Leila & Andrew Chalk
A beautiful 2-bedroom unit in the Heart of the South-East suburbs of Melbourne, Lawyer, Cookbook Author and AGA Demonstrator Leila and Project Manager Andrew live with their two new arrivals, baby Sofia and AGA Percy.
A Lawyer. A Project Manager. Parents. Cookbook Authors. If you look up busy in the dictionary, I’m sure you would find a photo of Leila and Andrew Chalk. And adding to their repertoire is new baby girl Sofia, so I’m quite surprised they could fit me into their crazy schedule. When I get to the Chalk household, it’s calmer than I expected. Both Leila and Andrew’s mothers are there for breakfast with baby Sofia. It’s been a busy week in the leadup to the holidays and Leila tells me she’s even started to make ointments for her friends whilst also in the middle of opening her second Law practice in Dandenong.
Leila owns and runs her own Collins Street law firm, and Andrew manages a group of engineers as part of Telstra’s RND Program for the mobile network. Last year they achieved writing, photographing and publishing their own cookbook, plus re-builting and renovating their new home this year and welcomed a new baby. Their beautiful home is in the South-Eastern suburb of Noble Park, Melbourne. It’s a small but very vibrant and lively 2-bedroom unit, and I soon find out that their neighbours are Leila’s mother on one side and Andrew’s father on the other. “We were quite fond of the tiny home and small living movement and thought that we could all work together towards reducing our footprint.” The two lived previously in Kew but moved out to the South East to live closer to Leila’s mum (and took Dad with them).
“An oven is such an integral part of the household and the cooking process. It meant a lot to us to be able to get something that we knew worked well.”
Andrew tells me their “old home in Kew had a very large oven, but it was terrible to cook on. Anytime you would try to bake something, it would burn on one side, and not cook on the other. We once hosted a dinner party and walked into our kitchen and there were people taking photos of the oven because it was stunning, but it didn’t cook the way it’s supposed to. An oven is such an integral part of the household and the cooking process. It meant a lot to us to be able to get something that we knew worked well.”
The renovations were impromptu; while Andrew travelled to Canada for work, Leila had the entire property gutted down to the studs. “Even the ceiling was missing. We renovated the whole thing, but it’s still a work in progress. We had hoped to have it completed by the time Sofia showed up, but that didn’t work out. For a while it was a race between baby and doors” Andrew built and designed the whole kitchen (in the modern style, with help from our Swedish Friends), which allowed them more creative freedom to choose pieces they wanted and liked. The kitchen was built and designed around the AGA cooker, in a way that meant if they wanted to upgrade to a larger AGA, they would have the space for it. “We were the interior designers. I had interviewed two interior renovation focused architects, but I decided against them. I realised that we would know best about the functionality for our kitchen and our family. It’s such a small space and, in Australia, we still have that focus on big, large kitchens but we didn’t have that to work with here. I thought functionality mattered more than style, so we would be able to do it better ourselves. The colour of the AGA suits the kitchen so well because we built the kitchen around the AGA. We chose the flooring to match, everything needed to be the right tone, including the benches to offset the colour.”
“ A lot of the AGA dishes go straight from oven to plate and fit with the Bosnian tradition of sharing dishes as traditionally families used to eat out of the same tevsija (baking tray). And you can definitely still do that…especially with the AGA.”
Andrew was the one who had to convince Leila to consider an AGA. “I have always loved AGAs. My parents are both English. We didn’t have an AGA growing up but I knew all about them. Leila was a bit sceptical at first, but we signed up to attend the AGA Cooking Demonstration at the Prahran Showroom and she was sold straight away. It was Tatty (the demonstrator) that brought her across the line.” Leila fell in love with the AGA 60 on that very night; It was the ability to always have something on that convinced her and reminded her of the oven stoves of her childhood. “I wanted the AGA 60 cooker but didn’t want to wait for it to arrive from England, and there was a beautiful AGA 60 in the Lemon colour sitting in the Warehouse, and I had to have it. We bought it and then the oven moved in. At that same time, Andrew’s grandfather had passed away so we thought that it was something Poppy would really approve of. We named our AGA Percival John Fields; John Fields after Andrews Grandfather and Percival after Percy Weasley from Harry Potter. We both like the name Percival and I think it really fitted the AGA. As an oven, I thought that he was a little bit stuck up and moody, but very good and solid. The name really fit.”
Andrew and Leila love to cook, and it’s extremely evident in the way they speak about food. Leila is Bosnian and has written and published a Cookbook titled The Lost Chef, featuring regional Bosnian favourites, her uncle’s recipes, with a paddock to plate philosophy. “I like being able to open the fridge and see what three things are in there, and pull them out, put them in the oven and create a beautiful, simple dish. My absolute favourite dish is one of my Grandmother’s recipes. She would cut potatoes into cubes and fry them until crisp, then pour cream over the top and a pinch of salt. It’s a very simple dish but absolutely to die for. The cream would make the potatoes so soft and delicate. It was something I’d never bother to cook previously because I wasn’t very patient at frying potatoes. But the great thing about the AGA is that you’re not standing over a hot frying pan. What I’m able to do is heat up my pan in the oven on the bottom of the Roasting Oven, put in my cubed potatoes, shut the door and all the splatter and all the mess is contained. I pull it out once the potatoes are cooked, put it on the Boiling Plate, and pour the cream over the top. And within 60 seconds it’s done and dusted. A lot of the AGA dishes go straight from oven to plate and fit with the Bosnian tradition of sharing dishes as traditionally families used to eat out of the same tevsija (baking tray). And you can definitely still do that…especially with the AGA.”
“It becomes a focal point of the house. When you come home and its been a long stressful day, he’s just nice to lean against.”
And Andrew’s favourite thing about his AGA? “truthfully, I like that nothing ends up with a soggy bottom when it comes out of the oven. I’ve been known to get a takeaway pizza and crisp it up again on the hotplate. The pizza will arrive and instead of sitting down and eating it, I’ll put it right onto the Simmering Plate just to crisp up the bottom a bit for a minute or two.” ”We do a lot of our cooking at home.” Leila adds. “We wrote the cookbookand we feel very strongly about simple flavours done well and nutritious meals. But it would be ridiculous to ignore the fact that in modern life people get takeaway. Because we do. And the oven is still an integral part of that process. Not just for reheating but also for finishing off the meals.”
Leila and Andrew hosted Christmas at their home last year, an experience they say was so easy and relaxed due to the AGA doing most of the work. They ordered a large 9.4kg turkey from the butchers for their guests to devour. First the turkey was crisped in the Roasting Oven, and then into the already pre-heated Simmering Oven. They shut the oven door, went to bed and let it sit there all night slow-cooking away. They pulled it out of the Simmering Oven around 11am the next morning and it was perfect. “I didn’t have to baste it, nor even open the oven door. I didn’t have to look at it; I did nothing. The skin was super crispy but the meat was tender and very succulent.”
Leila and Andrew have a wonderful and rewarding Christmas tradition that they continue every year. They host an “Orphans’ Christmas”, where people from different religions, or without any family near by can spend it with the Chalk family. “We host for a group of about 20 people every year. It’s a lot of fun and provides a community for our young professional friends who don’t have kids or family, might be single, or who’s family isn’t here.” It’s a tradition Andrew’s family used to partake in, so they thought it would be a great idea to continue. As they usually have the same guests attend each year, they thought they would do things a little different this time to make it more special and interesting. “We are getting three turkeys and we will compete them. One will go in the AGA, one in the Smoker and one on the BBQ and see how they go, and we will let the guests judge them.”
To Leila and Andrew, the AGA seems like a member of the family. “It sounds strange when you think about it because it’s an oven, but Percy is just consistently there for me. It becomes a focal point of the house. When you come home and it’s been a long stressful day, he’s just nice to lean up against. When we had the baby, I did a lot of things the baby requires that the oven helped with. For example, if you have the Simmering Plate on and you put the baby bottle on the side of the oven it keeps it at perfect temperature throughout the night. It meant that in the middle of the night I wasn’t waking up to try to get the water the right temperature. I could just rely on the AGA that it was always right. I also used to pre-warm her little baby nest/bed on the oven, just on top of the hotplate. She absolutely hated taking baths in the first few weeks of her life, so we would pre-warm her towels. The little things like that made a really big difference in looking after her. And these things have nothing to do with cooking, but it just shows how versatile the AGA is, its multipurpose.”
“It’s just a versatile machine, it’s not only made for cooking like regular ovens.”
Leila and Andrew leave their AGA 60 running for most of the time, which makes them more willing to experiment with different kinds of dishes because. “We made Spätzle the other night for dinner which are soft egg noodles found in German and Austrian cuisines. Because the Boiling Plate is so big, it can boil a substantial amount of water really fast, which is necessary for the dish. We made meatballs, to accompany the pasta, browned in the Roasting Oven, then switched to the Baking Oven setting, poured the sauce in and shut the door, and in about 30 minutes it was ready, and the sauce was spectacular. It cooks so well. There’s a weird belief that the AGA cooking process is slow. It can be if you want it to be. But certainly, for us it fits around that modern lifestyle with two working professionals and a baby and you can get a meal out very quickly. It may be slower than most ovens, but it requires less attention. You can start cooking a meal and just walk off to do something else and it’s still perfectly fine. You need that flexibility. I made chocolate cake once and I left it in the oven accidentally because I was working and got distracted. And Andrew’s dad pulled it out a few hours later and it was these perfect chocolate brownies. They reduced a little and were thicker and richer, but they didn’t burn at all were still gooey and soft. We still ate them. I just dusted them with cocoa and they were perfect. After that, we instigated the rule that before we go to bed someone has to check that nothing has been left in the AGA.”
The AGA seems to be an enabler. It makes people want to cook, and increases its owners love and passion for cooking due to its effortlessness. It opens up opportunities to cook and bake and makes you experiment with dishes you would never think of creating. “The very first meal that we cooked was a basic rack of lamb, which I’ve cooked many times before but wasn’t really happy with it. So that very first rack of lamb came out with the perfect lamb crackling. But we’ve also cooked dishes we would never think of before or be able to even cook if we didn’t have an AGA. We’ve cooked Teppanyaki straight onto the Boiling Plate. I don’t know what AGA’s official guidelines are, but I cook straight onto the cast iron hotplate. We also make our own cheeses like Ricotta and Haloumi, and you need that volume of the Boiling Plate to be able to heat so much milk up to 73 degrees, which the AGA is perfect for. From a baking point of view, it makes a really big difference especially when it comes to proofing dough or making yogurt for example. I also make a lot of ointments to help with eczema so we utilise the oven to melt down the wax in a saucepan. You can also sterilize all your jars with AGA. It’s just a versatile machine, it’s not only made for cooking like regular ovens.”
With AGA cookers, dishes are more nutritious and simpler because you don’t need unhealthy ingredients to make the food taste delicious. “It’s very different if you don’t have a good oven; you have to work a lot harder to have good food. And a lot of the time that means butter, cream, oil, salt, fats etc. I felt that the AGA allowed us to cook in a more healthy and nutritious way. Because you don’t have to saturate your vegetables in butter to make them delicious. Anything you can use bake o glide with doesn’t need butter or oil. My life wouldn’t be as pleasant or efficient without the AGA. We travel a lot and as part of our travels we sometimes rent a house. What I find is that when I’m reduced to other ovens, it’s just more frustrating; nothing turns out as well. A lot of my family are chefs and all have technical and classical training, but you don’t need that with an AGA. It’s just about having an imagination and passion for food and good simple ingredients.”
“It’s just about having an imagination and passion for food and good simple ingredients.”
Find out more about Leila & Andrew here:
Purchase The Lost Chef Cookbook here