaven on earth’ to me, he agrees].
Yeah, we’re very lucky in South Australia to have such a market, especially right in the city of Adelaide as well, it’s accessible to all South Australians.
[We discuss cooking schools and other equivalent produce markets in Australia: QVM, Sydney Fish Market etc].
We’ve been running the school for two and a half years or so. When we first started, we ran just one class every fortnight or so and it was a bit of fun on the side, but now it’s turned into a full time job, so it’s excellent. We also do corporate team-building events and a lot of work with schools as well. It’s somewhat unique in that it’s a dietitian and myself and we have complementary skills to each other. And it’s not so much focused on ‘cheffy’ difficult food, it’s more healthy, seasonal stuff. [We discuss how good it is to work with schools]. Yeah, some of the school kids I meet are amazing cooks and it’s good to get them while they are young and expose them to foods they might not get to have at home.
There are some fantastic recipes among the 90 or so in your new book, ‘I’d Eat That!’. For instance I’m sitting here drooling over the Salted Dirty Blondies. Tell me what inspired the book?
Ah yes, the blondies [he laughs], they’re very nice indeed with a little cup of coffee! This new book has been quite a few months in the making and it’s great to see it in printed form. In a way it’s a follow up to my first book The Starter Kitchen. If you ask a lot of people why they don’t cook more, they tell you they’re time poor, as they’re busy with work and things. The food in this book is the sort of food I love cooking when I get home late and want to knock something out in 20 minutes, but still want it to be fresh, interesting and healthy.
I share your philosophy on eating well and cooking fresh, healthy food at home. To achieve this, it's important to have a well-stocked larder. What staple ingredients do you always have on hand in your larder?
Cans of tomatoes — they’re usually in a whole range of cuisines and dishes. I also like to have grains and starches on hand, such as pasta and rice, quinoa and couscous. They keep for ages. And I like to have cans of chickpeas, beans or tuna. I love spices in a lot of the food I cook, too, so having an array of spices is excellent.
And what fresh ingredients are always in your shopping basket?
In the same way that I use spices, I find that fresh herbs are a great way to add flavour to food. I’ve only just come home from a holiday and my fridge is bare, but still I have bunches of coriander, thyme, mint in there. Fresh herbs add a lot of flavour to food. I always have garlic, chilli and ginger on hand as a flavour base to meals. And I like to have Spring onions, they’re two ingredients in one. I think you can use them finely sliced and throw them over the top of a dish, but you can also substitute them for onions. I generally also have chicken or fish on hand for quick dinners. Just having a couple of dishes that you can do variations of is great.
Who are your food heroes... or who inspires you the most when it comes to food and cooking?
I love Jamie Oliver. Not just because his food is good, but he’s always trying to educate people about food. The programs he has done in America and the UK, trying to get school kids to eat better, and the Ministry of Food here in Australia. I think it’s really admirable that someone who could have retired off his cookbook royalties ten years ago is trying hard to get the world to eat well. I think it’s pretty cool and he is making a difference. I’m involved with a project called ‘Jamie’s Home Cooking Skills’, which is aimed at Year 7-9 students to give them the skills they need for when they get a little bit older and leave home.
[We agree that cooking is life’s most basic skill].
When we’re in school, it’s easy to get caught up in the academic side of things, but students also need to be taught some life skills along the way. I can think of quite a large group of my friends who are very smart people and did quite well academically, but when they moved away from their parents they didn’t actually know how to survive. If you don’t know how to do a load of washing or iron a shirt, you can learn those relatively quickly and it’s not going to affect your health at least. But if you start eating take away food for every meal, or baked beans, because you don’t know how to cook anything it will actually affect your mood and your health quite quickly, so cooking is an important life skill, for sure.
Do you have an all-time favourite recipe?
I don’t know if I do, because I find that I get a bit bored if I cook the same thing too often. In terms of a favourite cuisine I’ve been sort of in love with Mexican since I was five years old and cooking Tacos from a packet. Now I’m cooking ‘real’ Mexican food, so you might have noticed a couple of Mexican recipes in the book. In terms of a specific recipe, I don’t know that I have one. I feel bad playing favourites, it’s kind of like trying to choose a favourite child [we laugh].
What's on the agenda for you in 2014?
Firstly, making Sprouts (the cooking school) bigger and better, which is a time consuming role. We also have a project coming up in a few weeks called ‘Australia’s Healthy Weight Week’, an event run by the Dietitians Association of Australia that we’re doing around Australia. It’s to raise awareness of the importance of eating better food, and maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle. I think it’s not that realistic when some people talk about foods like chia seeds, kale and all these ‘super foods’. I’m not saying don’t eat that stuff, but when I’m thinking about good, healthy food I think about fresh fruit and vegetables. They’re easy to source and not that expensive. You can be perfectly healthy just by cooking with fresh produce and that’s what I’ll be focusing on.
And finally, what’s for dinner tonight?
What is for dinner tonight? I must say I don’t quite know yet as I have a couple more interviews around dinner time, but I think it’ll be like that game that everyone plays where you open up the fridge and find a Mystery Box of what you have left over in there.
[I tell Callum that I call this ‘shaking the fridge’, which I learned from esteemed chef, cookery teacher and writer, Diane Holuige. Callum says he likes this phrase and will remember it].
I'd Eat That! by Callum Hann, Murdoch Books, $24.99. Thank you kindly to the publicity department at Murdoch Books and also to Callum Hann for giving me the opportunity to review this excellent little book and share a very enjoyable conversation with Callum.
Cookbook reviews and interviews with food writers and chefs.