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Jennice Kersh in conversation with David Dale

Dale, D. ‘A World at her Table’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 4.12.99

Next September, when she starts running the restaurant that will display Australian food to the world, Jennice Kersh will be sleeping above the shop for the second time in her life. The first time she slept above the shop was 27 years ago, when her mother, Edna, used to get up at 4 am and start making curried mince and rissoles to sell in her tiny sandwich bar in Pyrmont. The smell used to drift up into Kersh's sleeping nostrils and irritate her into wakefuness, and she'd wander downstairs to find Edna stirring the pot and singing Lili Marlene to her sleeping granddaughter.

When Kersh sleeps above the fine dining restaurant that wilI serve 14,000 foreign journalists covering the Olympics, the smells drifting up in the morning are more likely to include barbecued kangaroo, emu or crocodile, mingled with eucalyptus, wild lime or warrigal greens.

But she hopes the spirit of Edna will still be there.

SOCOG is not exactly famous for making smart decisions, but asking Kersh to transplant her Edna's Table restaurant to the Homebush Olympic Centre for six weeks next year looks like an inspiration. It's not just that she will introduce the foreign media to the unique blend of French cooking technique and Australian native ingredients that has been developed by her chef brother, Raymond. She'll also serve as an ambassador for Sydney, and it's hard to imagine anyone more suited.

She's the quintessential inner Sydney creature, growing up in a tiny council flat in Pyrmont with two older brothers, a younger sister, a Catholic mother who took on all the charity cases of the neighbourhood, and a Jewish father who couldn't stop gambling drinking and experimenting with food. To this ultra-urban upbringing she added a life-changing encounter in her mid-20s with the Gogadja people on an outback mission station, which gave her a fascination with Aboriginal culture and with the foodstuffs they had been eating for more than 50,000 years.

That background has left Kersh thoughtful, emotional tough-minded, tender-hearted, inquisitive, outspoken, determined, theatrical and above all, a fabulous storyteller. She'll need to be careful next September not to be overwhelmed by the demand for interviews with the foreign media. But she's become expert at managing diverse demands on her time.

She reckons she'll get by on four hours sleep a day as she ensures the chefs trained by Raymond keep the food coming into the 160 seat restaurant every lunch and dinner for six weeks. She'll be tired, but stimulated: "If you're not watching the events, the next most exciting place to be at the Olympics is where the people who know what's happening are going to be talking about it. I'm very discreet; I never talk about what I hear at the table. But that doesn't mean I don't listen and have my own thoughts."

We are walking around Pyrmont, with Kersh offhandedly describing extraordinary experiences that combine to suggest she's been a kind of Forrest Gump of Sydney, witness to some of the most intriguing moments in the city's recent history.

It's hard, for example, to move past this revelation, tossed off as she explains that during her childhood, most Pyrmont people didn't bother to lock their doors. "I got into trouble from Mum one time when I took the key out of the door and brought it inside. I was 16. I did it because I was scared someone would come in, because of what had happened when I went to the pictures.

"I went to secretarial school in the morning and then I went to a matinee of an awful Bing Crosby film at the Regent Theatre. I heard this thump, thump, thump a few seats down the row from me. I looked round and this man had gone amok with an axe; he was chopping the people just next to me. Everyone started screaming and we ran down to the exit door at the front of the theatre, and he chased us. I got outside and hid under a car."

"My brothers say this is another reason why I am neurotic. But anyway, at home I took the key out of the door, and Mum said I was being ridiculous That man is locked up, and why would anyone walk up six flights of stairs to our place, when there's nothing in here worth pinching? Later on, they announced on the radio that he was a Polish migrant who had been in a concentration camp, and he lived in a rooming house. I remember feeling this sadness about the poor man, because he didn't have a family. In Pyrmont you might have been poor and there might have been trouble between your parents, but you were never lonely."

As we come off the Pyrmont Bridge, Kersh points out that Pyrmont in the 1950s was "not really a village, it was more a tribe… For outsiders, there was a sense.of danger about it, which only made us feel more protective of it."

We turn right into Pyrmont Street, and head past the casino. Kersh hates it as a piece of architecture and laments the loss of the Pyrmont power station, which used to loom over the suburb like a cathedral. But she enjoyed launching the Edna’s Table cookbook at the casino in 1998, remarking that it fitted with her father’s gambling addiction and was conveniently opposite St Bede’s, her old church.

"As a child, I was deeply religious, and when things were bad at home I would come to mass at St Bede’s four times a week. My prayers were always asking God to make Dad good.

"I was also proud of the Jewish side of my family. At school, when the nuns would say that the Jews killed Jesus, I would put my hand up and say that I didn’t think that was quite correct. My brother John went off to become a missionary, and I wish I could have that certainty, but now I don’t follow Catholicism in an orthodox sense."

We round the corner into John Street and reach the now-derelict Terminus Hotel. This was Abe Kersh’s local, where he would down as many as 15 schooners in a night, spend the rest of his money with the SP bookies and return home to vent his black humour on his wife, and cook exotic dishes for his kids. Kersh says she and Raymond have fantasies of one day buying the site and turning it into the perfect Sydney restaurant.

Outside the pub is a sign pointing to Jackson's Landing, the new name for the old CSR sugar factory that used to stink up the neighbourhood. Now it's being turned into trendy apartments. Kersh is furious. I think it's tragic that a name like Pyrmont with such tradition, is discarded for fashionable reasons, apparently because somebody doesn't like the working-class connotations. There's a sense of history and belonging. You don't just change the name of a suburb because it's going to make it easier to sell expensive apartments.

Then we reach the block of flats where the Kersh family, in various permutations, lived from the early 1940s to the late 1980s. It’s one of the secret delights of Sydney: a beautiful Spanish-style structure that has somehow managed to remain as accommodation for low-income tenants.

She reveals a family secret: in 1965, at the age of 22, she began a court case designed to remove her father's name from the tenancy of the Pyrmont flat. Her parents were divorced by then, but her father refused to leave and rarely paid the rent, which meant his wife and oldest son had to pay to ensure the family did not lose the flat.

"There were no such things as women's shelters then, and the lawyers said there was no chance my mother could win, but I had this strong sense of justice. While the court, proceeding dragged on, Edna, Jennice and her younger sister moved to Terrigal, where Kersh gained her first experience in waitressing end catering at the Florida Hotel.

The Supreme Court ruled in favour of Edna, and Abe had to move into the Terminus Hotel. (He partly redeemed himself years later by working unpaid in Cyren, the first restaurant opened by Jennice and Raymond, and by putting up some money to help open Edna's Table, and then by working with his ex-wife in the restaurant kitchen.)

With their mother safely back in Pyrmont, Jennice and Raymond set off to visit their brother John at Balgo mission station in the Kimberley. She became the stock camp cook and Raymond taught the Aboriginal women how to sew.

As Kersh came to know the Gogadja people, she responded to their sense of belonging to their place, and could see echoes of that in her feelings about Pyrmont. Part of the Aboriginal sense of belonging meant eating the plants and animals that grew in their place. As they tasted what was around them, Jennice and Raymond began to wonder if Australians could be persuaded to try the foodstuffs of their own land – not as some sort of patriotic duty but because the flavours were so interesting.

By now we've reached a row of cottages where Kersh's grandparents lived. One of the houses, today called Henessey's on Harris, was the sandwich shop where Kersh and Edna lived and worked in 1971. "We never made any money because Mum kept giving the food away to local people she thought were having a hard time," says Kersh.

Next to the old sandwich shop is a cottage where, Kersh says, an alcoholic pianist used to entertain men till all hours, much to the disapproval of the Pyrmont mothers. She pops her head into the open door and discovers that it has just become a restaurant called Kokum, specialising in the Portuguese/lndian food of Goa. Two dark-skinned men are sitting at a table, and they rise to tell us that, sadly they are not yet open for lunch. Kersh starts discussing the origins of their building and one of the restaurateurs says, "Oh, we can't send you away. If you don't mind me wearing my informals, I would love to cook somethng for you."

We settle in for a hearty and peppery meal, with Kersh exclaiming that the grilled sardines on soused onion was just the sort of dish her father used to cook, based on his Russian family heritage. Kersh remarks that Sydney people are always open to new flavours – as long as they come from overseas.

When she and Raymond opened the second incarnation of Edna's Table at Martin Place in 1993, the eating of kangaroo meat had just been legalised in NSW, and they were confident Sydneysiders would flock to taste their own land. "It just seemed natural and normal to include native spices and vegetables and meats among the range of things Australians would eat, but it turned out to be much tougher than we expected. Australians seem to have a cultural cringe about their own ingredients before they've even tasted them."

Next Seplember, Kersh's Olympic restaurant will offer such dishes as crocodile ricepaper parcel, tempura style, with warrigal greens and hot sour broth; roasted roo fillet with a warm salad of beetroot and wild yam and lemon aspen dressing, and quandong and tropical wild lime curd tart, with macadamia nut ice-cream.

After the Olympics are over, Kersh hopes the international publicity, given to Edna's Table will have some influence on the Sydney dining community. "We're not interested in being a tourist gimmick. We think eating your own food is part of your sense of place. Most Australians still don't have that sense of belonging that I grew up with."

Reproduced with permission of the Sydney Morning Herald.

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