Glen Waverley – jewel of the south east

Here’s something I wrote for The Age on my favourite suburb Glen Waverley.


I was enjoying a chat with my builder during a break from renovations when our conversation turned to various Melbourne suburbs. Glen Waverley came up.

“Oh, that sh*t hole,” he sneered.

I bristled.

Sure, Glen Waverley lacks the prestige of Toorak or the beachside charm of Elwood, but I’d grown up there and a sh*t hole it is not. Bland, perhaps. Ordinary, OK. Inoffensive. Dependable.

I laughed politely and agreed, mentally striking him off my Christmas card list.

My parents moved to Glen Waverley in the early seventies. Lured by a $30,000 home with green floral wallpaper, they lived on a street that had an alternating pattern of 4 house designs. From their backyard they could see orchards.

“Was it boring?” I asked my mother.

“Was what boring?”

“Glen Waverley.”

“What do you mean, boring?” she said, mildly outraged. “We had jobs, mortgages, children… there was no time to be bored.”

From this I can extrapolate that Glen Waverley (circa 1970 – 1999) was dull by most people’s standards.

But we kids saw no problem with it. We rode bikes with our stack hats on and went to the playground. There were no plastic slides in primary colours, mind you, just a dark forbidding castle that was covered in rude words.

For kicks, we walked up to Kerrie Road Bakery for a 6-pack of dinner rolls or visited Kingsway – Glen Waverley’s main street – which had an unnaturally large number of hairdressers. We frequented Big Lick ice creamery or the library. And while Glen Waverley is not known for its natural beauty, its bush and wetland areas meant that spotting a Masked Lapwing or a Royal Spoonbill was an exciting possibility.

Yep, what with the bird watching and bakeries, it was all rock and roll in 3150.

For a night out, locals could hit the Mount View Hotel, or the “Mount Spew” as it was affectionately called. But in the late nineties, things changed. A cinema appeared and Mocha Jo’s café opened up on Kingsway. We went to the movies, drank hot chocolate and ate cake – this was la dolce vita, Glen Waverley style.

I left the suburb in the early 2000s. On my frequent trips back to the family home, I watched Glen Waverley blossom.

Asian grocery stores mushroomed. Restaurants came and suddenly you could get dumplings, udon, bibimbap and empanadas on Kingsway – though first you had to fight to the death for a car parking spot. The Glen Shopping Centre ballooned until it took over the entire carpark where my friends and I used to sit and eat hot chips from the Charcoal Chicken shop.

The demographic changed too. Once a white bread suburb of sausage rolls and apple scrolls, it’s now an Asian hub. People are attracted to its amenities and its highly sought-after public schools. Those ageing brick homes are now hot property as they fall within the Glen Waverley Secondary School catchment area.

My home suburb has even made the news of late. In 2021, there was a car-jacking. A mother, waiting to pick up a pizza, was stabbed and dragged 100 metres as she clung to the car.  I forwarded the story to a friend with “IN KERRIE ROAD?!!!” in the subject line.

Then in 2022, the Glen Waverley Football team’s post-season soiree at “The Spew” made global headlines when a bet between two players went very wrong (or right, depending on which way you look at it). Two of the athletes partook in a sexual act as horrified patrons looked on, choking on their chicken schnitzel. On the wings of the internet, a blurry photo of their team bonding activity flew from Glen Waverley to New York and London and put us on the map.

But despite infrequent violent crime and sexual escapades, Glen Waverley is still fundamentally nice. There’s comfortable houses, pleasant people, good schools and multiple kinds of tofu available at the shops.

For at least four decades, my family has had the same neighbours. They knew each other as young couples with little kids. Those little kids who wacked tennis balls over the fence are now middle aged and we bring back our children to the family home.

When we do, I like saying a cheery “Hello Mrs Graham!” and seeing their familiar faces. And still these neighbours collect each other’s mail, pass home-grown vegetables over the fence and keep a hawk eye on each other’s houses when anyone is away.

I now live in the inner city and while I’m close to the action, I don’t forget my roots. Glen Waverley will never be the setting for a gritty memoir or a rap – unless you like freestyling about car parking on Kingsway or the highs and lows of ornithology – but if this jewel of the south-east has taught us anything, it’s that there’s beauty in what some would call the banal.

All dressed up and nowhere to go in Glen Waverley. My brother, me and Garfield (late eighties).


An article I wrote for SBS about my spirited Grandmother (or Por Por).


My 94-year-old grandmother has always been spirited. Although tiny in stature, Por Por’s got a big personality, with chutzpah in spades. She loves colourful furry hats and bold lipstick. I’ve even seen her pop off to church in a leather jacket and gold chains.

Recently, Por Por’s usually robust health took a turn. She’d been feeling extremely tired and, after tests found internal bleeding, was rushed to hospital.

I made it through the labyrinth of fluorescent-lit hallways to visit her. Por Por looked very small, as people do in hospital beds. Mind you, she’s only five-foot-two.

“Who’s this?” she demanded, looking at me.

Por Por didn’t have her hearing aid in, so Mum shouted: “IT’S KELLY!”

“Ah, Kelly?! Why you too skinny?” And then: “Are you still working in the transport?”

Despite her condition, the interrogation regarding my BMI and employment status was reassuringly familiar.

Por Por was born in a small town in Malaysia. She lived through World War II and went on to marry my grandfather, Kim, who worked for her father constructing buildings. Por Por and Goung Goung had four children and the entire family lived in two rooms above a wine shop.

Both of my grandparents were teachers, and Por Por eventually became a headmistress. When the school bell rang at the end of the day, she’d zoom off to her second job as a (self-taught) hairdresser. My mum was Por Por’s hairdressing guinea pig. “That’s how I ended up being the only kid at kinder with a perm,” Mum said ruefully.

Por Por was also the town’s only Tupperware consultant. In the ’60s, jelly moulds and tumblers in pastel colours were all the rage. She also ran the local regiment of Brownies, appointing herself as the all-singing, all-dancing, piano-playing leader who marched her troops around toadstools.

When they were in their sixties and seventies, Por Por and Goung Goung migrated to Australia, following their children who’d studied and eventually settled here. Por Por in particular was enthusiastic about trying new things. I recall her first attempt at making pizza. Expecting a carbon copy of a Pizza Hut pizza, my brother and I stared in horror at the semi-toasted pita bread with raw cabbage that eventuated.

More tasty were her curry-spiced chicken drumsticks. I remember gazing longingly into the oven and saying, “Ah, yum!”

“Yes, ‘ayam’ is the Malay word for chicken,” she agreed.

Thankfully, Por Por recovered in hospital quickly. When word got around that she’d been unwell, visitors came. But in true Por Por fashion, she imposed a rule: no visitors during The Bold and the Beautiful. She’s been watching the show for decades, and no well-meaning, flower-bearing visitor was going to interfere with her finding out why Sheila stabbed herself with Bill’s necklace just before he called the cops.

Por Por’s energy and sense of self is partly due to her religious beliefs. We used to have dinner at her place on Tuesday nights. As steam rose off the curry and garlic vegetables, she’d start her pre-meal prayer. No 30-second quickie, mind you. Eyes squeezed shut, she’d pray for everyone around the table, their significant others and anyone else she’d met in the past few decades. My brother and I often giggled rudely, but by the time the long-awaited “Amen” came, we’d be ravenous.  

Even though I’m not Christian, it doesn’t stop Por Por sending a good word upstairs for me. She was horrified when she realised she’d been asking God to send his blessings to the wrong address.

“You live at 267, right?” she asked.

“No, Por Por. 277.”

Her eyes widened, although I’m sure God knew where to redirect the good vibes.

When my grandfather died 20 years ago, Por Por said it felt like she’d lost an arm. But her faith kept her going. The funeral took place on a hot summer’s day. At the service, she sung their favourite love song solo in a high and shaky voice and, at the end, leant over the casket and said, “Zai jian (goodbye).”

My grandparents had pre-purchased two headstone and lawn grave options, but the cemetery workers had accidentally dug up the spot meant for Por Por. She waited patiently in the hot sun as a digger was ordered to correct the error.

That’s Por Por. She’s made it through war, children, migration, every scandalous affair on The Bold and the Beautiful and serious illness. Bored in hospital, she decided she was ready to go home. Phoning her son, she gave him strict instructions on how to break her out that night.

When her escape plan was uncovered, the doctors had to remind her she’d almost died and that hospital was probably the best place for her.

She’s currently in a rehabilitation home. She likes that there’s a piano in the lounge room so she can bust out a song. Although not when the other residents are watching TV, as she’s been gently advised.

An interview with Santa

I was lucky enough to interview the Santa Claus for SBS. Here’s what he had to say,


The screen is black, but I hear movement and then someone (presumably Mrs Claus) whispering, “You have to turn the camera on.” Suddenly, he appears, resplendent in a red cable-knit jumper and round tortoiseshell glasses. He’s sitting in what looks like his home office.

“Hello, I’m Santa Claus,” he says.

Hi! It’s an honour to speak with you today. How you are feeling? Weary! It’s been a wild few years, hasn’t it?

It really has. I heard COVID got into the North Pole via an infected humpback whale? That’s the rumour, but I’m not sure we’ll ever know the truth. It’s all a bit of a blur… I don’t think Mrs Claus or I will ever get over having to home school 1456 elves.

I can’t imagine! I thought two kids was tough. Not to mention the endless RAT testing. Have you ever tried to put a cotton bud up an elf’s nose? They are extremely ticklish creatures. Thankfully, the virus has slowed down for the moment, but we’re seeing increasing numbers of elfuenza. Their high sugar, low fibre diets make them more susceptible, so we’re making changes. Bone broth, greens…

How’s that going? Badly. They just love sugar. They sneak it into their dormitories in the tips of their shoes.

Are you feeling the cost-of-living crises up there? We are. We used to crank up the heater and swan about in T-shirts. But now we’re asking everyone to put on an extra jumper and jog on the spot before the heater even goes on. Food-wise, Mrs Claus is our saviour. Give her a packet of mince and she’ll turn it into culinary gold.

You’ve got a lot of personnel to support. Yes, and a huge mortgage on my grotto. Some of the reindeers have taken on second jobs to help out. They’re very creative: Prancer was selling crocheted reindeer on Etsy, Rudolph took on a job with Uber Eats (clearly his skills were transferrable) and Comet, um, well he’s been doing extremely well on Only Fans.

Have the data breaches affected you at all? Yes, we were hacked. The hackers – who turned out to be a couple of bored pimply teenagers somewhere in California – ended up releasing my highly sensitive naughty_nice 2022_v1.6 document on the dark web. Our Chief Information Security Officer, Dwanye, had to stand down. It’s been very upsetting.

As the information is out there, could we discuss who’s been naughty or nice? How about the Wiggles? Nice. All faultless.

Minister for Foreign Affairs, Penny Wong? Nice. Saintly.

Rudolph. No comment.

King Charles. Terribly naughty.

I heard you were very good friends with Queen Elizabeth. I was. Although she was 96, I was still shocked to hear of her passing. I brought her a snow dome with corgis when she was young. She kept it on her bedside table till the end.

How’s everything shaping up for the big night? We’re ready. We have record numbers of children to deliver to this year. My Chief Elf has been meticulously planning our journey since February. We’ll be flying everywhere – from yurts in Mongolia to high-rise apartments in New York.

Do you actually go down chimneys? Rarely. I’m a bit claustrophobic, so I try to avoid it. Plus, all the soot and cobwebs set off my allergies. Think of me as a master locksmith. I’m very handy with a hair pin and credit card.

How do you manage such a demanding journey? I’ve done tactical driving courses with the SAS. We learn how to brake suddenly, avoid obstacles and even drive under fire. I know you’ve had terrible floods in Australia. Worry not: we’re prepared. And we’ll be going to war-affected countries, too. Those children need us.

What do you do on Boxing Day? In the olden days, we’d get home and hit the champagne and party pies. Nowadays, I’m whisked away to have bloods taken, supplements given, ice baths and sessions with my psychologist.

What would you like for Christmas this year? Great question. I can confirm I’ve been a good boy. Ha! I’d really love a—

At this point an elf appears in the background and whispers something in Santa’s ear.

Apologies, I have to go. There’s something in the workshop I must attend to.

No problem! But before you go, what was it that you wanted for Christmas? We’d love to know.

The screen has gone blank.

Later, Santa clarifies by email that he’d like “world peace and an air fryer”. “Those machines are marvellous,” he says.

Is Santa real?

Here is something I wrote for The Age.


Recently, my six-year-old came home from school and asked, “Is Santa real?”

I wasn’t prepared for this. I gulped. I floundered. Frankly, I would have preferred ‘where do babies come from?’

Apparently, word had got around the playground that Santa doesn’t exist.

“But I spoke to him on the phone last year,” she said.

Perfect, I thought. Irrefutable evidence right there.

“Yes, you did!”

But then the bombshell: “Dad said he isn’t real.”

Dad said what? Surely, the question of whether Santa is fiction or non-fiction should be a joint parenting decision; it’s up there with choosing your child’s school and whether they learn flute or violin. We really needed to have presented a united front on this one.

Sensing my befuddlement, she made a helpful suggestion: “You could Google ‘is Santa real?’”.

“Well, I could, but it’s a mystery and no one really knows for sure,” I said, trying to buy myself more time.

I respect kids’ intelligence and their right to know the truth, but of course the problem is deciding how much truth is appropriate. To see the wonder in their eyes at the thought of Santa is to see something real and precious. It’s the purest magic, and to casually end that feels wrong. Plus, they’re growing up at warp speed. They’ll be busy vaping and scrolling tik toks in no time, and I wanted her to believe just a little longer.

I remember when I found out. I awoke one Christmas to find that the big guy had left my brother and me a one-dollar coin and a Minties lolly. And he’d left it in an old white bucket. As for his note, Mother had made no attempt whatsoever to disguise her distinctive cursive handwriting. No nice old man would leave me a dollar and a Mintie, I thought to myself. Case closed.

I did not want my child to face that at six.

A complicating factor was that her dad had volunteered to be Father Christmas at a community event. My kids would spot him a mile off, and no amount of white facial hair was going to change that. This would send her the message that Santa isn’t real, but if he is real he’s your dad, who doesn’t believe in himself.

In desperation, I went for the truth.

“Santa’s proper name is Saint Nicholas and he lived many years ago. The Father Christmases you see outside Woollies aren’t actually him, but they represent Saint Nicholas, who was the real deal.”

Naturally, the ‘tell me mores’ started, so we did some online ‘research’ about St Nick. The ‘facts’ were on my side. He was a protector of children. He generously helped a poor family who couldn’t afford dowries by throwing pouches of gold through their windows at night. The gold would land in stockings drying by the fire.

He travelled on horseback and would give well-behaved children sweets and presents (gosh, maybe that was him with the Minties after all), and children would leave carrots out for his horse.

St Nicholas also brought three children back to life after an evil butcher had murdered them and put them in a barrel to pickle (I censored that story, heavily).

As we learned more about this superhero, I could see myth, history and magic starting to blend in my daughter’s mind. She was disquieted and intrigued. We decided that St Nicholas was a real person who helped people with his special powers and that perhaps his magic is still with us today in some form. And that strange and miraculous things happen, but we can’t explain why.

I could tell that she wanted to believe, and this explanation was satisfactory. She has even gone back to penning some letters to Santa (one must hedge one’s bets): Dear Santa, My wish is for a giny pig [guinea pig]. If you say no that’s OK.

Come Easter, my partner and I will need to make sure we’re as one on the rabbit. Though actually, he admitted to me that he only denied Santa’s existence because he thought I would.

But for this Christmas at least, we’ve managed to maintain the magic.

Mum’s carpet

An article I wrote for SBS on Mum’s carpet.

Mum sent me a link to an article entitled, ‘The science is in: wearing shoes inside your home is just plain gross.’

There you have it, Mum wrote. Vindication.  

For as long as I can remember, the love of Mum’s life has been her carpet – 434 square metres of a wool/nylon blend shag pile in ‘frosty taupe’.  

The romance began in 1973, when Dad was sporting chocolate brown flares and Mum’s hair was perm-curly with a centre part. They were newlyweds and had just moved into a three-bedroom house in the suburbs.

As a wedding gift, Mum’s parents gave them carpet. From the moment it was unfurled, Mum’s life had purpose: to keep that carpet pristine.

This was a tricky proposition, what with a keen gardener for a husband and children on the horizon, but Mother is not one to be deterred by trickiness. Leaving nothing to chance, she devised a carpet care plan.

Rule number one was no shoes inside the house. This was typical in Asian households, although perhaps not as common in most seventies Australian homes. When one of my parents’ mutual friends suggested they throw a house-warming party, Mum put her foot down – gently, of course, so as not to inflict unnecessary wear and tear – no party on the new carpet.

The arrival of my brother and myself upped the ante – children aren’t the tidiest of creatures and mashed pumpkin is a richly coloured food. Mother had thought of that in her risk analysis and, each mealtime, her generous-in-radius plastic mats were placed under our highchairs.

Growing up we knew the drill. Shoes came off at the back door step, which was a perilous rubble of thongs, runners, gumboots, school shoes and loafers. Looking at the mound, I could see the logic. Our school shoes were caked in mud, our tennis shoes were stained pink from clay courts, and it was the eighties, so there was a high chance that a pre-chewed wodge of Hubba Bubba gum was stuck to the sole of your high tops.

Oh, but the hassle of it all when you’d laced up your stiff Doc Marten boots and had to run back in to get your lunchbox. What to do? Burst in fully shod and risk Mother’s wrath? Or master the art of walking on your knees? I chose the latter and became skilled at getting on my knees, holding an ankle in each hand and trotting along on my kneecaps across the carpet. Permanent damage to my patellas was a small price to pay to preserve Mum’s frosty taupe treasure. 

Our immediate family knew the rules, but outsiders, such as tradespeople, always posed a threat. A shoeless tradie was an occupational health and safety issue and so, prior to their arrival, every inch of the home would be covered in a collection of floral bed sheets and tablecloths from the last three decades. 

Visiting guinea pigs were also problematic. A friend brought hers over and, before I could shout “Not on the shag pile!”, Bindi was on the loose. Her bowel movements were frequent and I scurried after her with tongs and a plastic bag. Luckily, her hay diet produced droppings that were dry, firm and carpet friendly.

The biggest test came on the night we had people over for dinner. It was a big deal for us – my parents dusted off the wine glasses and brought out the ash tray. Mum cooked up a banquet and everyone was having a gay old time (in their socks) when the unthinkable happened. A wayward elbow, and over went 329 millilitres of Shiraz.

Mum, who was in the kitchen, entered the dining room with her beef curry and, seeing the red puddle assumed that the culprit was my brother.

“WHO did that?” she thundered, glaring at my brother.

A grim silence fell over the dinner party and everyone looked down at their rice bowls.

Then Dad, via some frantic eyeball work, silently indicated to Mum that it wasn’t her son who was to blame. It was one of our guests. And not just any guest – it was our beloved family doctor, who had shepherded our family through viruses, sprained ankles and even the removal of a giant wart from my left hand.

Realising her error, Mum backpedalled and tried to smooth over the situation. Dabbing at the stain and flinging around the baking soda, she laughed and tried to make light-hearted conversation. But the night never recovered. The awkwardness may have been amplified by Mum’s prolonged disappearance between main and dessert as she went off to study whether the addition of tetraacetylethlenediamine to hydrogen peroxide would be a more effective stain remover.

Decades have passed since that night, as has some of the trauma. For time heals all wounds and some stains. Mum has a new GP, I have two children of my own and Bindi is in a better place.

But some things are constant.

“Hey, shall we bring some Play-Doh to Por Por’s [Grandma’s] house?” I ask my 5-year-old.

“No” she replies sagely. “What about her carpet?”.

Carpet looking good

Behind-the-scenes on reality food shows

Here’s something I wrote for The Guardian on cooking shows.

It’s battle time on Netflix’s cooking competition Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend, and celebrity chef Curtis Stone is facing challenger Mason Hereford. Their task? To cook five courses in 60 minutes with the surprise ingredient (lamb). Each dish must be inspired by street food and cooked by fire.

“Allez cuisine!” shouts the host. Stone throws a whole lamb over his shoulder and runs with it to the workbench. He saws at the lamb neck, pounds furiously at spices and puffs into a charcoal blower. After a frantic hour, both chefs have miraculously created five gorgeous courses.

Drama, fire and close-up shots of the most mouth-watering dishes are just some of the reasons why we love a food show. But how do they do it? How do they so seamlessly conjure up photogenic phos and telegenic tartines that have us salivating at the screen? Legend has it that eyeliner makes great grill marks on steak, glue looks just like ice-cold milk and that car oil gives meat a lovely sheen… So, how much behind-the-scenes ‘magic’ is involved?

Very little, says Kate Nichols, a former chef who has worked as a food producer on many major shows, most recently SBS’s The Cook Up with Adam Liaw.

“The Cook Up is about real, home-cooked food. Adam [Liaw] puts his recipe in the oven and takes it out of the oven. Our audiences are smart. You can’t get away with fake food with high-definition cameras, and once you start touching it up, you lose the essence of the dish. We don’t touch up or replate dishes unless the sauce has set. If it’s a starchy food like risotto, then we might spritz it with water and olive oil, but that’s it.”

Chef Stone (who, incidentally, triumphed in the lamb battle) affirms that on Iron Chef, what you see is what you get.

“People always ask me if it’s real. Are the time pressures real? It’s legit – the craziness, not knowing what you’re using beforehand, the running around the kitchen: that’s what makes it special.

“On Iron Chef they like the gritty bits and don’t care if you get messy. There’s no ‘glam squad’ touching up your makeup in the middle of a battle – the blood, sweat and tears is all part of it and audiences like to see that intensity and focus.”

In episode one, Stone presents the judges with a lamb arepa served under a glass dome filled with smoke.

“I was clearly a little nervous as I was carrying it up. You can hear the cloches shaking in my hand! You’ve got to hold the plates perfectly still, walk across the room and describe something without huffing and puffing.”

Time pressure is also an issue for the people behind the cameras. Producer and director Lin Jie Kong travelled around Australia with comedian Jennifer Wong, visiting regional Chinese restaurants for ABC’s Chopsticks or Fork?

“Our show was different to those where everything is beautifully stylised and they’re in a controlled environment with a crew of 20. We had a crew of three, so it was incredibly low budget.”

Kong had just two days to shoot each restaurant, typically filming between lunch and dinner. To ensure that the chefs didn’t need to make dishes twice, she shot the dishes being prepared in the kitchen while the other crew members set up in the dining room, ready to get the ‘hero shot’ as the dish emerged.

“We are rolling as soon as the dish hits the lazy susan. You only have minutes to get the shot where you see steam rising or the broth glistening and before sauces start congealing.”

Small and awkward kitchens also presented a physical challenge.

“I’m not that tall and a lot of the workstations are high and the woks are deep. To film inside the woks, I’d have to raise the camera really high above my head, which is quite difficult, especially if they’re stir frying for five minutes and I’m trying to get that slow-motion stir fry shot.”

Iron Chef is big budget and plentifully resourced, with, reports Curtis, an art department that makes everything “big and beautiful. There’s a culinary team, too. If you ask for a rotisserie with a live fire bed, they just roll one in. Or you say: ‘I need an inversion circulator’ and they hand you one.”

While the budget expands creative possibilities on both sides of the camera, it can’t do a thing about the ticking clock. “Iron Chef is similar to a restaurant where your guests arrive, they sit down and order and you have 15 minutes to get them an appetiser before they get restless.”

According to Curtis, keeping calm on set is essential.

“It’s a mental game. You are constantly creating dishes in your mind while making sure that it’s all coming together on the plate. There’s cameras everywhere, producers asking you questions, you’re worried about what the other team is doing, you have sous chefs to keep an eye on… That 60 minutes flashes by, then you think, oh my God, what did I serve?”

Another way of minimising the risk of on-set disaster is to be highly organised.

Nichols explains that on The Cook Up “It’s like a military operation. All the refrigeration, storage and cleaning is kept like a commercial kitchen. On set, it’s all about being prepared for any last-minute problems and having a sense of how to cook food and knowing how it will react.

“Anything that melts, solidifies or is structurally unsound is challenging! The studio lighting is quite harsh, so you have to think about pastry under hot lamps or the food props at the back of set that sit out all day. When you work with cream, you put the bowls in the fridge before you whip it so that it can last longer. With ice cream – ice cream’s a disaster! – you need dry ice, freezers and extra scoops on hand.”

While working on Chopsticks or Fork, Kong found that stir fries – a staple of Chinese cooking – were not naturally photogenic and she worked hard to find their beauty.

“Certain stir fried dishes are harder to capture as they’re saucy and flat. Though if you get something like Mongolian lamb, it usually comes on a sizzling hot plate and you get the extra texture and steam off the top.

“There was a salt and pepper squid dish we shot which I think looked gorgeous. There was height in the dish, garnishes and a beautiful afternoon light coming through the window.”

So the magic ingredients for making food look beautiful on a screen aren’t magical at all – just preparation, hard work, food knowledge, passion and keeping cool under pressure when things don’t go your way.

Kong also cites another influence on what audiences see.

“We can talk about how to plan the shots, but there’s more to it than that. How we tell a story and what you see on screen is influenced by all of our individual backgrounds. Food is such a vehicle for love and emotion, and it really enabled us to connect with the people we met. I hope that we were able to capture that connection in how we shot the food.

Photograph: Adam Rose/Netflix

From sangas to sushi – how school lunches have changed

Here’s something I wrote for The Guardian on school lunches. Thank you to everyone who told me what they ate.

My daughter has just started prep and, in addition to the herculean task of getting her out the door five mornings a week, we have to pack a lunch.

It’s a complex business. Nuts are out and if there’s too much sugar, processed food or excessive use of cling wrap, your mug shot could be all over social media with the headline: “Distraught mum lunch-shamed over THIS”.

You’d think that Googling “kids’ lunchbox ideas” would help, but seeing what pops up in response can be overwhelming. There are heart-shaped sandwiches, alternating-coloured fruit kebabs, vegetable sticks with homemade hummus and Moroccan couscous salads. Plus, a handwritten positive affirmation – 2022’s essential lunchbox item.

What a contrast this is to my early school years, a time when fringes and Cabbage Patch Dolls were massive and slinging a lunch box together was no big deal. In the eighties, my aqua lunchbox typically contained a strassburg sandwich, a muesli bar and fruit.

My peers’ lunches were similarly unfussy. Chicken loaf was a popular protein; peanut butter was slapped on fearlessly; and prima juice boxes were a regular fixture – this was before juice was considered the devil’s sugary brew. Pieces of fruit rolled around our school bags for weeks until they fermented. And at recess, children skipped about with fluorescent-orange fingertips, thanks to the Cheezels and Twisties that they consumed for play lunch.

Sonia Wells went to school in the seventies. Vegemite or cheese sandwiches accompanied by fruit were the norm, ferried to school in a brown paper bag. Having immigrant parents meant that more exotic ingredients were also included. “Sometimes I’d take mortadella sandwiches. Nobody teased me. The area I grew up in was really multicultural – there were lots of kids from Greek, Italian and Lebanese backgrounds.”

One of Wells’s friends, who used to go to school with frittata sandwiches, didn’t have it so easy. By lunchtime, the sandwiches smelled and were soggy, making her a target for teasing.

The soggy sandwich is something that has blighted generations of students. Take Phil Smith, who went to primary school in the fifties: “I loved a beetroot sanga but the juices stained my books pink,” he says.

In Smith’s lunch bag, sandwiches ruled. Some of the filling options that were standard to him would be unfamiliar to many today. “I had Camp Pie and sauce sangas … Camp Pie is like spam but much better. There were Peck’s Paste sandwiches too [a type of fish paste], with a Monte Carlo or Scotch Finger biscuit thrown in on a good week.”

Smith could swap food with his peers without fear of triggering an allergic reaction. “I had a mate from Switzerland – he had salami sangas on rye bread and we used to do a swap. They were delicious!”

So what about today’s packed lunches? I threw the question out to an Australian primary school teachers’ forum and received many impassioned replies. The responses confirm that some schoolchildren eat “like kings and queens” with a smörgåsbord of wholesome homemade snacks, sushi, sandwiches or cutely cut fruit. “I look at their lunches and salivate,” one teacher said.

Several teachers pointed out that, while these lunches are usually healthy, the sheer quantity of food provided means it takes ages for the children to eat them.

Multicultural meals are common too and no longer a source of embarrassment, with students bringing thermoses of fragrant curries, noodles and fried rice. One teacher mentioned the time he was making a lamb and tzatziki wrap for his son’s school lunch. His own father, who had come from Greece after the second world war, was there at the time, and concerned that his grandson would be teased for having “different” garlicky food. His grandson assured him that the only time other children commented on his lunch was to ask if they could have some. The grandpa was amazed – his own experience with school lunches had not been so happy.

According to the primary school teachers, packaged snack foods like biscuits, lollies, chips and “SO much chocolate” are still fuelling a significant number of children. There were mentions of students eating a cold McDonald’s cheeseburger or a family pack of chips. Some children go to school with no food at all, a stark reminder that, for some, lunch is a luxury.

When packing lunches, we’d do well to remember that generations used to thrive on a sandwich. Tomorrow, I’ll just make my daughter a Vegemite sandwich and throw in an apple.

Maybe I should make it with wholegrain bread, or is sourdough better? I’ll add some cheese for protein. But will that make her too thirsty? Watermelon should sate her thirst.

On second thoughts, will the watermelon leak all over her sandwich?


Here’s something I wrote for The Guardian.

The lost teddy

It was 8.10pm and I was running through the dark streets, desperately searching. Just as I was about to concede defeat, I spotted him. He was near the corner pub, lying lifelessly on the nature strip.  I looked upward to thank the heavens, then messaged my partner: I’ve found Teddy.

Teddy was my child’s, well, teddy. The two were inseparable.  He did all that a good ‘transitional object’ should do – helped Holly get to sleep and soothed her when she was upset. But Teddy was much more than that; he was her confidante, cub, dance partner, hanky, sunshade, plate, mop and weapon.

Just a couple of years in the job had taken its toll on Teddy. A once handsome, light-brown bear, he’d become matted and filthy. He looked, as my partner cruelly observed, like a rag with a head. But Holly adored him and that made him priceless. If we couldn’t find him, Holly wouldn’t sleep. If Holly didn’t sleep, neither could we. And thus it was that a ragged bear became the central figure of our family.

Understanding the precariousness of our situation, we bought back-up bears – a gaggle of understudies if we lost the main man. None fooled Holly. They were too fluffy, too odourless or their eyes were too close together. And although we tried to age them (rolling them in the dirt and squishing them under mattresses), she knew.

Holly was our only child then, though it was like we had two. When we hired a babysitter, we emphasised that, while Holly was important, so was Teddy and he should be included in any head count. When the babysitter returned from taking Holly to the park one day, she burst through the door: ‘Is Teddy here?’ she asked frantically. We assured her that he was, and relief washed over her.

Unhelpfully, Teddy was the master of camouflage – especially at bedtime – his nondescript ratty colour ensuring that he blended perfectly into bathmats, carpets and upholstered dining chairs.

It also didn’t help that Holly would habitually fling him out of the pram – maybe she was practising the adage ‘if you love them, set them free’.  More likely she was testing us. We found him in the library, the café, the gutter and even on the road – clearly a hit-and-run victim as he was even flatter than before and had a tyre mark down his front.

Somehow Teddy always found his way back to us.

Except that one day he didn’t.

One wintry day, Teddy wasn’t in the pram. Or at home or the park. After so many false alarms, I was confident he’d show up. We just had to look harder. We retraced our steps, looked in bushes and posted a LOST BEAR sign in the local neighbourhood Facebook group (all we got was twenty-two sad face reactions).

But this time he didn’t show up. He was definitely gone.

Holly was inconsolable, and so were we. In desperation we pulled out the back-up bears. That failed. We tried other, similar soft toys. But she wouldn’t have it.

A few weeks later, something odd happened. She chanced on one of the spare bears in her toy box.

‘It’s Teddy!’ she cried. ‘He’s back.’

He clearly wasn’t, and I studied her, trying to work out what was happening.

‘Er, yes… he’s back!’ I said, playing along. ‘And he’s so fluffy as he’s been… out in the rain?!’

OK, so I wouldn’t have won an Oscar for that dialogue, but I didn’t need to. I padded out the story, adding in bits about where he’d been and not having a hairdryer to tame his wild fur.

With Teddy’s ‘return’, I thought we would slip back into the swing of things, but it was never quite the same. Our enthusiasm for the new guy was a little forced. Holly knew that we knew but perhaps she was just trying to create an alternative and comforting reality; or finding a way to leave Teddy on her own terms as she gradually shifted her attention to a little mauve unicorn.

Now we have a second child, and her choice cuddly toy is an owl. We’ve learnt our lesson and bought five birds, diligently rotating them so that each is worn down equally and infused with the home scent. Already we’ve lost three.

I think I’d better sew a GPS tracker into each of the last two.

One of our near misses


Here’s something I wrote for The Guardian on working from my parents’ home.

“What do you like on your pancakes?” Mum asks.

It’s our first day working from Mum’s house and she’s made morning tea. My kids’ preferred condiment is strawberry jam, and Mum’s face drops: “We’ve got none,” she says.

In my peripheral vision, I spy Dad lacing up his shoes and scurrying off to the local shops for some strawberry jam.


As Omicron numbers spiralled, my partner and I decided that that sending the kids to childcare was too much of a risk. Our relief at having made the decision to pull them out was tempered by the knowledge that we’d have to work from home with kids. Having scraped through the last two years of lockdowns – working till midnight and peering at spreadsheets through blood-shot eyes while trying to stop two small children from hurling themselves off a dining table – we braced ourselves for the next push.

Then my Mum suggested that we work from their home while she and my Dad looked after our children. We gratefully accepted the offer. What could go wrong with three generations going about their business under one roof?

As Dad onboarded us with the Wi-Fi password and Mum explained where the pens were, things were going swimmingly. The girls were capering about the garden looking for tomatoes and getting tennis lessons with their grandpa. Reflecting that this was the stuff of work-from-home dreams, I took a call.

Suddenly there came an almighty clanging. Peering into the kitchen, I saw Dad, in a powder blue floral apron, beating the heck out of the wok as he prepared lunch.

“What” [CLANG] “is that?!” [CLANG] my caller asked, alarmed.

“Oh, renovations next door,” I lied.

Having both retired some years back, Mum and Dad were unaware of Zoom etiquette having come from ye olde days when people did meetings in person.

Halfway through a weekly catch-up with my manager, Mum materialised from my blurred background to serve me a smoothie in a seventies punch glass. Later, I spent an entire stakeholder engagement meeting on edge because I knew she’d just poached a chicken in rice wine and there was an outside chance the fowl would make an appearance.

Those few quirky moments aside, the WFM’s – Work From Mum’s, that is – arrangement is paying dividends. We’re spending quality time together – something that has been impossible for long stretches of the past two years.

During the day, I see the girls whizzing outside on their bikes with Dad patiently clomping after them. I catch snatches of conversations as they enjoy ice creams on the patio, gaze out at the lettuce patch and discuss their favourite animals.

And Dad, a retired accountant, now has many an opportunity to shoehorn in a maths lesson. No matter how long the girls take to get the right answer, he’ll exclaim, “Top of the class!” or “You’re no slow coach!”  

The catering is particularly outstanding, a world away from a hastily ripped open tin of tuna. Dad’s speciality is stir-fried tomato prawns and spring rolls while Mum will have baked a slab of zucchini slice or 50 sausage rolls.

At 3pm, Dad knows that the mid-afternoon slump is upon us and he’ll be jiggling tea bags in cups. “Biscuit?” He’ll ask, thrusting a scotch finger our way.

At the end of the day, we back out of the driveway in a shiny car – yes, Dad throws a car wash into the deal – with two clean girls and enough snacks for a village.

Countless people have struggled in this pandemic. Many have no friends or family whose help can be enlisted and I know how lucky I am. The devotion and patience my parents show their grandchildren is legendary, and I salute them and all the grandparents who can step up and help their families get through this time.

Back to that jar of strawberry jam – the girls refused to eat it.


Here’s something I wrote for The Age on ‘Covetiquette’.

I was raised in a non-physically demonstrative family. Kissing and hugging was not our thing. Passing the soy sauce bottle to each other at dinner was the most touchy-feely we got, and the deeper emotions were expressed in other ways. When, for example, I was upset because my Grandmother had died, Dad consoled me by offering to buy me a new tennis racquet.

Don’t get me wrong, though: if it was medically necessary to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre, we’d certainly invade each other’s personal space. But to say hello? Woah there, cowboy.

That was my upbringing, and when I was released into the world of physical greetings – handshakes, bear hugs, high fives and continental kisses – I had to learn what to do.  

Initially I was flummoxed. What was an appropriate length of time for a hug? What percentage of your trunk do you press to your fellow hugger? Kissing was even more complex – lips didn’t seem to connect with cheeks. And how did people feel about tongues?

Deciding that the best way was to follow others’ lead, I soon learnt these strange rituals and was embracing and smooching everyone from work colleagues to the Coles delivery man.

Then COVID hit and suddenly I had to unlearn everything. A cheery wave from 6 feet away was not only acceptable, it was encouraged. It was confusing.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I wobbled awkwardly around people. I’d thrust my hand out and have to retract it immediately. We’d lean in for a cheek kiss then, like a pair of nervous pigeons, bob our heads back and forth when we realised it wasn’t COVID safe. What about the elbow bump, you ask. Well, I knew where everyone’s elbows had been – connecting to filthy high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs and lift buttons – and there was no way I was going there.

Somewhere in one of the lockdowns (it’s all a blur, isn’t it) I mastered the required procedure. Months of a hermit-like existence meant that whenever I met anyone, I’d keep my arms firmly plastered to my sides and then overcompensate for the face mask, sunglasses and lack of physical touch by pouring all of my expressiveness into my forehead.

Then the vaccines came and lockdowns ended. I saw people on the streets greeting each other gaily like it was December 2019. Everybody was at it. At a children’s birthday party, someone extended their hand and said, ‘nice to meet you’. My mind whirred – was this a weapon of mass biological destruction I saw before me? I was weighing up whether to plunge my paw into the pink lemonade in the absence of sanitiser, but in the end I shook her hand firmly and survived.

I suspect that with Omicron here it’s all going to change again. I simply can’t keep up. So I suggest that we all just grab the sides of our jeans, dip slightly at the knees and bring back the damn curtsey.

Covid-safe greeting.