Penny Griggs, CEO of the Adelaide Central School of Art, invited some teaching colleagues and friends to a dinner party at her home to celebrate the iconic school’s 40th birthday.
The art of cooking: Dinner with Penny Griggs
The first clue that tonight’s dinner party has a 1980s flavour is the curated playlist. Madonna, The Police, Prince and Kenny Rogers drift across the kitchen and dining room as hosts Penny Griggs and her husband Simon Butters put the finishing touches to this evening’s retro-inspired menu.
The theme has been inspired by two things. Firstly, the hosts and guests are commemorating the 40th birthday of the Adelaide Central School of Art (ACSA), which was founded in 1982. Penny is the school’s CEO and most of tonight’s guests are teachers at the iconic art school, which is based at the old Glenside Hospital in Adelaide’s east.
Those guests include Monte Masi, who is the academic director at ACSA, Roy Ananda, artist and head of drawing, and his wife Julia Robinson, a lecturer in sculpture and contemporary studio practice.
Also here tonight are Christopher Orchard, another much-respected artist and drawing lecturer, and Chris’s wife, Julie, who also works in education as a project manager for the Adelaide Festival.
The arty crowd sips Piper Heidsieck bubbles as Penny and Simon’s children, Charlie, 19, and Zoe, 21 (who is a student at ACSA), place the first course on the table.
The second inspiration for tonight’s theme comes from Penny’s memories of the many dinner parties her parents Jenni and David hosted when she was a child.
As everyone takes their place and begins tucking into their two-coloured soup (cauliflower and pumpkin), Penny explains that this is one of her mum Jenni’s signature dishes.
“Mum actually helped me devise the menu for tonight,” says Penny, as she recalls her parents’ dinner parties of the 1970s and ’80s.
Penny and her siblings, Emily and Josh, would hand out the hors d’oeuvres and mingle with the grown-ups as their parents entertained. They were always vibrant and colourful parties thanks to Jenni and David’s interesting circle of friends and family.
“My dad trained as an actor, and my mum is an interior designer, so I come from a very creative household,” Penny says.
“We would always have to make sure the house looked nice for the dinner parties. The house looking good and fashionable was really important, often it was more about how it looked than functioned.”
Sadly, Penny’s mum Jenni lost both her parents when she was young, so Jenni always wanted to ensure her children could cook early in life – instilling independence and self-sufficiency. Penny has memories of putting on a roast when she was 11 years old, and learning how to cook pasta and stir-fries.
“Rather than having traditional kinds of dishes, for Mum it was often about the latest kind of thing,” Penny says.
“She was an early adopter of the stir fry. My food memories aren’t so much of a traditional passing down of recipes, it was more, what’s the next trendy thing in food? I remember we had cherries dipped in chocolate before anyone else.”
Penny also has memories of her uncle, Rod James, who is just 12 years older than her, moving in with the family when she was very young. She describes Rod as her “bruncle”.
“So, it was always a household full of lots of extended family. We were always creating our own traditions,” Penny says.
In keeping with this artistic family theme, Penny’s uncle Rod is now head of art at Pulteney Grammar School, while her father David used his acting skills to become a respected teacher in public speaking.
“It was definitely a busy household with lots of family and friends dropping in and big family dinners all the time,” says Penny.
“When we’d host Mum’s side of the family for Christmas it was never very traditional. It was always about doing something new, such as Japanese cuisine.
“And at the end of the day, we’d do something weird like each of us would present a poem or perform something, which was unusual in the 1980s.”
Tonight, Penny’s husband Simon is in charge of the barbecued pork, slow cooked on the Weber, with perfect crispy crackling. Meanwhile, Penny has taken charge of the seasonal vegetables which include parsnips, carrots, broccoli and scalloped potatoes.
On this cold winter’s night, the hearty meals are devoured as guests catch up on all their latest artistic projects – many involved in the SALA Festival -– and discuss plans to celebrate ACSA’s birthday.
Penny explains that ACSA was originally established as an alternative art school offering studio space and tuition in a philosophical setting, different from other visual art education.
Over the years it has grown and evolved to become a highly respected institute of higher education, producing outstanding graduates who go on to careers in the visual arts nationally and internationally. Chris Orchard has been part of the school community since the early years.
“Chris is one of our longest-serving staff and has been a visual arts educator for such a long time,’ Penny says.
“And Julie has been in the performing arts world, again in the education side of things, for many years. They have both been around in the arts for as long as I can remember and are hugely respected.
“Julia and Roy are both art lecturers at the art school as well as graduates. They got married in Chris and Julie’s back yard, so there is a great sense of community around the school.”
Penny also says in her role as CEO she loves working with great artists every day and seeing them “impart their skills”.
“In arts administration, it’s easy to get locked in an office and not be so connected to the art making, whereas at the art school you are very connected,” Penny says.
“I go over to the teaching building and there’s new stuff going on all the time; everyone is talking about ideas and materials. It’s just a very dynamic place to be around. There are certainly challenges to running a school like this but it’s a pretty special place.”
Penny’s own artistic journey started with lessons in art and drama at Pembroke School, followed by an arts degree at Flinders University, majoring in psychology and drama, including screen studies.
She also completed a postgraduate diploma in arts management, before taking up a job with Carclew Youth Arts as a project officer at the Odeon Theatre. A fellowship at the Adelaide Festival Centre in the late 1990s followed and then a variety of work, including eight years working in Melbourne. A role as CEO of the SALA Festival began in 2012 and lasted until Penny began with the Adelaide Central School of Art in late 2018.
Penny met husband Simon when they were both in a University Theatre Guild production in 1995.
“He played a character called ‘Vision’ and I played a character called ‘Nothing’,” Penny laughs.
Simon is also involved in education, having studied educational theatre and screenwriting, writing for a variety of youth television shows before moving into teaching. He is now a teacher at University Senior College (USC) as well as a published author of books including The Hounded.
When it comes to their children, Penny says – like her mum – she was keen for Zoe and Charlie to learn how to cook early in life.
“They know their way around a kitchen and have from a young age,” she says.
“I’m aware that cooking skills are an important part of becoming an independent person. We enjoyed cooking together when they were younger. Now that they are a bit older, they’re meant to cook for the family one night a week – Charlie’s a bit better at it than Zoe.
“And Zoe now works at the Adelaide Central Market at Atlas Continental, so food is part of her work life at the moment.”
Tonight, however, both Charlie and Zoe are showing off their skills as waiters, clearing away dishes and helping serve out each course.
Dessert is when the real star of the show steps into the spotlight: a spectacular upside-down orange cake.
“It’s a variation of another one of Mum’s recipes,” Penny says.
“Mum used to do an upside-down pineapple cake in the 1970s so it’s a bit of a play on that. I just love that it’s so colourful.”
When it comes to big family gatherings these days, Penny and Simon often host at their home as Penny’s siblings both live in Sydney. Her sister Emily has gone on to work in television and is currently head of food and lifestyle for SBS Television.
“She worked on The Cook and the Chef here in Adelaide and has worked on lots of cooking shows,” Penny says.
Penny says she has bought many cookbooks over the years, and her go-to is Jamie Oliver, although she often prefers to freeform rather than stick to the recipes.
Using a bit of artistic license in the kitchen perhaps?
“Something like that,” she says.
“I guess I’m not afraid to just try new things.”
This article first appeared in the August 2022 issue of SALIFE magazine.
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