Chewing the fat with Annabel Crabb
An unusual Kitchen Cabinet
Annabel Crabb invites herself to politicians' homes for dinner and a chat.
Kitchen Cabinet is a new half-hour entertainment series that serves up a "delectable combination of political discussion and good food".
Each week Annabel Crabb - the show's creator, host and one of the country's most respected political commentators - takes a plate and leads us into the homes of some of our most notable politicians.
In the lead up to the show's premiere tonight (Wednesday, February 22) at 9.30pm on ABC2, the show's host took the time to answer some questions about comfort food, awkward dining experiences and the extraordinary things she uncovered in politician's homes.
Annabel Crabb dines with Amanda Vanstone and Christopher Pyne in episode one of Kitchen Cabinet.
How did the Kitchen Cabinet concept come about?
I developed it in my head for quite a long time, feeding it occasionally with Riesling, and once or twice mentioned it to Mark Scott who is a very polite man and thus did not allow his panic to show. Early last year I had a talk to Amanda Duthie at ABC TV, sometime after which ABC2 came on board, and the next thing you know, I actually had to make it instead of fantasising about it.
Some of us might (generalise wildly and) assume that conservative politicians might be conservative cooks, and more radical pollies are more adventurous in the kitchen ... and that all the Greens vegans? Are we completely wrong?
I’ve tended to choose people for the series on the basis that I think they might surprise people, either with their food, or with their off-duty persona. I think each of my hosts does that in one way or other. Certainly there is a bit of a rule of thumb I’ve arrived at politically in terms of dining in Canberra; you usually get the poshest food with the Labor Left, whereas the right wing generally goes for food that is ... how shall I put this ... filling. There are of course exceptions, as in all things.
Who was the most experimental chef?
Probably Nigel Scullion, Northern Territory's Country Liberal Party Senator. I say "experimental" because he was the only cook who went out and shot things for me, and he also has a great knack of inventing recipes that really work. He cleaned out some Darwin waterway or other of its entire population of freshwater "red claw" yabbies, and made the most delicious curry puffs with them - just on a whim, apparently. We ate them standing on the beach. It's my second experience with red claw - the first time I tried these delicious little crustaceans was while on a bus tour of central Queensland with Peter Costello in 2002. Some National Party mates of Ron Boswell's cooked up a mess of them on the barbie with butter and garlic. Still one of the most memorable meals of my life.
You are synonymous with high brow pursuits – politics, ABC, Fairfax – do you ever kick back with junk food and reality TV?
Sorry - I had to take a quick break there, to cut and paste that question into an email to all my friends so they too can enjoy the hilarity of the descriptor "synonymous with high brow pursuits" being applied to me. I like old-school junk food; nothing can quite top the combination of potato and hot oil and enough salt to cripple a reindeer, for example, and I will never apologise for that. Reality TV? Mmm - not so much. I tend to avoid anything that is viciously addictive and absorbs an hour a day of viewing time, just because I don't have a spare hour usually. And if I do, I'd rather cook.
Who taught you to cook?
My Mum taught me to cook. She is still a great experimenter and a prodigious snipper-and-keeper of recipes. She helped a lot with dessert ideas for the show. And she is a lovely, funny person - last month she sent my daughter a commemorative set of homemade biscuits spelling out a message of congratulations on starting school.
What’s your signature dish and who is the most interesting person you’ve shared it with?
See, now I'm just completely flustered. All my life I've rehearsed the answer to this question and now I can't think of a single thing. One of my favourite dishes to make (I really like making fussy food. Something about the repetitive fiddly stuff really appeals to me) is homemade tortellini with a prawn or lobster filling, served with a tomato, saffron and chervil vinaigrette. It's beautiful looking, on account of the colours, and delicious. I made it once for Bill Shorten, though I am not entirely sure he noticed, bless him. He is not a major foodie, but an interesting dinner companion nonetheless.
There are so many cooking shows on TV these days. Do you have a favourite and why?
Well, this is a bit off-piste; I love The Trip, which is not exactly a cooking show but it certainly centres around food. This is the series where Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon go on a series of man-dates around British restaurants in order that they can argue with each other in pricey settings. What I love about the show is that the food is filmed so beautifully; it's a cooking show despite itself.
What’s the worst dining experience you’ve ever had?
My partner Jeremy and I were travelling in Poland in the mid-1990s and one night we were staying in the house of a lovely old lady with whom we really did not share a common language. So when she served us - with much flourish - breakfast, and we discovered it was chicken soup, it was awkward. Neither of us ate meat. And it was kind of unusual chicken soup too - it looked like a whole chicken had been vitamised, with bits of feather and foot clearly visible. We didn't want to offend her. So in an extremely delicate operation we ferried teacups of soup to the bathroom, and flushed them. It was like The Great Escape. She never suspected.
Did you discover anything out of the ordinary in any of the politician’s homes?
Yep. In Dick Adams's house - he is a Labor backbencher for Tasmania, and he lives in a haunted house that apparently used to be a brothel - I was fossicking through his bookshelves and I found a book called something like "Flaying And Tanning Animal Hides". Now that was eye-catching, so I pulled it out and found this inscription: "To Dick Adams, Christmas 1989. From Myself." I love that.
Have you ever had any awkward dinner party experiences?
One when we were living in London a friend invited us round for dinner with Helen Garner. Can you imagine how exciting that was? I am a massive Garner fan. So I set about devising a spectacular dessert. I can't remember exactly how I thought it was going to work but it was sort of a ricotta cake thing which also had, oh, I don't know, berries but also possibly a cheesecake base? I don't know. It was a disaster. Sort of the culinary equivalent of over-applying makeup. It collapsed, and in the end it was like a McFlurry. I was crushed, because I so wanted to make a perfect dessert for Helen Garner. She was entirely nice about it, so it wasn't truly awkward, but ... cheeks of shame.
It’s an old-school question, but if you could dine with five dinner guests, who would they be?
Okay. The mayor of London Boris Johnson, the British sketch writer Matthew Parris, the American satirist Jon Stewart, and Helen Garner, for whom I would cook an entirely triumphant dessert, just for her. I would invite Colin Powell, whom I met last year when I travelled to the US on an Eisenhower Fellowship, and who was one of the wisest and most charming people I've ever met. And most importantly, I would get my wine-writer friend Nick Ryan to organise the booze.
Finally, what would your last meal be?
There is a great Vietnamese dish called cha ca, which is fish dredged in rice flour and lots of turmeric, then fried in oil until it's golden and crispy, whereupon you pile in a whole bunch of chopped dill and spring onions, give it a quick toss then serve over fresh rice vermicelli with toasted peanuts and nuoc cham, that delicious fish saucy, limey dipping sauce. I could seriously eat this dish all day every day, and if I were imminently to pop my clogs I would certainly like one last plate of it.
Kitchen Cabinet screens on ABC2 on Wednesdays at 9.30pm.