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Ancestry's My Secret Ingredient

18/08/2015 7:47 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST
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Paul Mercurio

I love it when I'm doing cooking demos and someone in the audience asks: "How come you got into cooking being that you are a dancer/actor type dude?"

My simple answer is -- I found the wog within.

Now, usually people will have a laugh at this and usually there will be a couple of people in the audience that sharply draw in a breath of politically incorrect air, gulping it down along with their disapproval -- ah, it makes me laugh!

The truth is, it's the truth! Somewhere along my food journey, starting out more than 35 years ago when I was head chef at Hamilton Hill Red Rooster to today, as my third cookbook hits the shelves, I truly and unconditionally found the wog within.

Just a disclaimer before I continue: I am not a chef, never have I been a chef and I guess I never will be. I am just a bloke who loves to cook. I joke that I was head chef at Red Rooster and in some way I was -- I cooked, prepped and cleaned everything (all for $1.45 per hour).

But I am not a trained chef. There is an argument raging on social media at the moment with irate chefs venting their spleens (and those of dead animals) about the plethora of 'TV Chefs' that are definitely not chefs, just cooks!

I have never called myself one but it is far simpler for those in the media to call me a TV Chef because it fits neatly into the box. When I opened a restaurant recently and manned the kitchen for seven days a week seven weeks straight, my head chef called me 'Chef.' But then again, we were pretty tired.

paul mercurio and daughter

Me and my daughter Erin preparing salami.

I love food. I love ingredients. I love heat and aroma and flavour, and I love to use all those things at the same time so as to create something delicious, nourishing and unique. Making a dish and making a ballet is strikingly similar -- you take all these single little steps and put them together until you have the big picture. Then you perform this big picture for the amusement and joy of others and, if you are lucky, you are rewarded with either applause or the plate coming back licked clean.

It is about creating something meaningful, something personal, something that speaks to others on all sorts of levels. To do this you have to know yourself, where you have come from and you have to know your story. (I wonder if they teach this at chef school?) To be fair this is a very personal journey and one I embarked upon many years ago.

I have always told stories, whether it's through dance, choreography, acting or writing. So I shouldn't have been surprised when I discovered I was telling my story through food. Yet I was, so how did it happen?

I started making my own beer at home back in 1987. That led to making my own sausages, which led to my own sourdough starters, oven-dried tomatoes, homemade jerky and slow-smoked brisket, to my own salami, jams, chutneys, pate, terrines... The list goes on, ladies and gentleman. And, no, I don't make my own cheese; I think my list is long enough and olives are too complicated!

Somewhere along that list I realised I had found the wog within. It is a good feeling; it brings me closer to my parents, grandparents and great grandparents, all of whom, in various ways, also told their stories through food. My grandmother on my dad's side had one of the most successful restaurants in Milwaukee for many years and my great grandfather on my mum's side made butter just outside of Benalla and sold it to England.

Finding the wog within is about family, culture, history and creating the kind of future you want. What is that future? Well, this week is salami-making week (I already have my pancetta and capicola hanging). We have been making salami for the past 10 years -- 'we' being my daughters and I.

paul mercurio salami

The finished product.

This has become our tradition, so every year in June/July we make salami together and then get to eat it together and share it with family and friends throughout the year until it comes time to make it again. My daughters are already planning to make salami with their children, along with sourdough and sausages and chutneys.

This is the legacy of finding the wog within.

May you find yours.

_____________

Paul Mercurio's new cookbook is called My Kitchen Mojo. For more details visit here. Or visit his website here.

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