Like many of Melbourne’s most exclusive spaces, it is semi-hidden. Heading up Swanston Street you reach the iconic Curtin House, a 1910 building with its intriguing, somewhat derelict façade. Upon climbing the stairs and pushing open their non-descript door it’s like you just tumbled down a rabbit hole into Wonderland. Cookie is a magical place, a thriving space with vivid muralled walls, pulsating music and huge windows overlooking the frenzied bustle of city activity below.
In the midst of this wonderment, you will find Karen Batson, Cookie’s Executive Chef. She might be in a corner discussing the day’s bookings with staff, front of house explaining the extensive menu to patrons or heading into the kitchen to create a new culinary treasure.
You can’t miss her – her cheerful face and quick smile, a small-determined frame and a head of carefully pinned curls. But despite her containment one senses that Karen is a coiled dynamo always at the ready. Yet in contrast to her seemingly vast reserves of energy, she also navigates her world carefully, gracefully and with meticulous consideration. As kitchen staff glide past there is always a nod of acknowledgment and that respectful clasp of hands in the traditional Thai greeting.
If she isn’t at Cookie then she is checking in on one of owner, Camillo Ippoliti’s other venues. It might be The Toff in Town — a dark, exotic cocktail bar dotted with art deco train carriage booths and a band room, also upstairs at the Curtin House building – or overseeing the menu at the Collins Street nightclub Boney. You might find her buzzing about at Retro American Diner meets Thai Street Food venue Colonel Tans @ Revolver Upstairs in Prahran, or Magic Mountain Saloon in the City, where she guides people through the menu whilst always keeping one eye on the kitchen. All in all, the dynamic Chef is in charge of some 70 plus Thai kitchen staff that she fondly considers as members of her extended family.
Yet ironically for someone who heads all these busy kitchens, she has never formally trained as a chef or even in the hospitality industry. She rose on her own wave of creativity, though the currents that buoyed her came from all corners of the globe.
She is living testimony to Mohammed’s saying – ‘Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you travelled.’ Her successful career is the culmination of the learning, knowledge and self-worth that stems from stints of long-term travel.
She started travelling in her 20s with a two and half-year road trip around Australia that took her to Perth, Broome and Alice Springs. ‘I took lots of odd jobs to stay afloat – waitressing, working on a scallop boat and even strawberry picking.
Such ad hoc jobs enabled Karen to travel through Southeast Asia and Europe. When she found herself broke in Lagos, in southern Portugal’s Algarve region, she bartered her cooking skills for a bed on the rooftop above the restaurant she was helping to renovate. When the kitchen was finished, the owners asked her to set up the vegetarian kitchen – the unofficial beginning of Karen’s career in food.
Back on home soil she then waitressed at the Lemon Tree in Carlton, headed the kitchen at Mario’s and Marchetti’s Latin and even started her own place in Little Latrobe Street, named Stax, with fellow proprietor Tamara Brown, an RMIT institution serving up healthy food with a wholesome attitude to hoardes of students and lecturers alike.
It was when Karen was working as the Sous Chef at Carmines in Toorak Road, that she first met owner Camillo Ippoliti.
She bumped into him again some years later, when he was running the infamous 24-hour nightclub Revolver Upstairs, on Prahran’s Chapel Street. At the back of the club was the sleepy hollow from where Patee Thai kitchen operated selling green curry, spring rolls, and Pad Thai to late-night revellers. But it was the staff meals that caught Camillo’s attention. The food was out there, and it was from here that the concept of Cookie was born.
Camillo approached Karen to take on the task of interpreting those dishes that were so much a part of everyday Thai home cooking to form the base of Cookie’s new menu. What was intended to be a three-month consultancy has developed into a 14-year career, across five kitchens, and Karen’s own burgeoning Thai food obsession.
It was in the early days of setting up Cookie when she developed her connections with the Footscray and Springvale markets. ‘A lot of the ingredients that we were after were hard to get in Melbourne when we first opened.’ They even contacted suppliers in Darwin ‘who then helped to supply us with betel leaves, sawtooth coriander, banana blossoms, and pomelo,’ she laughs. ‘These ingredients were integral to authenticating Cookie’s food.
Looking back over her career to date Karen says, ‘it’s been hard work. Long hours in hot, steamy kitchens, and in an environment that was very much a male domain. One had to stand tall to prove oneself,’ she laughs. ‘But one of my attributes is a sense of calmness, despite the fiery world of the kitchen. It has helped me hold my ground.’
It is this oasis of calm that has allowed her to recently step back, just slightly, to develop a more balanced, or at least slightly less frantic lifestyle. ‘I still love my work and I’m happy and stimulated. It is working with the younger people in this industry that allows one to keep motivated. Now I have the opportunity to guide them in the skills of the hospitality industry.’
‘Being near water also keeps me sane. I swim laps three to five mornings a week at the Fitzroy Pool and race a Tumlaren (small yacht), in the Classic Yacht Association racing seasons out on the Bay (Port Phillip Bay).’
But her latest passion is the craft of silversmithing. ‘On Tuesday night you will find me at a foundry bashing away making spoons. I totally lose myself in this all-consuming activity.’
As well as overseeing the five busy kitchens Karen is also responsible for a lot of the smaller touchpoints that have become so much of the Camillo group’s nostalgic appeal — gingham napkins and floral tablecloths, and even the tunic style staff aprons that are produced by her apron business Gotcha Covered. And next time you dine at Cookie take a good look at Karen’s choice of plates, deliberately plastic and chintzy, they are an ode to the Asian eateries of the 70s.
Karen’s job also involves regular trips to Thailand, but not the five-star business type you might expect from a celebrated chef. Instead, she prefers to stay, on invite, with the extended families of her kitchen staff. ‘I live like a local. Forever eating. The families take me out to the regional areas saying — We’ll just pull in here so that you can try this. I always come home three kilos heavier than when I started out,’ she laughs.
‘I love that Thai sense of family and community. Thai people graze. Eating is a communal activity and that custom is something we try to replicate in our Melbourne menus, which are full of dishes to be shared.’
It has been through her experience working closely with Thai people that Karen realised they are skilled gleaners. Curious about the cuisines of different cultures they were always keen to learn about Anglo dishes, but things often got slightly lost in translation.
Hence the idea for the Magic Mountain menu was born. It is a tongue in cheek mix of Anglo and Thai dishes, that holds no punches, regardless of the time of day. Their Bangkok Bolognese-rice noodles with a fiery pork and tomato sauce is one such example. The classic street food delicacy, ‘Son in Law’s Egg’ has also been transformed into Magic’s version of a kaffir lime crispy-shelled scotched egg served with chicken and sticky tamarind sauce.
Forever adventurous Karen still loves to camp. ‘On one of our adventures, my partner Gaye and I took Mum, who was aged 89 at the time, on a camping trip. We went to Lake Mungo (New South Wales) then travelled back down the Murray River. Gaye took this great little video of me doing a Kath and Kim style commentary whilst cooking our evening meal by the river.’
‘You must never stop reinventing yourself,’ Karen adds. With that she closes the laptop from where she has been showing me her photographs, but not before I note the screen saver. It is a photo of her boat the Zephyr, mounting the crest of a wave, and there leans an invigorated Karen with the wind in her hair, changing tack.
Nadine is a travel, food and opinion writer and trainer at Open Colleges. She has been a contributor to The Age and Sunday Age, The Canberra Times, GAB – Australian Food and Travel blog, and Weekend Notes. Nadine also publishes travel and food articles on her own blog, Red Bag, Will Travel.