Comedian and author Rachel Berger explains why good food is all about sharing, culture and connecting with one another.
Having spent much of her childhood in her Polish-Jewish parents’ delicatessen in St Kilda, Rachel has a deep appreciation for flavours, ingredients and the cultural connections of that food can create. As the festival ambassador for the Grampians Grape Escape, she is set to host the region’s top chefs and winemakers as they take to the main stage this weekend in gorgeous Halls Gap.
Here, she takes a moment to chat with us about why food is so much more than just sustenance.
How do you think growing up around your parents’ delicatessen impacted the way you think about food?
My parents immigrated here in the early 60s, and at that time there wasn’t a lot of the variety that you have now. The only places that you could really get a rye bread or an Italian ciabatta or a really nice olive oil were places like Lygon St, Carlton, where all the Italian immigrants were, or in places like St Kilda, where my parents’ delicatessen was.
What I learned was how important food is for people to identify culturally with. When you think about immigrants coming here, they bring seeds of vegetables they can grow; they bring anything that will remind them of home. And wherever I go in the world I try to find some food that’s familiar, because it’s a way of feeling at home.
It also taught me about how you can introduce a culture with food. My father introduced a lot of cheeses and smallgoods he imported from Europe to people who hadn’t had them before. That’s the most profound thing I learned about food – that it’s more than just sustenance. It’s really about cultural connections.
How did you come to be involved with the Grampians Grape Escape?
They have a whole lot of chefs who do these amazing cooking demonstrations and they asked if I would MC. I’m not a great cook – I know a lot about food and ingredients from my family, but I don’t really cook that much. As a stand-up comedian, I’ve also kind of always taken the mickey out of gourmet TV food shows, like how Nigella is like, “Oh just go to your pantry and get some kaffir lime leaves!” So I think they thought it would be fun to have someone like me there to be a conduit between the chefs and the audience.
What makes the Grampians Grape Escape different to other festivals?
It’s in the Grampians for a start – you’re not in some big food hall in the middle of the city, and I think that speaks volumes. You’re out in the open where the food is produced. The food is local so you get to meet the growers and see the area where it’s come from, and that makes a profound difference. It makes it a really community, family affair and I think that’s a really good way to engage with food. The Grampians are extraordinarily beautiful. Plus, I think fresh air makes people eat more.
How would you define really good food?
I think it depends on your mood, to be honest. Sometimes you just want comfort food, and sometimes you palate wants to experience a whole range of flavours it hasn’t known before. But I think good food is always made better in the company of people you enjoy. Good food means good company. Because even bad food in good company isn’t so bad
You talk a bit about good food being about sharing. Can you expand on this idea?
I’ve travelled a lot and in most places I’ve gone, the first thing people will do when you meet them is offer you food, because it doesn’t require language. You can be with a complete stranger and if they cut an apple up and put it in the palm of their hand and offer it to you, you’ve made a connection. I’ve been in the middle of the dessert in the Middle East and been offered dates and nuts on a plate, because that’s universal. I think food is a language of its own; it’s a bit like music
What do you think are the essential elements for a balanced and fulfilling life?
How long have you got? I think a balanced and fulfilling life is one where you are able to be surrounded by people who you care about and who care about you. When we’re feeling balanced in our own lives we can then look after other people, and I think sometimes we need to look after each other.
Share some food with Rachel at the Grampians Grape Escape festival this weekend, 3-4 May at Halls Gap. Find out more at grampiansgrapeescape.com.au