Foodie, cookbook author, passionate educator.
The universe rarely provides life-changing sliding doors moments. And when it does, we may not be open to receiving the opportunity because it may seem too scary or the risk too great. Lucky for Alice Zaslavsky, she packed her brave pants one fateful day when the MasterChef Season 4 auditions rolled into her weekend cooking class.
A former middle school educator, Alice was catapulted into the public eye, where her quirky personality and boundless enthusiasm captured the heart and stomachs all across Australia. It was this exuberance and clear love for teaching others about food that caught the eye of TV producers and book publishers, and the post-show offers started to roll in.
Unlike many of her MC alumni who headed straight for the restaurant kitchen, Alice has harnessed her public profile to educate kids about the joy of food, particularly around cultivating positive relationships with what we put in our body, as well as how food can be a wonderful tool to connect with the world around them, through her free digital food literacy program Phenomenom.
I also met Alice on the OneLove dancefloor (honestly, the Melbourne dance music community is just the best!), where I got to know her as someone who was exceptionally warm and generous, but was also a typical 20-something who cared about her appearance and enjoyed some of the finer things in life. I never knew someone personally to own so much Chanel!
During our conversation, Alice reminisced about the toll the MasterChef experience took on her – a sudden rise to fame, combined with the stress of a high-pressure reality TV situation, is not without its pitfalls. Not only was she challenged emotionally, but also what manifested physically brought on a whole new level of self-consciousness. Much of her journey over the last ten years has been about accepting the ups and downs of all experiences and reprioritising what is important to her, so that she could fully embrace the remarkable opportunity that had been presented to her.
I continue to be inspired by Alice’s drive and unbridled desire to educate and also be educated, to help the world love vegetables just as much as she does, and change the direction of our dialogue around healthy eating for the younger generations.
Alice Z is…
Always hungry, which is probably why I’m in food! But I’m also hungry for experiences and connection. I think that is the running thread through my life; I’m either trying to personally connect with people or connect people with each other or with ideas, or ingredients and dishes.
What do you do and when did you decide this is what you wanted to do with your life?
I write books and I host TV shows. I also normally host a whole bunch of live cooking presentations as well, and spearhead education resource creation around food literacy. That’s really my passion, and all of it again comes back to connecting people with food in meaningful ways.
Was food and cooking always in the picture for you?
Food was always in the picture for me. I grew up in the now former Soviet Union, in Georgia, and food was always something that we thought about. But because we were in a state of deficit, we were thinking about it because we didn’t have enough of it. It was a system that meant we had to rely on ration tickets and whatever we could grow ourselves. I wouldn’t say my family is a foodie family, I would say that we’re a family that loves food. My parents are the sort of people that would save up for a whole month to buy a tub of black caviar, which sounds really bougie, but in Georgia was not such a big deal – it was definitely special, but it was a lot more accessible because we were close to the black sea – sturgeon country.
Coming to Australia and being thrust into this space of abundance as a young person – I was six and a half when we came here – and into my teenage years, some of my favourite times with my parents have been in supermarkets, like trawling the aisles. And not just in Australia, but overseas as well. I love seeing what’s there and some of the quirky flavour combinations. I think you can tell a lot about a person by their preferences, and certainly a country by their quirky chip and bubble gum flavours.
Can you tell me about your food journey from teacher to the food world?
When I was teaching I would always integrate food into my lessons because it was what I was interested in. But what I also found was that food was a really easy equaliser because everybody wants to eat delicious food and everybody connects over food in some way.
I wanted to do something more with it in the classroom that wasn’t just a lunchtime club; I wanted to make it part of the curriculum. I was head of my department at my campus, so I had the capacity to do it. But what I didn’t have was the expertise. So I enrolled in a William Angliss ‘At Home’ course and did that most weekends for about a year.
By the end of it, the MasterChef auditions were taking place in the same building. I actually only saw it as a short term thing where my students would see me on TV and then want to enrol in my elective. But as I progressed through the show, I had to make the choice – do I really want to do this? And if I am going to do this, how am I going to make this a step forward in my career rather than jumping blindly into the ravine.
I went a lot better than a couple of episodes – I left just before finals week and opportunities started coming my way. I was approached to do a TV show, to do a book, and host live cooking demos at food festivals. A lot of that process was deciding which doors to go through based on my priorities.
It wasn’t a small decision, but one small decision has completely changed your life.
Absolutely, it was totally sliding doors moment, because just as easily I could have gone to work that day instead. If there’s one thing that I can say, and I’ll say it early and I’ll say it often, it’s that The Universe does throw you bones. You just need to be open and receptive to recognising where those bones are and whether those bones are actually for you.
I was speaking to a friend of mine who was saying that when we lead with ego, and opportunities come our way, sometimes we take them because we don’t want someone else to take them rather than because they’re ours. So I think that The Universe is kindest when you come from a place of generosity.
Do you think your upbringing and heritage has influenced your approach to and relationship with food?
Food was always an occasion for us, whether it was making our version of passata with my grandparents, or making dumplings with my grandma. With my dad, my big responsibility growing up was watching the eggplants that were grilling and making sure they didn’t burn. And even now, it’s one of the only jobs that dad trusts me to do in the kitchen. I’m literally a food professional, but in his kitchen, I’m still a noob.
How does he view the food you’re cooking now? Does he respect to that, or is it just a bit too fussy for him?
Both my parents are academics, so he respects expertise and to him that expertise comes through education. He’s encouraged me since MasterChef to go do my Masters in gastronomy. I’ve explored it several times, but there actually aren’t that many courses in Australia to do it. And part of being an academic is being able to sit still. So hopefully one day when I find the time and inclination to sit still, I’ll enroll! Until then, I’ll keep working with academics to inform what I create.
What was post-MasterChef like for you? Did you find it hard to decide your next move? Or did the experience help clarify that for you?
MasterChef is intentionally a very challenging environment. You’re thrust into a situation and a living arrangement with 23 other people, who are cast to be as different to you as possible, and don’t let you speak to your family and friends for longer than 10… maybe 20 minutes. If you take the support structure and values systems away that you’re used to like that, it definitely makes you question who you are as a person. There is no one that’s come out of that process that hasn’t been changed or challenged by it. So I think that certainly now I can look back and say that it helped me find my centre by finding my edge.
But it took me quite a while to find myself again, and it manifests differently in different people. For me, and you’ll appreciate this because you’ve known me for a long time – I wouldn’t say I’m a vain person, but I would say that I care about my appearance. The show was so stressful, and the way that my body absorbed it and manifested was through cystic acne, the actual worst skin of my life. I came out of the house and I was worried that it would never go away, that it was just my lot in life. I was conscious and embarrassed by it, and I’d try and cover it up. After a while it was just like, who cares what my skin looks like, because I’m still the same person. If anything, my lack of inhibition now is helping me to like look beyond the bullshit. It also taught me that I’m more than my appearance.
Opportunities wise, I was approached by a kids’ TV show called Kitchen Whiz. And it had been on the air for quite a while and they were looking for a new host and had seen me on MasterChef. I hosted that for three seasons and I would pinch myself because I was still essentially teaching, because it was a kid’s game show. And then I got my book deal, which was through a kids’ publisher – the same guys that publish Where’s Wally. So that was amazing that they took a chance on me and that book went on to win a Notable book gong from the Children’s Book Council of Australia.
Through that process, I also identified that people didn’t really take the kids’ space seriously. You’re either a clown for kids or you are a serious food person for adults. So I’ve found part of my journey and part of my path has been negotiating and navigating a specific niche where it’s about families. It’s recognising that if we want to engage with kids, we need to engage with their parents. And if we want to engage with parents, we need to engage with their kids. So that’s been my ammo and I love it.
A large focus of your work now is around healthy eating for children – can you tell me about this?
Well, the thing that’s most important to me is that we move away from teaching kids about “healthy eating”, because our perception of what it means to eat healthfully is not necessarily the way that kids learn to have a positive relationship with food. So I’m glad that you asked that question because it’s something that people kind of associate with me. And I love kind of saying, let’s reframe that conversation.
The reason why, is because when I was teaching, I saw in real-time how the brain of a tween, a middle school student, works in absolutes. So if you tell them that something is bad, for example that muffin is bad, but then their mum has packed a muffin in their lunchbox, then by them eating that muffin, their perception is that they themselves are bad. So you can imagine how that is going to play out in their relationship with food over time, especially with the way conventional ‘nutrition education’ programs are structured.
The more that I do research in this space, the more that I speak to experts in the field, the more that I know that what we need to do is continue to build curiosity in kids and pique their interest in food, but also identifying that food is a really great hook for students to engage with the world more broadly.
What I’m really passionate about is teaching kids about sustainability, about tolerance, multiculturalism, about embracing your uniqueness, and also about getting the most out of your day and out of your body. But that needs to be done in a really conscious way and that starts with the language that we use when talking about food with kids.
Tell me about your love of vegetables, you even have a radio show on it!
I love a challenge. Vegetables have been much maligned and I personally love them. I grew up eating a lot of vegetables, so to me it seems quite weird that people have such a disdain for vegetables. I also see myself as a bit of like a vegetable cheerleader. Because if not me, then who? I think that’s one of the clearest light bulb moments, when you see someone go from ‘I hate Brussel sprouts’ to loving honey-soy, crispy-brown delicious sprouts.
That resonated with me because my mum hates vegetables and I’m constantly saying, how can you not like this? How can you not like a potato? Like what is wrong with you woman?
Well, I’ll tell you what it is. A lot of it has to do with the fact that we are dealing with a couple of generations of people who’ve grown up with over-boiled veggies or veggies cooked because they have to, not because someone’s taken the effort to make them delicious.
What’s next? You have a cookbook for millennials coming?
Yes, it is focused on millennials! The book that I have coming up is called In Praise of Veg, and I’ve aimed it at veggie curious millennials, because that’s our generation, who are becoming parents and starting to have families.
What we found in our research is that it’s one thing to get kids to be open to trying new vegetables, but there needs to be more support for parents to be able to know how to make those vegetables delicious. So that’s where this book came about. But I also envisage this book being picked up by people like your mum. So this book is for cool mums and dads everywhere – even if it’s just of fur-babies.
I’ve also just been green lit for a TV show with Channel Nine. I won’t say too much about that, but that is my own concept. I’ve got a whiteboard with multiple streams and rows of what’s going on and coming up.
How very teacher of you!
Haha I know. I need to compartmentalise all of the different things I’m working on, but I’m driven by that. Having multiple plates spinning is something that really keeps me going. If I wake up and I don’t have emails in my inbox, I get a bit worried. But then other days, like today, that empty inbox doesn’t bother me, because it’s also when I get to spend the day with our daughter, The Nut (Hazel). I’m filling up my cup in other ways. You have to otherwise everything else will collapse.
Click here to pre-order In Praise of Veg.
For more information on Alice and her multiple streams, visit http://aliceinframes.com/