Some of us have the good fortune to find what we love and make the brave decision to follow the road less travelled and take a leap to pursue it. Often what we love is a natural extension of something that has been forever a part of our world without us even realising it. All along we have been fostering and nurturing it while it patiently shadowed us waiting for the right time to reveal itself and present us with a new opportunity in life. This was the case for the incredibly passionate cook and facilitator Nellie Kerrison, founder of Relish Mama cooking school. For as long as she could remember, the love of gathering people to her home, entertaining and nourishing them through her passion for food was something that always came naturally. She had no idea that the invitation suggested by a friend several years ago for an informal cooking demonstration at Nellie’s place would be the catalyst in Nellie launching a business she loves and lead to her pursuing a life that inspires and fills her heart and is so far removed from the corporate world she left behind years earlier. At its core, Relish Mama is about gathering and connecting people through food. But for Nellie, it has been more than just sharing her knowledge about how to extend your cooking repertoire. As with all passions that light our hearts, the participants and chefs that have come through the doors of Relish Mama over the years have played just as much an integral part in enriching and nourishing Nellie’s life as she has in nourishing and nurturing theirs. Heartfelt moments and friendships forged are just some of the inspiring stories that emerge in the world of Relish Mama. I invite you to gather around and come together to read my interview with the incredible Nellie Kerrison:
You took a leap of faith several years ago and launched into sharing your passion for cooking. What pushed you to take that leap?
I have a Bachelor of Business so I was working in the corporate world quite a few year before I changed, I had 3 daughters that were all growing up and I was ready for a change. I was very fulfilled as a mother but I was very unfulfilled creatively. I love connecting and entertaining people. I love gathering people and having them at my bench or at my table. A girlfriend of mine who loves coming to us but doesn’t have the courage to entertain and invite people to her home asked me one night: I want to learn what you do, is it something you could teach me? And I said I could try… So, I put an email out that same night while I still had the gumption and the courage to my small circle of friends asking them if they would like to come to a cooking class. My sister got back to me as soon as she received the email, thrilled with excitement telling me: I’m so proud of you – so it was obviously something that was in me, that others could see. Within minutes of sending out the email, I was a howling mess because I was getting responses back from friends all exclaiming: Yes, I’m there! My first class sold out within 10 minutes and I have never looked back. For the first 3 years, Relish Mama was in our home. We’d have to move all the furniture and the kids down one end of the house. We have a family motto taken from the film We Bought A Zoo that says: it’s just 20 seconds of embarrassing courage and bravery, now leap and we all have that mentality in our family. I know this was meant to be and the people that I sent that email to were going to be my supporters. Sometimes you need people to champion you and you need to champion them. I feel it’s a gift that I have of connection, gathering and sharing. I’ve been on this journey ever since.
Do you feel the Corporate Nellie and the Creative Nellie are two different women?
Absolutely. The corporate Nellie is the one that helps me run the business, but the creative Nellie often needs to come out because she has been stifled in the corporate world. Following this path has made me love the person that I am. I’m so grateful that I can say that and that I genuinely love where I’m at and what I can offer in this space. There are moments for me that are so surreal and I tell myself: This is my life…
So much of our self goes into the cooking process. When we are creating a meal to be shared with others, without realising, we are also expressing a big part of us. What does this experience mean for you?
It’s everything for me. So much of it is the process. I love the planning, the thought, what I’m going to cook for those people that I love that are coming into my home or the cooking classes at Relish Mamma. Everything I create, regardless of who or what it’s for is always thought out. It’s a 3 step process, because then it’s the table or the bench or sitting on milk crates while you’re having a curry in the backyard around a fire pit. It’s the end result, being able to feed people and that entire process of bringing people together is so important. It’s that connection at the end of the day, regardless of whether you’re with company or on your own. It’s appreciating that entire process and being present in the moment.
What has facilitating cooking classes taught you most about the cooking process and people’s relationship with food?
We teach a huge variety of classes and have such a varied clientele. There are those that are beginning and have a fear or don’t have the confidence because they haven’t learnt that life skill. So being able to teach them the importance of cooking and how integral it is as a skill, regardless of how simple it may be. For others it might be to expand their repertoire. For some it might be because they need to learn how to fuel and replenish themselves. Some people don’t have a healthy relationship with food and you can see that when they walk through the door. We also have widows that come to the classes and we might end up in tears – it’s almost like an alcoholics anonymous circle, where everyone’s expressing why they’re there. Sometimes it’s retires that have never wanted to cook and now they have the time to give to learning a new skill. Our huge point of difference without meaning to be is that people are coming to learn how to cook, but often within minutes they are divulging their stories. It’s incredibly rewarding, the fact that they’re willing to share personal stories is very special. The friendships that are often sparked as a result of the cooking classes is incredibly powerful. They walk in wanting to learn how to cook the perfect steak and walk out with so much more.
What are your earliest memories of being in the kitchen, how do you think this has influenced your own love for cooking?
My grandfather was Australian, he was a pickling champion. He’d grow all his own produce and he and my grandma lived with a concrete backyard. I still remember the smell of the tomatoes when you’d walk in with the heat of the concrete. I would always look at the little flowers develop on the tomato vine and be in awe thinking how they were going to turn into fruit. I still do that now with our own tomatoes. Being with them sparked my love of real food and what that stirs in me. My grandfather made great chutneys and relishes and amazing pickled onions. My mum, without me realising, when he passed away, had put his recipe with their handwriting together. In my first book, when it was about to go to print, I had that recipe printed in the middle pages of the book and it’s so special to know that I have that and this incredible memory. I remember smelling that vinegar and knowing he’s pickling. That would have to be my first real food memory and not realising until I was an adult, the impact that memory had on me and what I do now.
What has the cooking process taught you most about yourself?
Launching Relish Mama in 2009 reminded me how brave I can be when I really want and need to be. The cooking process encourages and inspires the creative side of my personality and my sincere love of nurturing myself and nurturing others. Running the business means I have to be incredibly organised and disciplined and manage my time effectively. I’ve learnt that I am indeed very organised but I’m still evolving and improving but I really need to learn how to work on the time management side of things. I blame that there’s never enough time to do what I want to do.
Who have been your greatest mentors when it comes to cooking and how has this come to influence what you want people to experience through the world of Relish Mama?
Definitely my grandfather as far as that home grown, real food goes. My nanna used to do all the catering for the jockeys. She’d get up in the morning and make their breakfast and it was really simple food. But even gathering at their home, they had a tiny house and all the family would be around the table and you would almost be against the wall at the table, but the joy of that is such a beautiful memory. Mum had a huge impact. She’d always have something baked whenever we’d come home from school. I know that sounds very Margaret Fulton and very old school, but what I love so much about that is my siblings and I would sit with her after school and without even realising the worth of that ritual and what that connection triggered, we were debriefing about our day etc. That was really special. I have amazing people that come into Relish Mama that are either chefs or start out as customers and are now friends and they’re my mentors. Kathy Tsaples is one of them – what I can learn from her, not just about food, but what I learn from her heart is really special. Big hearted people seem to be who I invite into my life. A lot of the time my mentors are the chefs and the people I have the chance to meet through this space.
Your latest cookbook – Relish Mama: family, is a celebration of gatherings with family and honest, everyday cooking. Tell me what the word family means to you?
What it means to me is very different to what it can mean and I’ve really spelt that out in the book. Immediately, on the first level of my nuclear family, it’s that connection and utter respect you have for each other in that family unit and the importance of really encouraging and nurturing that. Family for me is food, it’s love, it’s nurturing. What family means here at Relish Mama has become really prevalent. When we have a husband or wife that’s just lost their lifelong partner, they actually in many ways become a part of our family. They keep coming back. How I look at family has really broadened now. I am blessed to have had a lovely upbringing and have experienced being in a strong nuclear family unit that I can share with my own family now. The amazing people that I have in my life are a part of my family and are such a special part of my world and my own family’s world. My family are all about allowing people in. I’ll get home from work on a Friday night and the house is filled with other kids and people and I love it. Family is more than just us. Family on every level is very special.
To learn more about upcoming classes at Relish Mama and joining the fabulous Nellie in Melbourne or on a food tour in Portugal, click HERE
Happy travels, Paula x