Interview with Ainstie Wagner

What's In Season -

Ainstie Wagner is the Executive Chef and Community Engagement Facilitator at Government House Tasmania. We had a chat with Ainstie about all things Autumn, including comforting soups, crumbles, and the most fragrant fruits to look forward to this season.

Seasonality is very much connected to place. Where did you grow up, and how have these experiences shaped your connection to food?

I grew up in a place called Neika at the bottom of Betts road, and just on the other side of the Northwest Bay river. It has beautiful pastures all the way along the riverbank, and it used to snow every single winter. The veggies were always delicious, and we had a beautiful orchard with pigs at the back.

That sounds like a wonderful place to grow up! How long have you have you been working professionally with food?

Because we grew up on a small farm, we produced our own cheese, eggs, bacon, black pudding, lots and lots of vegetables, because there were lots of children. So really, it was about the only way our parents could afford to feed us. I was very involved with food from a very early age. I’d say I’ve been in the food sector since I was 14, but commercially since I was 18.

I’m wondering how you feel about the change of seasons, and how do you feel when cooking in Autumn?

Well, I’ve been really excited, funnily enough. I’ve been thinking it’s going to be nice and cold, so I’m ready for some nice warm food! I’ve just sorted out my whole freezer, and I thought well, there’s those ham bones from Christmas. So, I made about eight litres of pea and ham soup and spread that around friends, as well as well as our family. I like to finish it off with some sour cream and heaps of fresh mint from the garden.

Absolutely! It’s certainly been a chilly start to the season. What are some other seasonal scents and flavours coming out of your kitchen at the moment?

Slow cooked lamb is absolutely delicious at this time, and just all of those warm crumbles! In my garden I had peaches. The possums, they kept away from them, eating the fronds off our man ferns instead. The peaches weren’t very big, only about the size of two fifty cent pieces, but oh my goodness– the perfume! So warm and dusky, or in-between a rose, and a passionfruit, and a peach. Jackie from Government House also brought me all of their passionfruit, so I just made a passionfruit and peach crumble for a whole group of us girls on the weekend. I know people go – “oh crumble, boring!” But one of my last meals I’ll have before I die will be a crumble.

I’d be interested in hearing more about your relationship is like with your home garden. Is your garden close to your kitchen, and how does your garden influence what you cook?

I am an amateur veggie gardener. I’ve just dug up my whole veggie garden. I haven’t had a garden for veggies for a long time, and only a very tiny one, because of rabbits. I like to rush down to the Government House Garden to see what they do, then I rush out to my garden and try and copy it. I’ve been nurturing a couple of pumpkins at home and lots of zucchini. I’ve just put in beetroot and winter stalks and Brussels sprouts. There’s also some regular lettuces, and I’ve put in lots of blue pansies, snapdragons, and lots of edible flowers – because they just keep going.

What’s your go-to dish for a dinner party?

My favourite thing is just to do a massive pile of tapas, probably about 30 of them. And nearly all veggies just because you can have the mushroom, slow-stewed in red wine with thyme. And then, zucchini about three different ways – I love raw zucchini with fresh mint and chili and an orange and Dijon dressing. I cook a lot of the time because I find it really relaxing.

That sounds amazing. I imagine you do a lot of cooking for people in your life.

I do. Cooking is my love language. If I’m worried about someone, the first thing I’ll do is cook. I just had a big cook up actually. I did a crumble, and an old-fashioned shepherd’s pie, because that’s just something warm and hearty with bulk veggies. I just spoke to a girlfriend last night, and she said she’s still eating the crumble! She’s been having it for breakfast every morning. I didn’t put much sugar in the top, I did it mainly with almonds. So it’s crumbly and nice just like a granola, except it’s so much nicer.

What’s growing in your garden now, or what’s a fruit or vegetable you’re most looking forward to cooking with?

Fresh figs are lovely with a soft blue cheese and figs are in at the moment. And you can’t go wrong with roasted figs with a bit of blue cheese on top and rocket. That’s really delicious. Right now we’ve got a whole pile of figs in the garden and they’re just not as sweet. Even though we’ve had a few hot days, they haven’t got that sweetness they had last year. I think what we might just do is very, very slow roasting with a bit of sugar and cardamom. That’ll be delicious. I reckon we’ll have those in tarts, or with goat’s cheese. That’d be nice.

Ainstie has shared some Autumn recipes – leek and parsnip soup, & sweet spiced eggplant and chicken pilaf mound. While you’re cooking, listen to the Food with Groove playlist here, an eclectic Spotify mix courtesy of Ainstie and the Government House Kitchen Crew.