April 22, 2022
Wine & Dine

A Spanish feast: At home with Sandy Verschoor

Great conversation is one of the most important ingredients in any dinner party, and there might be no better host to serve it up – alongside a feast of tapas and paella.

Creating a delicious paella takes time, but everyone lined up to be served straight from the pan, including Sandy

In the kitchen of the City of Adelaide’s Lord Mayor, Sandy Verschoor, the chatter of a group of women either catching up or meeting for the first time is momentarily interrupted by the whoosh of a blender.

But nobody seems to mind – they are, after all, getting margaritas out of it.

The concoctor is Judy Potter, chair of the Adelaide Festival and the Botanic Gardens of South Australia. “It’s something I picked up in lockdown,” Judy says, as she expertly pours the white tequila and triple sec, and salts the rims of the glasses.

While some of tonight’s guests are introducing themselves, it’s something of a reunion for others. When Garden of Unearthly Delights director Michelle Buxton comes through the door, she makes a beeline for Sandy at the stove and it’s an emotional moment as hugs and tears ensue.

It’s a reunion with Michelle Buxton, Judy Potter and Nikki Govan.

The pair are used to their yearly catch up during the Fringe, but COVID put a halt to that and it’s the first time in a couple of years they’ve seen each other without a screen between them. Their friendship dates back to Sandy’s time as CEO of the Adelaide Fringe and they’ve remained close ever since.

Sandy is apron-clad, tongs-in-hand preparing to serve a tapas menu, rounded out by a paella created by her husband, Gregg Mitchell.

Both Sandy and Gregg have enjoyed careers in the arts and their home displays their achievements. A large-scale piece by Gregg greets visitors in the hallway, while Sandy’s Adelaide Festival and Fringe memorabilia can be spotted throughout the home, including a giant peg, made by prisoners at Mobilong Prison.

The record player crackles to life as guests take their seats around the dining table.

Sandy has curated a collective of women whom she has come to know personally and professionally. The CVs of tonight’s guests are intimidating on paper, but they couldn’t be further from unapproachable in person.

Sandy Verschoor welcomes her guests for the Spanish feast.

Nikki Govan, who owns the Star of Greece and chairs Business SA, is forever in hospitality mode, making sure glasses are filled. “I can’t help it,” she laughs.

For a group who don’t all know each other well, they find ties that bind them, including a passion for wanting to see women succeed. Fiona Dorman is chair of the National Council of Women’s South Australian chapter, of which Sandy is patron, and she says the organisation’s greatest wish is to not have to exist at all.

Sandy shares a joke with Amanda Pepe, Justyna Jochym and Fiona Dorman.

There’s a strong arts contingency at the table; unsurprising given Sandy’s background. She met Chair of Adelaide Festival, Judy Potter, when the pair both worked on the event together – Sandy is a former CEO and current board member.

Justyna Jochym, CEO of Festivals Adelaide, came to Adelaide following an international career in the arts and it was a fellow guest who unknowingly lured her here.

When asked why she made the move to Adelaide, she looks at Nikki Govan, “Your restaurant, actually,” Justyna says.

“I’m not even kidding. I was visiting Adelaide and I was at Star of Greece. I looked out to the vista and said, ‘This is my home.’ And six months later, it really was.”

Having Nikki at the table has given Sandy a little cause for nerves, along with Amanda Pepe, CEO of Light ADL, who happens to be married to chef Salvatore Pepe.

The talented foodies shouldn’t give her too much cause for concern though, with Sandy herself more than capable at pulling an impressive menu together.

Sandy experienced varied flavours growing up with her Dutch, French, Portuguese and Sri Lankan backgrounds. To this day, she loves to experiment with different cuisines and hosts dinner parties drawing on themes from around the world.

“I come from a family that has very diverse food offerings,” Sandy says. “My Oma cooked with a traditional Dutch oven with a burner.

The blistered peppers, as with much of the produce, were sourced from the Adelaide Central Market.

“And on my mum’s side, you couldn’t go to Gran and Grandpa’s place without food being there. Grandpa was the cook. Christmas was really big – a curry banquet. They’d cook for days.”

Sandy herself began cooking quite early on, putting to use the recipes she’d learn in home economics in order to escape other chores.

“I worked out that on Sundays, if I cooked the family meal, I didn’t have to mow the lawns.”

Since those days, she’s only become more and more confident in the kitchen. While it’s mostly just her and Gregg at home, Sundays are for family dinners. It’s a relaxing process for Sandy, who loves the structure that preparation to completion brings.

It’s a toast to women and friendship. The tapas menu included olives in citrus and chilli, Spanish-style garlic prawns and, of course, albondigas.

“I enjoy working out the timing and getting my head around the process with the ingredients and shopping for it all.”

Before a single item for tonight’s Spanish menu hits the heat, all the platters and serving dishes are laid out in order of their use.

As you’d expect, Sandy strode the aisles at the Adelaide Central Market for the produce. It’s a place she is very familiar with, along with lots of other city eateries.

Sandy has an unusual plan to work her way through an entire menu at any given eatery, rather than always ordering the same favourite dish, as most of us tend to.

“I like to graze and there are a lot of restaurants that you can get shared dishes at now,” she says.

Sandy has been known to request that her guests dress to the theme, although there’s no dress code tonight. However, she has dressed in Spanish label Desigual.

The grazing is going strong, with a rolling menu of tapas appearing at the table. There are citrusy, spicy olives, even spicier peppers with a smokey blistering, white anchovies with a creamy aioli, Spanish-style garlic prawns, Spanish meatballs and the hero of the starters, tortilla Espanola – a Spanish-style tortilla that’s essentially an omelette with potatoes.

The Pol Roger is flowing freely as Gregg works away behind the paella pan on the home’s balcony. Once Sandy’s contribution to the menu has been served and happily consumed, Gregg pops his head in to announce the paella is ready.

Once it has been consumed, another of Gregg’s dishes makes an appearance – the tarta de Santiago. The bubbly is refilled and when Justyna brings out the cytrynowka (Polish lemon liqueur), a little-known fact about Sandy is revealed.

“I collect shot glasses from all over the world. Whenever someone goes away, they bring me back a shot glass.” There’s a drawer dedicated to them and each guest gets a glass and a little story of its origins.

After the glasses are emptied, the guests start making their exit, buzzing with an evening surrounded by old friends and new.


This story first appeared in the March 2022 issue of SALIFE magazine.


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