Penola woman’s legacy preserved in national culinary archive

LOCAL LEGEND: Penola resident Kate Spencer was recently contacted by the Powerhouse Museum and will be contributing her collection of cookbooks and personal heirlooms to the Australian Culinary Archive. Picture: MOLLY TAYLOR

By Molly Taylor

A DIVERSE collection of rare or popular cookbooks used by Penola resident Kate Spencer will be preserved by the Australian Culinary Archive to ensure the recipes and culinary history remains.

Ms Spencer was contacted by Powerhouse Museum to be part of its Australian Culinary Archive following recent media coverage on her life.

The archive will be a national first, gathering important Australian food industry history from iconic chefs, producers, writers and restaurateurs.

Ms Spencer’s well-used and loved collection will be part of generous commitments from cooking greats such as Stephanie Alexander, Maggie Beer, Margaret Fulton, Peter Gilmore and many more.

The collection will date back to 1968 and will include a comprehensive stockpile of written materials, reviews and restaurant designs.

Ms Spencer has had a decorated culinary history, starting her cooking journey under the guidance of the best at Le Cordon Bleu in London.

She has since travelled across the world running restaurants and kitchens and establishing her last restaurant – Mistress Kate’s – in one of Penola’s National Trust buildings.

The 82 year old began building her own empire in England before she made the bold decision to drop everything and move to Australia, aged 43.

Over the past four decades, Ms Spencer has collected a significant collection of iconic culinary history but with no family, she was worried all may be lost in the rubbish.

Ms Spencer said she was personally contacted by the museum and had been communicating with culinary consultant Julie Gibbs regarding what contribution she could make.

“I am absolutely thrilled to be included and to think they would be thrown away was horrifying,” she said.

“To know they will be going somewhere to be looked after is so exciting.

“As I don’t have a family, it is lovely to think they will all be kept.”

Ms Spencer said she had asked several people whether they were interesting in inheriting her life’s work but many found the responsibility understandably daunting.

“It will all be alongside some of the best cooking greats in Australia which is quite a feather in my cap,” she said.

Ms Spencer said to be acknowledged while still alive was a privilege in itself.

“It makes all those years of washing up at midnight worth it,” she said.

“These cookbooks are much splattered, used and loved, but are getting very tatty, a bit like me.

“They are little treasures actually and I still use them and the recipes are still relevant today to when they were printed.”

Some of her favourite cookbooks include a rare 72-edition Le Cordon Bleu series, which was only published in Britain for a short period of time and an original edition of The Constance Spry Cookery Book.

Reflecting on her commitment over the years, Ms Spencer said the hospitality industry was a gruelling trade but if someone were to do it properly, it was a way of earning a living.

“I have said to a lot of young people, if you can cook, then you will never be short of a job,” she said.

“Or if you are just a good kitchen hand with efficiency, good temper and can be relied on, it will take you far.”

Ms Spencer said as she was ageing and fighting a degenerative illness, the museum approached her at the perfect time.

“I will hopefully stay as well as possible still to eat,” she said.

“It also helps me clear the house up. I would wake up in the middle of the night and think about what I was going to do with all my stuff.

“It has been an interesting journey with much more success than I ever thought.”

Ms Spencer hopes to have everything organised before April next year, with information also planned to be donated to the National Trust SA Penola branch.