Some may scoff at the reality cooking show format, but South Australia has a decent history of MasterChef contestants moving on to successful and respected careers, think Adam Liaw and Poh Ling Yeow. You can now add Jessie Spiby to that list too.
It took a redundancy for Jessie Spiby to pursue her culinary dream. She was Rip It Up’s (The Adelaide Review’s former sister magazine) graphic designer before it became an online-only publication. Spiby was always a passionate cook and had started a market stall before losing her design job.
“Once I lost my job I knew I no longer wanted to work in design and it pushed me to pursue food,” Spiby says. “In a strange way having no job really gave me the confidence to apply for the show [MasterChef] as I really had nothing to lose.
She finished seventh in the show’s 2015 season, and knew there was no other industry for her but food.
“I aimed to get experience in the kitchen and learn from mentors before heading out on my own,” she says. “I knew I was going to work in food, I just wasn’t sure in what capacity exactly.”
Currently, Spiby runs a food business, Jessie Does Food, which allows her to cater weddings, pop-up dinners, as well as be one of Plant 4’s caterers. She is currently searching for a venue for the business. Spiby also works part time at Botanic Gardens Restaurant under the guidance of Paul Baker and will run the event Food + Booze + Dancing Shoes as part of Tasting Australia.
Some chefs and food industry professionals deride cooks who gain fame via reality TV instead of slogging it out as a ‘shitkicker’ for many years. Spiby says she understands this kind of resentment.
“Perhaps I was over-cautious to ‘stay in my place’ [in the past], however, I do believe there is space for everyone,” she says. “I have had a long career in restaurants, both running them and working alongside chefs on the pass as a waiter. I know how they work and I respect the hierarchy of the kitchen. I had no illusions or desire to jump into a head chef position. I wanted to learn and expected to start at the bottom. Not afraid of doing the (for want of better words) ‘shitty jobs’, I actually learnt a lot from stepping in at the bottom rung. Paul and the team at the Botanic Gardens in general have been incredibly supportive… and I can stomach the occasional MasterChef jibe here and there.”
Spiby says she will be stepping away from the Botanic Gardens kitchen after nearly two years there to concentrate on her catering business.
“Working part-time as part of the Botanic Gardens team has allowed me to grow my own business while continuing to learn … Sadly, going forward working part-time and growing the catering don’t go hand in hand.”
Inspired by native ingredients as well as Asian cuisine, Spiby’s food is best described as Asian fusion with a native Australian twist.
“South East Asian culture and cuisine really resonate with me and I think it is well suited to the diverse flavours of our own Australian native ingredients,” she says. “Many of the ingredients are bold and need to be treated with delicacy, something, I think, is similar in Thai or Vietnamese cooking.”
A local cook who has a similar native ingredient ethos to Spiby is Rebecca Sullivan who will be joining Spiby as part of the Booze + Food + Dancing Shoes festivities on Sunday, May 7.
“Sometimes I feel as though I am dancing around her toes, almost stepping on her feet,” Spiby says. “But we have different strengths and directions and it has been great to meet someone who in many ways is on a similar journey.
“[We are] both passionate about old school cooking techniques and Australian native ingredients, [which] means that we’re often doing similar things. However, I truthfully do feel as though it is always better to celebrate similarities and work together, and I am thrilled to have her roo broth on my menu for Food + Booze + Dancing Shoes. There is room for everybody and it’s wonderful to collaborate with like-minded passionate driven people.”
Another cook who will join Spiby and Sullivan is Howard’s Vineyard’s Heather Day, although Spiby says the complete line-up and menu will be a surprise until the day of the event, which will feature music curated by Porch Sessions’ Sharni Honor and Cuckoo Music’s Phil Rogers.
“Essentially the event is one that I would like to attend, and rather than waiting for someone else to put it together, I decided to do it myself.”