Rosheen Kaul has a large burn mark on her left arm – the souvenir of a recent pressure cooker explosion. The calamity didn’t happen at celebrated Brunswick restaurant Etta, where Kaul serves as head chef, but in her parents’ kitchen in Malvern. After taking herself to hospital, the worst bit was dealing with the mess afterward, she says. “I had to go home and clean it all up. It was trotters and chicken feet all over the kitchen – the stickiest texture of stuff.”
Burn aside, you could say that Malvern kitchen had already left an indelible mark on Kaul – along with all the other spaces and memories connected with her family’s cooking traditions, which combine Peranakan-Chinese, Filipino and Kashmiri heritage via an early childhood in Singapore and an upbringing in Melbourne’s inner south-east.
“I love my parents’ foods so much,” she tells Broadsheet. “Dad makes the most incredible Kashmiri food, which I haven’t even attempted to cook because I’m like, ‘You do it better!’ And my mum makes amazing Malaysian-Singaporean dishes like sambal prawns and chicken curries.”
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Currently based at her family home (“I ended up back here post-Covid and haven’t moved yet”), Kaul embraces the perks of living with mum and dad, from a consistently full fridge to an after-work chat.
“Having that warmth at home is really nice, because sometimes your days can be quite difficult – especially in a restaurant,” she says. “Mum is usually awake when I get home, so we have a little chat when I finish work. And Dad gets up really early in the morning, so there’s always somebody around.”
Moving from Singapore to Melbourne at age eight, Kaul admits she initially found Australian food “very beige”. But then came hot chips with soy sauce, school bake sales, birthday party fairy bread. There was also her first plate of XO pippies – a dish that’s “got this country in a chokehold” – at Armadale’s now-shuttered Silky Apple. Her first bite of a dim sim. “I think I just needed to attribute meaning. Once that happened, it’s like, ‘this is as much my food as Singapore food’.”
Kaul talks a lot about the meaning of food and representing culture on a plate. “It is quite hard to articulate my personal culture and family history because it is very, very mixed. But it’s also very clear to me on a plate what it is … That’s the best place for me to articulate it.”
The recipe-as-autobiography approach is central to Chinese-ish: Home Cooking, Not Quite Authentic, 100% Delicious, the 2022 book Kaul co-authored with friend and artist Joanna Hu. The publication has now landed both of them a coveted James Beard Media Award – a prize scheme sometimes likened to the Oscars of food. It’s a huge win for a book that started out as a lockdown project between mates.
Kaul is proud, if a little dazed, when contemplating her achievement. She’s just received the official James Beard medal in the post (“it’s pure silver and enormous”) and isn’t quite sure what to do with it beyond planning a semi-jokey photoshoot with Hu.
Mostly, she’s grateful to have found her vocation as a chef. And the opportunity, night after night, to tell stories with food. “I’m a night owl. I love the pressure. I love the discipline. I love the creativity. I love the way you actually end up communicating very clearly through food if you’ve got something to say … It’s like I had to become a chef. And I’m really glad because it turns out people like the food I cook.”
This article first appeared in Domain Review, in partnership with Broadsheet.