Middle East - Tamara Ruben

Middle East - Tamara Ruben

Gaye Weeden, Hayley Smorgon
7 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Mark Roper


If you celebrated a significant milestone in Melbourne in the 1990s, chances are you came across the popular events space, Tudor Court, and its doyenne, Tamara Ruben.

A well-respected event organiser, restaurant owner and businesswoman, Tamara had a flawless reputation for ensuring a function always ran to schedule, whether she was hosting 60 or 600 guests.

‘You came home at one in the morning and everyone told you how nice it was and you were happy,’ Tamara recalls. ‘I got a lot of excitement out of it.’

Born in a small village in Kazakhstan in 1943, Tamara spent much of her early childhood hiding with her parents in different towns during World War II. Tamara’s memories from this period are limited, but what she does remember is an overriding sense of hunger due to a lack of available food.

‘All I thought about was how hungry I was, I cried that I wanted to eat food,’ Tamara says.

But the family made do and, despite her hunger, Tamara remembers a childhood spent playing with children in the same predicament, picking flowers at each train station their families visited during their escape.

In 1945 when the war had ended, Tamara and her parents were taken by the United Nations from Russia to Germany and interned in a displaced persons camp, which Tamara describes as similar to ‘a big kibbutz’.

‘It was fun because I was with my cousin and we were just loose with all the kids … we were free, we didn’t understand much of what was going on,’ Tamara says.

Soon Tamara’s younger brother was born and in 1948 the family immigrated to Israel, where Tamara’s two aunts had already relocated. It was a decision that was to have a major impact on Tamara’s life.

‘I remember we got to Israel and it was like something we’d never seen! You had all the orchards, the orange orchards and things we’d never seen before. There wasn’t a lot of food in Israel either, but it was very different food.’

Despite the differences, Tamara loved her new home and the opportunities it provided her, saying simply, ‘we were free’.

Tamara’s mother set about establishing a new home for her family, re-creating the Eastern European cuisine her family knew and loved. Using a makeshift stove not too dissimilar to what’s found on camping trips today, Tamara’s mother created all sorts of treats, including her daughter’s bat mitzvah cake.

Though the family was not religious, the Sabbath was always observed. On Thursdays, Tamara would accompany her father to buy the fish, which would then swim in the family bathtub until it was needed to make Tamara’s mother’s famed gefilte fish.

Unlike traditional Eastern European gefilte fish, which features fish mixture shaped into balls and then dropped into stock to cook, Tamara’s mother’s gefilte fish mixture was stuff ed back into the fish skin so that it would resemble a cutlet.

‘It was Polish food,’ Tamara says. ‘It would be chopped eggs, vegetables, whatever you could get your hands on. There wasn’t a lot but we didn’t starve.’

For Tamara, Israel was her home and she was passionate about it, celebrating all the Jewish festivals with her strong group of girlfriends, who she still keeps in touch with.

Tamara was so connected to the country that when her family decided to relocate to Australia in 1957, she asked to stay behind after her girlfriend’s family offered to let Tamara live with them. But, believing her to be too young to remain by herself, Tamara’s parents insisted she make the journey across to the other side of the world.

‘I hated the thought of coming, I hated it,’ Tamara says. ‘I was so Zionistic, it was such a shame to leave … but my parents promised me that whenever I wanted to come back, I could.’

In Melbourne the family lived in Northcote, where Tamara’s father worked with her uncle in a food shop and Tamara went to school. A kind neighbourhood girl who knew Yiddish translated the classes so that Tamara could understand, while a teacher sat with her and guided her through each lesson. Seeing Tamara’s potential in home economics, teachers allowed her to explore her love for Israel and Judaism in the food she created.

‘That first year we had to do a Christmas cake [but] I didn’t know what a Christmas cake was,’ Tamara recalls. ‘I made a Chanukah cake for Christmas and decorated it with all the Chanukah things.’

Cooking came easily for Tamara and she was recognised for it, awarded a prize for her lamingtons in her very first year.

‘For some reason I was good at it … I had it in me,’ she says.

After school Tamara studied medical science, working in a laboratory during the day and attending classes at night. But in 1964, Tamara found that the pull of Israel was too strong and decided to relocate. And each time an Australian friend would come to stay with her there, Tamara would host a meal.

‘I’ve always had dinner parties; I’ve been cooking for a long time. I always entertained people,’ she says.

After two years, Tamara returned to Australia, but not before travelling to such far-flung places as Hong Kong and Nepal, to explore new countries and cultures.

So much so that when Tamara met Alec Ruben back in Melbourne and they began to speak about marriage, Tamara made it clear that for her, married life meant living abroad.

‘He thought I was nuts but I talked him into it at the end,’ Tamara says. ‘Three days after we got married we went to Hong Kong.’

Back in Australia after six months abroad, Tamara worked at a diagnostics centre and, while there, word soon spread of her cooking expertise. Colleagues began asking for lessons, as did the Jewish organisation WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization) who requested food demonstrations. It wasn’t long before an acquaintance asked Tamara to prepare a work dinner for his clients. Tamara had never cooked professionally before, but in her usual manner of never saying no to a challenge, she decided to give it a try.

‘I thought "blow it, I’m going to give it a go". So I gave it a go and they loved it so much that some other people from there asked me to do it.’

It was the early 1980s and Tamara was the mother of two young children, Amanda and Justin, looking after them and managing her home while also attempting to get a successful catering business off the ground. She had bought a small catering company called Toorak Catering.

So while Tamara was still preparing the Eastern European staples that had been a part of her childhood for her own family, such as schnitzels and cutlets, her professional repertoire was inspired by the modern cuisine of the day, particularly the recipes she was reading about in French magazines.

When Tamara sold Toorak Catering, she decided to try her hand in the restaurant business, opening a kosher restaurant called Ruben on the Park. Following that, Tamara took over the café Relish in Armadale, which quickly became known for its big wine barrel of pickles, hand-sliced salmon and duck spring rolls.

She also became involved in events planning, running the reception centre Le Chateau in the late 1980s before taking over Caulfield’s Tudor Court a few years later, where she started offering her clientele much sought after kosher catering.

Tamara ran Tudor Court until she retired in 2003, but it was not to be a typical retirement. When her daughter Amanda decided to get into the food industry two years later, she called on the one woman she knew who could manage it successfully alongside her.

‘The first day I opened the restaurant here with Amanda I thought, I’ve never done commercial restaurants and we’d probably have all the food left, because I didn’t know what I was doing. And we didn’t have one single thing left the first day.’

Today, Amanda owns two successful cafés in Melbourne called Cooper and Milla, named after her two children, which are thriving and are a source of pride for Tamara. Many of the delicacies on the menu are a throwback to Tamara’s time as a restaurateur, including her famous duck spring rolls.

‘If you’ve got your daughter to become even better than you, you get a lot of pleasure out of it,’ Tamara says.

Tamara’s health has deteriorated since she retired from Cooper and Milla and she spends her days with her extended family around her, relishing their company and love. And, though she may not be as physically strong as she used to be, and while many shared moments are spent shedding tears, the vivaciousness and tenacity that has always been inside her and pushed her on, still remains.

‘When Amanda wanted me to do [Cooper and Milla] with her, it wasn’t so much that I wanted to do it with her, it was more that I wanted to prove to myself that I can still do one more thing.’

She’s proud that for all the hard work that she spent and the time she gave to the food industry, it’s been a passion that she’s managed to pass on to both her children, and hopefully her grandchildren to enjoy. ‘I’m happy to see that they can do it all.’

Tamara Ruben passed away on 21 November 2011, after the time of writing. May her memory be a blessing.

Recipes in this Chapter

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