The Americas - Charlie Brown

The Americas - Charlie Brown

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

United States

Charlie Brown’s self-titled clothing label is synonymous with sexy, fun and fearless fashion. Tempting women across the country for more than 15 years, it is a business that Charlie is clearly proud of, having built it from the ground up after following her dreams and passion to stamp out a place for herself in the fashion industry.

Today, Charlie continues to successfully sell her brand both locally and globally and still clearly derives much joy and creativity from her work.

But in the past year, Charlie’s personal focus has inched away just a little from fashion to another creative outlet that she is becoming just as passionate about: cooking.

‘Once I learnt the basics last year, I’ve taken a really keen interest,’ Charlie says. ‘One of the things that I love is you’re working with all kinds of different mediums. One minute you’re squeezing a lime and one minute you’re zesting a lemon, breaking up thyme. You’re getting to use all these different things and create something.’

Growing up in 1960s California, Charlie recalls most of her childhood meals based around ‘mushy peas and bad broccoli’.

She was one of three sisters and both her parents worked long hours, staying up late into the night to provide a good life for their children. As a result, mealtimes were pretty basic, but Charlie believes this was typical of many of the homes in her area during that period.

International cuisines did feature somewhat, with Charlie eating Mexican dishes when she stayed with one grandmother and Italian meals when she went to visit another but otherwise, food just wasn’t that important in her home.

‘I think later when I moved to Australia and my parents were in their retirement, I think that’s when they really loved cooking,’ she says.

At the age of 22, Charlie had married an Australian and found herself on the other side of the world. And while today she believes that this country is producing some of the best dishes around the globe, she wasn’t as convinced in the beginning.

‘I remember nearly being in tears,’ she recalls. ‘When I got here, I remember meat pies, the grocery stores weren’t that exciting, I didn’t know of any of the brands. Today it’s a whole completely different thing.’

But Charlie had to cook, because by age 24 she had given birth to her first child and knew she had to feed her family. By her own admission, she hadn’t fully mastered the technique, and by this time too, she found herself working at the design helm of local label Howard Showers. Life was busy and full and so cooking became a necessity, not a passion.

After Charlie and her first husband were divorced, she met and fell in love with Danny Avidan, who not only became her life partner but her business partner as well, helping her start her eponymous label in 1995.

It was to be a busy year, because at the same time, Charlie began her conversion to Judaism, which would become an intensive three-year process. It was during this period that Charlie was exposed to Jewish culture and tradition, as well as its cuisine for the first time.

‘I really didn’t know much about it. Where I grew up in California, there wasn’t a Jewish population or community that I can remember,’ she says.

Yet suddenly, she found herself in the centre of Sydney’s Jewish community, visiting with the rabbi and his family on Friday nights and learning about a culture that was to become her own. It was one that she soon embraced wholeheartedly.

‘I met amazing people and I learnt amazing things. I just felt it was a very welcoming, calming time, and nurturing. It’s not just a religion, it’s a lifestyle,’ she says.

And part of that lifestyle change was the exposure to Jewish food, which she says really started to make an impact on her during visits to the rabbi’s house.

Her Hungarian mother-in-law would also teach her some of her own specialties, such as the chicken paprika that is still her husband’s favourite, her meat stew known as osso bucco and potato nockerli. But, as Charlie admits, her initial attempts at Jewish cuisine were not always so successful.

‘I had a lot of help from Mrs Grunfelds, from Mrs Moses,’ she says laughingly, naming well-known kosher delicatessens where she’d source many of the traditional Eastern European fare.

But having been invited to her rebbetzin’s house and seeing how well she provided for her large family and the joy it gave her children and husband, Charlie persevered until last year, when she signed herself and a girlfriend up for an intensive six-week cooking course. Inspired to learn the cooking basics to ‘do something a bit more productive’, Charlie and her friend were taken into the kitchen and under the tutelage of Lucas Parsons, a previous contestant on the television show MasterChef.

He taught them the basics, from reducing stock to knowing which flavours to combine with which produce and, due to his wife being Jewish, also provided Charlie with some added traditional touches common to a Jewish home.

It was Lucas who taught Charlie how to make chicken soup and also how to prepare her famous chicken dish, which included how to correctly cut the poultry.

‘Chicken is one of the typical dishes you serve on a Friday night, but I think that this chicken just has an edge,’ she says.

Today, Charlie’s pantry is filled with an assortment of herbs, spices and condiments and she enjoys knowing that whatever a recipe may call for, she’s usually sourced it already due to her growing interest in food.

And because of the confidence that the classes have instilled in her, she now finds herself being naturally more experimental with her Jewish dishes too, serving up an assortment of tastes to her family every Friday night.

‘There are a lot of times when I do Friday nights that I do a beef, I might even do chops,’ Charlie says. ‘Rack of lamb is amazing and then you bring out the salmon at the same time, so it’s meat or fish.’

In Charlie’s house, Sabbath dinners are fundamentally important, as her two youngest children, aged 12 and 10 respectively, start studying for their bar and bat mitzvahs. As her husband goes to synagogue, Charlie finishes off the dinner preparations, allowing herself a bit more flexibility from work these days to truly make these family nights special.

‘I think that it’s important for the children to know that it’s special to be home on a Friday night … they have to be home for dinner,’ she says.

Charlie’s newfound passion for cooking is not something she thinks will diminish, saying for her ‘it’s a release and I don’t have to talk to anybody when I’m doing it, which is fantastic, you’re just in your world’.

And while she admits that Judaism’s kosher food laws mean there are restrictions on what can and can’t be prepared, she’s enjoying exploring her creativity to see how she can produce traditional meals with her own distinctive style, like she would with her clothing.

And whether it’s adding aioli to her egg salad or creating delectable challah French toast with berries for her children to enjoy, Charlie’s newfound cooking passion hasn’t gone unnoticed by the people around her.

‘My mother-in-law has been with me for 17 years and hasn’t seen me take an interest, really,’ Charlie explains. But recently, she made a comment to her son about the dishes that were being produced in their kitchen: ‘Charlie is cooking with love.’

Recipes in this Chapter

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