Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
Born in Sydney, raised on the north shore, I had a very happy, very normal 1960’s/early ‘70s suburban childhood. I went to Macquarie University where I played a lot of rugby and drank a lot of beer but not much else. I only found out in second year that the big building beside the bar was the library.
2. What did you want to be when you were 12, 18 and 30? And why?
At 12, a lawyer. At 18, a journalist. At 30, MD of an ad agency and I was filthy that I wasn’t quite there. I became one not much later and of course it wasn’t a big deal anyway. Now I couldn’t care less about titles or what anyone thinks about me.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at 18 that you do not have now?
Probably not one strongly held belief but more a general optimism and sense of justice. You hope that you maintain as much of that as possible, though a long business career certainly encourages pragmatism. It’s hard to be involved in as many areas as I am and be as forthright as I want to be. As Jackson Browne wrote:
Say a prayer for the pretender
Who started out so young and strong
Only to surrender
Happily I haven’t surrendered. I’m more cynical but still optimistic.
4. What were three big events – in the family circle or on the world stage or in your reading life, for example – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced you in your career path?
Dad always desired a proper education and wanted to study architecture, but his family was very poor and he was sent from Lismore to work for his uncle at the Sydney fruit market as a teenager because they needed the money. So there was plenty of pressure on me to get a degree-of any sort, which I duly did despite the beer and rugby.
Working in advertising meant lunch in a restaurant every day, and still does post advertising. It exposed me to all sorts of food and then when I travelled, it was almost solely to eat. I could ‘do’ the Louvre in 45 minutes but happily spend five hours at lunch at Robuchon.
One definite turning point was mentioning to Karen Hammial, then editor of Gourmet Traveller that I was having a holiday in France and Italy. It was 1988 and she asked if I had a decent camera and could I take some photos. I emailed her our itinerary with Michelin one, two and three star restaurants booked every day for five weeks (they were the days) and markets and providors to visit in between. She called and in her magnificently ham fisted manner said ‘what to you do on your f***ing holidays, take pictures in butcher shops?’ to which I replied ‘yes, actually’. She asked me to write an article and then, as now, unable to write to length, I delivered five and had five lead articles run, which was the beginning of my writing. If I hadn’t sent the fax, I would never have started.
5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book? Aren’t they obsolete?
People still buy cookbooks and, to my wife’s disgust, I’m hopeless with technology anyway (I’ve written five cookbooks and I still can’t cut and paste).
6. Please tell us about your latest book…
It is another BBQ book, because the first one was so popular. And it is all about easy, quick recipes which seem to be what most people are after these days. It’s hardly a complicated concept, but I hope very useful.
7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
A cookbook is hardly likely to change the world. But this book, my previous four, my cooking school and BBQ club are all about getting people to eat better, to eat real food instead of processed crap.
8. Whom do you most admire and why?
Let’s avoid the obvious Nelson Mandela’s and stick to food. I think that Stephanie Alexander’s garden program is wonderful and the influence that it will have is immeasurable.
You have to admire Jamie Oliver for what he does on an infinitely bigger scale than I can, though our food philosophies are pretty close. I also admire all the top chefs who work their guts out and still manage extraordinary levels of creativity. Though he’s forever taking the piss out of me, history will judge Neil Perry as our most important chef for his role in the creation of both Mod OZ and Mod Asian cuisines. .
9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
Again to my wife’s disgust, nothing particularly lofty. I love playing with food. All my foodie endeavours overlap and the Boys Can Cook cooking school, aussiebarbie.com.au, the five cookbooks, food trends presentations, consultancies with everyone from ANZ Stadium to Westfield, Masterfoods, Chang’s, ad agencies and restaurants and the bits and pieces of media that I do all add to each other.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Talk to a real writer like Tim Winton, not someone who writes cookbooks.
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.