For more than 30 years, Lyndey Milan has been an Australian cooking icon and media personality. She talks to BeanScene about life as a café owner and the morning ritual she’ll never break.
Lyndey Milan has a million food and travel experiences she would love to relive: eating white truffle risotto in Alba during truffle season in Italy, mud crabbing outside Broome, and devouring a delicious souvlaki at a quaint little restaurant in Greece. But there’s one thing she’s quite happy to close the chapter on – café ownership.
“I have no desire to be tied down again. Absolutely not,” Lyndey laughs. “From a business owner and manager’s perspective, cafés are very full on. The long hours, customer complaints, staffing issues – no thanks. It’s a great experience to have had, but that’s where it ends.”
From 1989 to November 1990, Lyndey and two other business partners owned Café Cuisine Affaire in Northbridge, New South Wales. When they took over the business, the first thing they did was change the coffee supplier.
“It was absolutely dreadful,” Lyndey recalls. “I knew how important the coffee was to our success. Twenty-five per cent of a good coffee is based on the roast and grind, 25 per cent on the machine, and 50 per cent on who makes it. So, I rang up [Vittoria CEO] Les Schirato, whom I’d known for many years already, and said: ‘We need proper coffee in here.’ That same day, in came the new coffee machine and a supply of Vittoria coffee.”
Lyndey immersed herself in the café world. She attended the Vittoria Coffee College, followed by training with Cofi-Com’s John Russell Storey, who worked for Lavazza at the time.
Lyndey sold the café at the end of 1990 but retained her catering business until the early ‘90s when her media commitments increased. She was doing “a little bit” of TV on Til 10 with Joan (Joanie) McGuinness (now Lady Joan Hardy), and “a little bit” of radio with a food and wine segment on 2UE. By 1992 Lyndey put all her energy into her media career, which included cooking on At Home with John Mangos until 1995, and later as co-host of Fresh with The Australian Women’s Weekly from 2000 to 2008, first with Jason Roberts, then Geoff Jansz, and finally Pete Evans.
While she has abandoned her café connection, Lyndey retains her penchant for good quality coffee no matter where she is, even when visiting her daughter in London. “I’ll often rent an apartment and buy a plunger at a local op shop. It’s that important to me to have proper coffee in the mornings,” she says. “The first thing I do every morning when I get up is turn on my Faema coffee machine.”
Lyndey embraces all coffee types depending on how she feels and where she is: cappuccino in the morning to wake up, a macchiato if she’s feeling full after a meal, and espresso if she’s in Italy.
“Each year I go to the Mediterranean to host tours and cruises, and espresso is my drink of choice – that and a cold frappe in Greece. It’s a particular blend of Nescafé – yes I know it sounds odd – but when they whiz it around with ice cubes and it’s 35°C or 40°C, it tastes alright,” Lyndey says.
Lyndey likes to use coffee for cakes and desserts, but says it’s “awesome” in savoury dishes, such as coffee-crusted kangaroo with blueberry source and parsnip puree, and steamed banana and ginger pudding with coffee glaze.
“The key is to use good quality coffee in your cooking. Don’t use a substitute just because it’s hidden in your food,” she says.
Lyndey knows all about the standards of working with quality produce. In 1996 she was elected to the Council of the Royal Agricultural Society (RAS) of NSW, and took over as Chair of the RAS Dairy Produce Committee.
“[We needed] different competitions to represent the changing times and standards of quality because the old ways of agriculture were increasingly challenged, and we were eating differently,” Lyndey says. “So I set up the Fine Foods Committee in 1997, and in 1998 we were the very first RAS anywhere in Australia to have a fine food competition.”
The awards were a chance to promote agricultural excellence, and over time have expanded to cover a range of categories including olive oil and coffee, pasta, beef, lamb, pork and regional foods.
“The criteria included that coffee had to be roasted and ground in Australia, or of Australian origin. Because of that, we’ve seen the quality of Australian-grown coffee improve over the years,” Lyndey says. “It was the first coffee competition in Australia for coffee, not the barista.”
Lyndey’s coffee appreciation has come a long way since the days of watching her mother drink Maxwell House. It wasn’t until Lyndey went on a three-month trip around Europe in a kombi van in 1977 that she saw coffee honoured as a ritual, not just a commodity.
“I would watch the Italians go to a coffee bar for espresso every morning – three sips later they were out the door,” Lyndey says.
She got accustomed to the European ways, living there from 1977 to 1989 and visiting every year or so after.
On a much later trip to Europe in 1996 with TV newsreader John Mangos, Lyndey says she was still astounded at the quality of coffee even when ordering an espresso from a service station in Portgual – “absolutely fantastic”, Lyndey recalls.
It’s no mistake Lyndey has found her calling in food. Her mum was a good home cook and perfected meat and three veg – childhood staples – until her parents discovered chicken, Chinese food, and spaghetti. Both parents, however, were great entertainers, and taught Lyndey hospitality etiquette.
“My dad would have overseas business guests over, and being the youngest of four, we kids would sit around the table with them and behave ourselves,” Lyndey says. “I introduced the same concept to my children. As teenagers they loved it because they’d invite their friends over and we’d sit around the table and find out what’s going on in each other’s lives. There was no TV allowed and certainly no phones at the table. It’s absolutely appalling. Just talk.”
Lyndey wanted to go to the National Institute of Dramatic Art or art school to pursue her creativity, but her father didn’t encourage it. Instead, she became a high school art teacher and worked as an advertising executive in London and Sydney before having children.
“I was involved in my then-husband’s business, but I was bored. I had a really good baby so I started the catering business,” she says. “I wasn’t trained, but I’d been cooking since I was 16. I pitched to the advertising company I used to work for and started catering their boardrooms and it grew from there.”
This article features in the December 2017 edition of BeanScene Magazine. Subscribe here today to see the FULL copy: www.beanscenemag.com.au/subscribe