Lara Lee, author of Coconut & Sambal: Recipes from My Indonesian Kitchen, is an Indonesian and Australian chef and food writer. She trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine and now runs an event catering business called Kiwi and Roo. She also holds supper clubs all over London that celebrate her heritage with both Australian and Indonesian cuisine.
Get to know Lara in this Q&A and then join us on Friday, March 26 at 4 PM EST as part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book to hear her discuss her work in Coconut & Sambal: Recipes from My Indonesian Kitchen with Lara Lee.
Festival: What motivated you to become a chef and writer?
Lee: Food, writing (and dancing!) are my great passions in life, so the ability to work in a career where I do both is a dream come true (I also worked as a professional dancer in my early twenties). I felt encouraged to change careers in my early thirties to become a chef after running a popular street food stall on the weekends as my “side hustle”. I started doing supperclubs and realized just how much people enjoyed eating my food, and decided to take the plunge to leave the corporate life for the wonderful world of food. I studied media and writing at university, so becoming a food writer felt very natural.
Who or what are some of your creative influences?
My husband is an artist and architect, and he was one of my biggest cheerleaders and inspirations as I ventured into a creative career. Indonesia is my greatest moodboard of all. It’s a land of vibrant color, of generous hospitality, of bold and punchy flavors which changes vastly from region to region. I am inspired by many things: good music, good writing and an infinitely diverse and multicultural landscape of food that I grew up with in Sydney and am now surrounded by in London. Sri Owen, the doyenne of Indonesian food, has authored around fifteen books on Indonesian food, and was the first person in the world to write an Indonesian cookbook in English, introducing the world to the cuisine. She has been a constant source of inspiration.
What was your favorite part about writing your book?
Writing my cookbook was a means of connecting to my Indonesian identity, a way to get to know my late grandmother through her food and a celebration of Indonesian cuisine. Researching the book was incredible; I traveled across Indonesia for six months, meeting many home cooks and extended family members and amassing a collection of 300 recipes. This was an incredibly special experience, particularly now in a time when travel seems so far away.
Do you have any sources of inspiration that you come back to while writing?
When I have writer’s block or am in need of inspiration, I pull my favorite ten cookbooks off my shelf and read passages from them, as a means to remember what I loved about those books in the first place, and what I find inspiring about the way the author has written them. Doing this refreshes me and reminds me what I love about food writing.
What impact or takeaway do you hope your work will have for readers?
For those readers who are far from their homeland, or are second or third-generation immigrants, I want them to know that food is a powerful tool in helping them to understand a part of who they are and where they come from. I also feel Indonesian food hasn’t had its time in the spotlight yet, and hope that my book helps readers learn about the wonderfully diverse cuisine of Indonesia—with the intention to visit one day.
Describe how a book changed your life or perspective.
I have most of Sri Owen’s cookbooks and after realizing that she lived in the same city as me (London), I reached out to her and she became my culinary mentor. I don’t know if I would have secured a book deal without her guidance or mentorship.
What is something that you’ve read recently and would recommend to others?
I am currently reading Such a Fun Age by Kiley Read and am really enjoying it. One of my favorite books I recently read is Circe by Madeline Miller.
What are you working on next?
I am currently writing recipes and articles for Bon Appetit magazine and The Guardian newspaper in the U.K., and am in the midst of working on my second book idea, so watch this space!