Kylie Staddon says the first special meal her boyfriend, Attica’s Ben Shewry, cooked for her was beef Wellington. “He spent hours upon hours making me the most perfect beef Wellington with creamy mashed potatoes and jus – making everything from scratch (wearing only an apron!). It was magic.”
The first thing celebrity chef Bill Granger cooked for his wife, Natalie Elliott, was roast sambal chicken, steamed rice and greens, with a rum baba for dessert.
Clarissa Weerasena – who met her now-husband, TV presenter, chef and restaurateur Manu Feildel, in a lift – can’t remember the first dish he cooked for her. “To be honest I did most of the cooking. [But] I think the most memorable dish he made was a humble roast chicken with about 250 grams of butter slathered on it.”
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These are just a snapshot of the super cute stories Yen Trinh unearthed for her book, The Chef Widow Club: Dating and Relationships in Hospitality. It includes tales from more than 100 of Australia’s top and up-and-coming chefs about the dishes they cooked when dating, as well as how they met their partner (spoiler alert: many met at work).
“Just about every person faces the challenge of cooking a first meal for someone they’re falling in love with,” she writes in the intro. “It’s often a daunting prospect, even for some of the best cooks.”
Other people featured include Vicki Wild and Martin Benn (ex-Sepia and Society); Darren Robertson (Three Blue Ducks); Eun Hee An and Ben Sears (Moon Park), Dan Hong (Mr Wong); Ben O’Donoghue (Billykart); Christine Manfield (Universal); and many more from restaurants from around the country, including Melbourne’s Chin Chin and Anchovy, Adelaide’s Shobosho, Sydney’s Tetsuya’s and Arthur, and Brisbane’s Agnes and Stanley.
Each story gets its own page in Trinh’s pretty coffee-table book, along with an illustration – also by Trinh – of the dish that fuelled the romance. The book is a homage to love and courtship, and the power of food in wooing that special someone. But it’s also a lot more than that.
Trinh is co-owner of Pipit, a restaurant halfway between Byron Bay and the Gold Coast, which she runs with husband and chef Ben Devlin. She started the Chef Widow Club as a way to explore family balance, relationships and dating in the hospitality industry – an industry notorious for making all those things tough.
“A chef widow is a person who is in a relationship with a chef but who never sees them because they work unsociable hours (weekends, late nights etc), so much so that they may as well be a widow,” says Trinh. “The wider topic of chef widows started many years ago when I was struggling with it and wanted to find other role models and strategies.”
During the 2020 Covid lockdowns, Trinh decided to make it an illustration project to show the human side of the hospitality industry – “but also as a mental health outlet to focus on something fun and positive too”.
Pasta features prominently in the book. “It was a surprise discovery that pasta is actually the most common and popular thing in this whole series. About 24 per cent of all chef couples, to be exact. This would suggest that we reframe the stereotypes of ‘romantic foods’ – for example chocolates, oysters etc – to pasta,” she says, adding that Devlin cooked pasta to woo her.
Naked-except-an-apron cooking does too. As well as Shewry, Colin Selwood of The Cottage in NSW used this manoeuvre to romance his wife, designer Tammy Selwood. “Colin cooked a simple breakfast of poached eggs, hollandaise sauce, bacon, toast, tomato and avocado. Cooked in nothing but an apron while singing loudly to Avril Lavigne’s Sk8er Boi.” It must have worked – they have been together 17 years and married for 15, and have an 11-year-old son.
The other thing that’s apparent in the book: the industry is very male dominated. “I always sought diversity in the project, but the gender bias of the restaurant industry is pretty clear,” says Trinh. “The majority are male chefs and female widows, so my fave stories were also hospo husbands to female chefs.”
The Chef Widow Club: Dating and Relationships in Hospitality is out now, retailing for $164. Buy it here.