“Everything about the cookbook was just meant to be,” says Hetty McKinnon, the one-woman show behind the Arthur Street Kitchen lunch delivery service, which has extended into a spinoff cookbook due out later this year.
It’s the second last day of shooting for the book and a sense of joy fills the domestic kitchen where the magic happens. McKinnon is up to her elbows in hot and sour vermicelli and tofu salad, and behind her, the doors of her diminutive Surry Hills terrace are thrown open to the mild winter day, the light spilling in. There’s a sumptuous array of salads waiting to be photographed on the outdoor table, while inside, fresh ingredients and stacks of serving platters overlay the central workbench.
A total of nine dishes are preparing for close-ups today, including Mexican-inspired corn, a spin on nasi goreng and rainbow panzanella of garden herbs and mixed tomatoes. Dishes are all vegetarian, but they’re so packed with flavour that even the staunchest carnivore wouldn’t notice – an abundant collection of the most inspiring dishes from McKinnon’s Thursday and Friday lunch menu, which she hand-delivers to more than 60 office workers on her trusty bike in the 2010 postcode.
“The book is separated into vegetable groupings – roots, brassicas etcetera,” explains McKinnon, agreeing that it’s her knack for making vegetables exciting that has won her so many fans. “Surprisingly, Brussels sprouts are very popular,” she laughs. “They always sell out.”
For McKinnon, it’s the moments of friendly chatter with clients that are the most enjoyable aspect of what she does, and the cookbook is a direct result of clients encouraging her to share her recipes.
“I’ve done all the writing already,” she says with a big grin as she begins to heat butter and sage in a small frypan ready to finish a dish. “Today is the process of cooking, testing and shooting them.”
Opting for self-publishing, McKinnon has shrugged off some initial interest from larger publishing houses in favour of going it alone with a creative team that she has crossed paths with through a mix of good luck, passion and interest. “I’ve met everyone I’m working with at the right time, through the right people,” she says.
The result is a small and passionate team who understand McKinnon’s commitment to the local community and share a love of her Surry Hills home. They’re so comfortable together that the creative process is full of laughter, engaging chatter and clattering pots, pans and crockery as they work. It’s an atmosphere that perfectly sums up the warm nature of Arthur Street Kitchen and its lunches.
“Most of the bowls are mine,” says McKinnon, noting that using some bowls more than once just reiterates the domestic setting. There’s an embroidered cloth that her mother-in-law brought back from a trip to Hungary, a table from the guest bedroom upstairs and flowers that were dropped in by a neighbour to say thanks for an extra salad. The props, like the team, have been drawn from every aspect of McKinnon’s life.
The aim is to achieve a cookbook that looks real and approachable. “This idea of perfection really worries me,” says McKinnon, stating that it’s important to her that the book look raw and ready, like the dishes she makes. “The best cookbooks are the ones that are stained and used.”
Slowly the dishes make their way out into the soft winter sunlight for their pictures – and at the end of a busy morning’s work, there’s one heck of a lunch for the team to enjoy together as they plot the rest of the book.
Community: Recipes from Arthur Street Kitchen is due out in October/November and will be available through arthurstreetkitchen.com and a selection of shops in Surry Hills.
Update: since this artcie was published, McKinnon has relocated to New York.