May 29, 2020
Wine & Dine

Guess who’s coming to dinner: Victoria Braithwaite

Bringing people together, sharing stories and connecting through food is at the heart of Victoria Braithwaite’s love of entertaining.

Victoria Braithwaite knows exactly when and where her love of cooking began. From the age of three, Victoria’s favourite place was in the kitchen with her grandmother or her nanna, standing on a chair and chatting away as she stirred the pancakes, tested the cake mix and licked the spoon.

“My grandmother, Eleonora Tugaudis, or močiutė as we called her, was Lithuanian and I just loved being in the kitchen with her,” Victoria says. “We would make pancakes together for breakfast or piroschki, which are buns with bacon, and lots of cakes.

“I was devastated when she passed away and all I wanted was her red apron, to remind me of those days cooking together. I wear it to this day.”

Victoria also cooked with her nanna, Marjorie Schrader, who was a Meals on Wheels volunteer and an old-school cook who loved to bake.

“She’d do cupcakes, scones, crackles – all the old-fashioned stuff. I remember dipping into her cake mix with the big spoon,” she says.

“I loved being with them and I loved that connection through cooking. I know food is about nutrition and being healthy but, for me, it’s also about loving and nurturing, as well as storytelling and getting people together.”

Tonight, Victoria is getting together with five of her closest friends, most of whom she’s met through Pembroke School, where her children Genevieve, 11, and Henry, 9, attend.

While Victoria is in charge of the cooking, her close friend Rainey Floreani has kindly offered to host tonight’s dinner party in her home as Victoria’s is currently mid-renovation. 

Rainey taught dance at Pembroke for eight years and is also a singer with various local bands.

Also there are Pembroke parents Stephanie Wood and Amy Simons, as well as well-known South Australian foodie Valerie Henbest, owner of the Smelly Cheese Shop.

“I met Valerie through Stephanie at the French Film Festival and it was love at first sight,” Victoria jokes. “Valerie embodies all things we love about the French, plus she owns a cheese shop. I love cheese. Tonight she’s brought an award-winning cheese to share with us and I can’t wait.”

Another guest is Kate Earl, who works in advertising and is also the founder of MumKIND, a not-for-profit organisation helping disadvantaged mothers and families. All the women gathered are passionate about helping those less fortunate and all contribute in their own way to MumKIND.

Victoria, who is married to David, an industrial chemist, says even at the age of 12 she was helping her parents, Dovilia and Peter, in the kitchen making bolognese, pastas and stir fries.

She also loved helping her mother prepare dinner parties in the early 1990s.

“I remember she had to be super organised and it would take a lot of prep,” Victoria says. “All the guests would be so dressed up, the men used to sit at the table and the women would do most of the work.”

“Mum would always do something special like creme brulee and she put so much work into making sure everything was right. It was an effort but without being stifled. She always managed to create a relaxed vibe where people didn’t want to go home. That’s the way I like to cook, too. I think dinner parties are even more relaxed these days and the more relaxed the better in our house.”

Victoria says she’s always been around foodies and even in her 20s, she and her friend Mel Palmer would cook up a storm in their share house in Norwood.

“Mel has a hospitality background and we’d cook together all the time,” she says.  “If it was a Sunday and we were bored, we’d start cooking and then three or four hours later we’d do an impromptu dinner party, with things like mushroom risotto with truffle oil, as you do in your 20s!”

“That’s just what we loved doing, socialising and sharing food and bringing people together.”

As the crayfish is brought to the table, Victoria looks relaxed and under control, and it’s no wonder. She is used to cooking large volumes of food through her business The Family Cook, which she began in 2017. While she has a background in marketing and advertising, Victoria began to wonder how she could turn her passion for cooking into a profession.

“I was with a girlfriend Sascha Ward and I was telling her about a business I’d heard about in Melbourne where a woman would cook meals and people would come and collect them and put money in an esky out the front of her house,” Victoria says.

Seeing a gap in the market here, Victoria and Sascha decided to offer a meal service, starting off with just Pembroke families. They sent out a mass email offering to cook meals and hand them over at school pickup.

“It got a huge response,” Victoria says. “I started doing about 30 meals a day and I learnt pretty quickly what you can and can’t do. One of the first things I did was osso buco with all the bones, that’s not very scalable.

“Also, I would put them into containers and brown paper bags with beautiful ribbon and a hand-written card saying, ‘I hope you enjoy’. That kind of personal touch was lovely, but also not scalable.”

While Sascha helped out in the early days, the business has always been Victoria’s baby and she has continued to grow it. She now employs four staff, including chef Louise Del Vecchio, who used to own La Vita Ristorante on Grange Road. These days, though, Victoria is more often in the office than the kitchen, running the business side of things.

All along, she has remained passionate about the quality of her meals.

“I use free-range, grass-fed and hormone-free meats, as well as fresh vegetables and herbs,” she says. “I’m also big on using local produce as much as I can.

“I know parents are working and busy, so I love the idea that they can come home to a nutritious meal that someone’s made them with love and still feel that energy behind it, without having to actually cook it themselves. I know that probably sounds sappy, but that is the motivation behind what I do and what our team does.”

Victoria has gone local with tonight’s menu, including the Coffin Bay oysters, the crayfish from Kangaroo Island and the drinks, some of which are from wineries affected by the December bushfires in the Adelaide Hills. Also on the drinks list is Victoria’s favourite gin: Applewood from Gumeracha.

Victoria says simplicity is the key to creating a relaxed, successful dinner party, focusing on the quality of the produce and letting the flavours speak for themselves.

“It doesn’t need to be overcomplicated or stressful,” she says. “My favourite way to entertain is having people over for hours and bringing the sharing plates out as they’re ready.

“I think the best idea is to practise and don’t put pressure on yourself. You don’t have to do a recipe that takes four hours to cook with 20 ingredients. We have amazing produce here in South Australia, so just go with that and keep things simple.”

Cooking with her children is another love and Victoria says it’s important to let kids experiment and get things wrong in the kitchen as part of the learning process. The family has three dogs, one cat and six chickens, as well as a veggie garden and fruit trees.

“I love the kids to get their hands dirty and connect with nature,” she says. “I also love to cook with them and I really don’t care about the outcome, it’s about the process and the togetherness.

“Genevieve often doesn’t use a recipe, she’ll just throw things in and it doesn’t always work out, and that’s okay.”

Tonight, it looks as though things have worked out just perfectly, as the ladies tuck into their dessert, followed by the incredible display of cheeses.

There are two cheeses from Section 28: Kym Masters Il Lupo semi-hard cheese washed with Lobo cider and fleur des montagnes (washed with herbs). There’s also Monet (heart-shaped with flowers) from Woodside Cheese Wrights, La Dame (goat’s milk tomme) from Barossa Cheese Company and Belmondo blue (buffalo milk blue) from La Vera .

“Someone once said to me that cooking for other people is like giving them a giant hug and I really believe that’s true,” Victoria says. “It’s the sharing and the connecting and the love that’s involved. That’s what’s at the heart of why I love cooking for other people. It’s really heartfelt and it’s essentially saying, ‘I care about you’.”  

 

This story first appeared in the March 2020 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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