Meet acclaimed chef, restaurant owner, wife, and now AGA cooking class instructor Annie Smithers, a name synonymous with classic French farm house cooking with a paddock to plate type principle.
“Eating at Du Fermier is as close as I can have to having people eat at my home, but still operating a restaurant feel about it.”
Acclaimed chef, restaurant owner, wife, and now AGA cooking class instructor - The name Annie Smithers is synonymous with classic French farm house cooking with a paddock to plate type principle. Chefing professionally for the past 34 years, Du Fermier restaurant is Annie’s pride and joy. Located in the heart of Trentham, Annie creates a menu each weekend that features produce that’s ready in the garden and sources some of the finest meats and/or poultry from the surrounding region. “It is comfortable honest food for sharing with friends. It is a style of cooking that showcases the freshness of the vegetables the most, and one that I love cooking. We have a set menu each weekend that is defined by what’s coming out of the garden. Eating at Du Fermier is as close as I can have to having people eat at my home, but still operating a restaurant feel about it.”
“A lot of the things I learnt when I was an apprentice, are still very true to me now in terms of produce – the quality of the produce, respect for the produce, and the grower.”
The drive out to Annie’s property is as beautiful as I imagined. She lives at Babbington Park, a 23 acre property in Lyonville, with her Wife Susan and their two daughters. It’s peaceful and the gardens are vibrant and fresh; Annie tells me her gardens have rich soil, and a lovely spring fed source of water which makes life great for the vegetables. As I exit my car I’m greeted by their dog and group of geese who have now found their own fame. Their home is on the same land as Annie’s cooking classes – she hold’s general classes and now AGA 60 cooking classes. The cooking classes are held in the old Weslyn Lyonville church located on their property. The room is inviting and the warmth from the AGA is immediately felt. And of course, there is a beautiful smell of food cooking in the AGA, what else did I expect?
We sit down for a cup of tea and I am so interested to find out how Annie started her journey. “I was a keen cook as an adolescent. I decided around year 10 that I wanted to become a professional cook, and I became an apprentice cook after I graduated high school. After a start in a little seafood restaurant in Malvern, I went and joined the team at Stephanie’s restaurant in Hawthorn. My friendship with Stephanie Alexander has grown over the last 34 years, and she has been my major mentor. A lot of the things I learnt when I was an apprentice, are still very true to me now in terms of produce – the quality of the produce, respect for the produce, the grower as well as the things that are grown. My cooking is defined by technical knowledge as opposed to bells and whistles. Even though its very farm house based, its anchored by good technique with things like pastry, stock making, sauce making, butchery and all those things. I’m very fond of my technical skills, but I’m not very good at all those modern things. I don’t like all that boil in a bag cooking, and the dusts, gels etc. Instead of making “beetroot dust”, I’d rather just cook a beetroot.”
“I’d always loved the old-style stoves and having that local context, so it only made sense to get one in our new cooking space.”
Annie and her family are working towards having a fully self-sufficient vegetable and fruit garden; she’s had a large kitchen garden for 10 years, where she grows most of the produce that her and her family eat at home and use in the restaurant. Annie’s life seems to be consumed with cooking at the restaurant, regular features on radio, writing recipes and columns, and somehow, she’s found space in her busy schedule for AGA cooking classes. Annie’s AGA cooking classes are seasonal, showcasing the best and in-season produce she has available in her garden. The classes are energetic, interactive, and exciting; at the end of the demonstration Annie has pulled out of the AGA 60 a feast fit for over 15 people, with plenty of left overs. Her cooking style seems effortless – she’s just that good at her craft. Unknown to me prior, her wife Susan had an AGA cooker growing up, which is how this Annie Smithers x AGA pairing began. “I fell in love with my beautiful wife Susan; she had an AGA in the past and all she ever wanted now was an AGA. I’d always loved the old-style stoves and having that local context, so it made sense to get one in our new cooking space. The only issue is, we have fallen so in love with the AGA that we want the big 5-oven cooker now; we just need to find room for it.”
“I did two cooking classes last week and the guests were just so happy to be here…Learning, watching, laughing.”
Annie’s passion for cooking, teaching, and all things food is inspiring and so hard to ignore. It shines out of her and it’s a wonderful energy to be around. It’s evident in the way she talks; she genuinely cooks because it makes her guests happy which in return, makes her happy. “I did two cooking classes last week and the guests were just so happy to be here; they had such a lovely time. Learning, watching, laughing. When you conduct a demonstration class, people get to ask questions on a lot of subjects. By watching and listening to other people’s ideas, it’s a convivial way of learning, and it just seems to make everybody so happy. If they’re happy, I’m happy – everybody wins. Also, it’s great to have a person in the class with dietary requirements to lengthen my brain out to include them. Plus, it’s good for everyone else in the class because then they see how you can adapt, rather than thinking you must make a separate meal – everyone can eat the same meal with just a few changes. We can show that it’s possible to include them, rather than exclude them.”
Now, I ask Annie a few quick-fire questions; I want to know all about her favourite dishes, ingredients, how she uses each hotplate and oven to get the most out of her AGA, and what food she is enjoying. “Currently, my favourite food to cook on the hotplate of my AGA are enormous crepes, cooked on the Simmering Hotplate using the AGA Bake-o-Glide. It’s so easy, takes no effort at all and makes zero mess. Lately I’ve also been making risotto in my AGA Cast Aluminium Roasting Dish, straight on the hotplate; the Roasting Dish is the perfect size to make a large risotto. The base is wide enough to cook the risotto quickly and thoroughly. In the Roasting/Baking oven, my favourite dish is grilling chermoula-spiced chicken on the AGA Cast Iron Griddle Plate, and in the Simmering Oven, braised duck legs.” Favourite dish to cook this season? “My Gascon tomato tart. I make beautiful short-crust pastry; I butter it with Dijon mustard, put sliced tomatoes, a bit of basil, a bit of goat’s cheese and I bake it. It bakes perfectly in my AGA 60 in the Roasting Oven on the bottom shelf for 20 minutes.” Favourite ingredient? “I am loving all the vegetables from the nightshade family: bell peppers, tomatoes and eggplants.”
“Owning an AGA encourages you to cook from the heart and not from just the latest cooking magazine that says, “this is how you do it”.
For Annie, her AGA really has changed the way she cooks - it’s about understanding the principles of cooking more than being a slave to an individual recipe. You must cook specifically for an AGA because there’s no timer, no temperature dials, no glass windows, plus you don’t hear or smell anything. “The thought of having an AGA for some people is quite frightening because it does change the way you cook. But the extraordinary design principles it’s based on means the AGA cooks food incredibly beautifully. As a professional chef, I cook on hot, medium, and slow. I don’t really bother much with individual temperatures in my world. So, it’s become a perfect fit for me. The best thing is, if you cook sausages or meat chops in a predominately vegetarian household, you can cook them in the top oven in your AGA griddle tray, shut the door, and the house doesn’t smell like sausages or chops for the next week. It all stays in there. That’s one of the most beautiful things about the AGA is that while it has this sense of warmth and love, it doesn’t seem to take over your house with all the cooking smells you don’t want in the house. It’s not about following a recipe, it’s about understanding the processes, and then you can transpose that to a whole lot of other processes. Owning an AGA encourages you to cook from the heart and not from just the latest cooking magazine that says, “this is how you do it”. It’s very easy to transfer those normal recipes with times and temperatures, into an AGA brain. Once you learn how to use it, the things that you can do in the AGA are just amazing.”
“Once you learn how to use it, the things that you can do in the AGA are just amazing.”
Images and words by Paula Vinci.