Swill Magazine Issue 5 - Out Now

A plate of cheese with legendary polymath and Australian superstar, Peter (G’day!) Russell (G’day!) Clarke

Andrea Black

Peter Russell
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PETER_RUSSELL-CLARKE_Q1041022_CREDIT_KRISTOFFER_PAULSEN
Peter Russell
PETER_RUSSELL-CLARKE_L1080169_CREDIT_KRISTOFFER_PAULSEN

Peter Russell-Clarke is resting. He’s had a rough year. First Covid, then a heart attack, then a stroke and now he’s preparing to have cancer cut out. His wife of 60 years, Jan, greets me at their front gate of their rural Victorian property. Her directions to get to their place were precise: drive beyond ancient granite boulders, past redgums and agapanthus down Dairy Flat Road and turn left down a dirt road, look for the olive grove then turn right at the microwave.

Of course the cook, artist, writer and icon of the golden days of Australian televi- sion has a microwave as a letterbox.

Despite the medical difficulties (he is 87) Peter Russell-Clarke is quick to rouse. It’s immediately clear, the cheekiness and passion remain. Wearing a paint-drizzled artist’s smock, his signature neckerchief, and hand-painted slip-on shoes, he settles back onto the couch and shoots me a curious look. “You’re not eating the bloody cheese,” he says, pushing a tray of crackers, blueberries and aged cheddar towards me. “That cheese is exceptional.”

We know him best as one of Australia’s first TV cooks. But Peter Russell-Clarke is a phenomenon. A preserved-in-aspic polymath ahead of his time.

He starred as a cook in Prisoner; was a political cartoonist for The Melbourne Herald; appeared in the 1983 film At Last…Bullamakanka: The Motion Picture alongside fellow ‘bearded bookend’ Derryn Hinch; worked as a creative director in a top advertising agency, ran an unnamed pop-up restaurant in Carlton decades before they were a thing, has written at least 35 recipe books and was a United Nations food ambassador.

That full-bearded face with sparkling eyes and mischievous demeanour was ines- capable during the 1980s. Turn on the television weeknights at 5.55pm and Come and Get It, his five-minute cookery show on the ABC would come on just before The Goodies or Inspector Gadget. Switch channels and there he’d be scrambling across the countryside for the Australian Dairy Corporation with a backpack full of cheddar as onlookers shout “where’s the cheese?” Decades later, strangers still ask him that question. He doesn’t seem to mind. His practical guidance delivered in a relaxed manner (peppered with ample “g’days”, “rippers” and “you beauts”) taught at least two generations the basics of cooking.

Born in 1935 in Ballarat to a defrocked Anglican minister father and dressmaker mother, Peter’s dad sent him to a Catholic boarding school in Bowral, “to get back at the Anglicans”, but didn’t pay the fees. Peter’s parents eventually divorced and during holidays Peter spent time between homes.

“Both my parents were alcohol-affected,” he says.

When his dad saw that he was barefoot while staying at his mum’s in Tumut, he got a court order to bring him to Melbourne, but then subsequently shot through with another woman. Peter spent stints in foster homes including living with a Chinese family that helped him discover Asian cuisine. They taught him how to work with Eastern-style flavours and cook banquet-style meals, which he still prepares for his wife today.

For a time, he lived on the streets of Melbourne, fossicking for discarded food behind Florentino on Bourke Street. Half- jokingly, he says that’s where he developed his love of fine food. “I remember writing to the chef complaining that his fish had freezer burn,” he says.

 

This is an excerpt from issue 3 of Swill magazine. Grab your copy today to read the whole thing.

 

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