Alice Zaslavsky talks to BeanScene about her love for coffee gadgets, her Georgian heritage, and the moment she praised a pour over in Toronto.
With the description of Alice Zaslavsky’s suite of kitchen coffee appliances, the cook and bestselling author could be mistaken for a barista.
“We have every little gadget imaginable: a Comandante grinder, Moccamaster, coffee leveller, even a benchtop water filter to brew our coffee with. My husband Nick is a disciple of coffee and of alternative brewing,” Alice says.
“I really appreciate all these tools because it also gives me a precedent to get every kitchen gadget I want.”
The pièce de résistance is a La Marzocco Linea Mini in a custom designed pink and sea-foam green courtesy of Dan Schonknecht, Owner of Specht Design.
“Her name is Zsa Zsa Gapour and she is very, very extra,” Alice says. “The design is inspired by a vintage Chanel skirt that Dan wrapped around the side and back panels. What he’s done for the art of coffee appreciation and machine design is phenomenal. He’s world-class,” she says.
The machine is pride of place at Alice’s Mornington Peninsula home, but she recently discovered how portable it is. Alice had intended to make a tiramisu for an Italian-themed dinner party but ran out of time. Instead, they packed the LM Mini, Mazzer grinder, coffee beans, coconut ice-cream and liqueur, and made affogatos instead. “It was the easiest show-stopper ever,” Alice says.
When Alice travels, is filming or shooting her cookbooks, Nick will pack the Moccamaster, beans, and a portable water filter to make “proper coffee” on-the-go. Batch brew is also her go-to when hosting Saturday Breakfast on ABC Radio Melbourne.
“Nick will wake up at 4am just to brew a batch for me and the team,” Alice says. “I think he genuinely enjoys the process of making the coffee. Whereas I’m all for the journey, but I’m also very ready for the destination.”
Originally from Georgia, part of the former Soviet Union, Alice says traditional Georgian coffee is drunk black, like Turkish coffee, and cooked in sand.
“My first recollections of coffee were at my grandmother’s house, and my mum and my aunties reading the coffee grounds, which is definitely something they’ve passed on to me. Whenever I have a proper Turkish coffee, I’ll still turn it over and read people’s fortunes with it,” Alice says. “I’ve got a real affinity for coffee. Even before I was drinking it, I always knew it had a mystical element to it.”
Alice looks for that mystical element in each coffee shop she visits. Back in her hometown of Melbourne, it’s Monk Bodhi Dharma and its sister cafés that taught her how to appreciate terroir, seasonality, and the art of roasting. On a recent promotional book tour of Canada, it was a coffee shop called The Library Specialty Coffee.
“I was preparing myself for crappy North American coffee, and on my first day in downtown Toronto, I walked down Dundas Street West and turned into this coffee shop. And would you believe, it had all this Melbourne café style branding – very St Ali. I thought I’d just get a batch brew, but it got even better. I asked for a pour over, and they said, ‘which of these four single origins would you like to choose from?’ I was almost teary. I was completely surprised. It’s just a sublime little spot that gave me everything I needed,” Alice says.
Back in Melbourne, Alice is passionate about the coffee city she calls home, so much so that she stopped at Market Lane for espresso on her wedding day. But the thing she appreciates most, is that locals won’t tolerate subpar coffee.
“We just won’t stand for it. There’s too much good coffee in Melbourne and that demand drives supply. Roasters in Melbourne are buying great beans because they know that they can roast them and sell them at the price they deserve to be,” Alice says. “People will pay what it’s worth to drink great coffee. We even bought that $140 coffee once to try and experience its taste, and shared it, like a great bottle of wine. We take our food and coffee seriously. We’re not doing it to show off. It’s just because we appreciate artisanal produce.”
That appreciation has resonated with Alice from a young age. Growing up in Georgia, which Alice describes “at the crossroads of Russia, the Middle East and Western Asia”, the food culture was a spice trail of flavours melded together.
“Coming from Georgia, people assumed that meant empty shelves and sad food memories, but actually, it was really spice driven, flavourful, and very fresh. Lots of people grew their own fruit and vegetables, including my grandfather,” she says. “All of that was made into the most delicious dishes. Every memory of my childhood is surrounded by food, and it hasn’t changed.”
When Alice and her family moved to Sydney in 1991, her parents, university academics, travelled a lot around the world to conferences. Each new destination was an opportunity to visit the local supermarket, see what was regional, and load up on seasonal produce.
“I had this immersive upbringing and understanding of food and culture – it was just the gift I was given,” Alice says.
At just six years of age, Alice had to learn English from scratch. She used food snacks to befriend people at school and says her most vivid memory of Australian cuisine was putting a big teaspoon of Vegemite in her mouth at the school canteen, mistaking it for chocolate spread. “I can’t say that I’ve ever got around Vegemite,” Alice says. “I don’t have a jar of it in my pantry.”
One pantry Alice did become very familiar with however, was the one in the MasterChef kitchen when she appeared on season four of the reality show. A secondary school teacher at the time, Alice went on the show to encourage her school kids to participate in a food and culture elective. She had every intention of going back to teaching, but as time went on, Alice’s food ambitions grew stronger. “Education was always at the heart of what I wanted to do, and it’s what I’ve been doing for the last decade,” Alice says.
Alice released best-selling children’s cookbook Alice’s Food A-Z in 2015, but it was her first adult cookbook in late 2020 that really created a buzz. In Praise of Veg has tipped over 100,000 copies in print and won the 2021 Australian Book Industry Awards for best illustrated non-fiction, with accolades around the world from Germany to the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The vegetable bible is published in 11 countries, including most recently, North America, where it’s “flying off the shelves”.
“It’s doing what it needs to do in the world. People are really resonating with it and contacting me to say, ‘thank you for completely changing the way that I think about vegetables,” Alice says.
Her third cookbook, The Joy of Better Cooking, is a journey to confident, intuitive cooking, with stacks of veg-forward recipes and handy kitchen skills and know-how to help build the foundations for a lifetime of better cooking.
“This book is about debunking and demystifying cooking for people who walk into a kitchen and feel like they don’t belong. I’m here to tell you that you are a better cook than you think you are. You need to stop putting so much pressure on yourself. We have real limiting beliefs when it comes to cooking and those beliefs set us back. I really hope The Joy of Better Cooking sets people free in the kitchen,” Alice says.
Alice’s empowering words are a reflection of the joyous person she is. Still a teacher at the core, Alice says she can’t help but have a growth mindset in the way she lives her life and be an encouraging voice to those around her. Even through her own process of creating this new book, Alice says she’s a better cook for the experience.
“Every time I get into the kitchen, I get better. It doesn’t matter how many times I cook something, there’s always more to learn,” she says. “That’s what draws me to food. I’m an adventurer and a discoverer. I’ll never stop finding new things to keep me challenged and interested.”
This article appears in the August 2022 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.