The Americas - Corby-Sue Neumann

The Americas - Corby-Sue Neumann

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


Corby-Sue Neumann has an accent that’s hard to place. A mixture of an American and English twang with a bit of Australian thrown in, it says a lot about this Sydney chef’s own family history and childhood.

Born in Adelaide to an Austrian–Jewish father and a New Zealand Maori mother, Corby-Sue was an only child and by the age of three, the family had moved to Toronto in Canada, where her father owned a number of restaurants. It was to be a significant period in Corby-Sue’s life, for it was here that she first learnt how to cook.

‘My father was a classically trained chef and he studied at the Le Cordon Bleu,’ Corby- Sue explains. ‘I knew how to use a proper chef knife and by the time I was 11 I was already julienning.’

Some of her earliest memories involve being woken up by her father at 5 am to head to the food markets, where seeing a young child was an oddity. It was on these excursions that Corby-Sue was introduced to provedores, specialty cheese shops and delis, kick-starting her love affair with good-quality fresh food.

‘I really felt like I was very privileged. I didn’t see other kids there and I really felt like it was secret adult business.’

Corby-Sue was even given the moniker ‘The Sue-Sous Chef’ at one of her father’s Toronto restaurants, where she wore a pink chef’s hat, a chef’s jacket and black-and-white gingham pants made especially in her size, and where she was allowed to devein prawns and prepare sugar snap peas.

Life for Corby-Sue was a dichotomy. While her father managed some of Toronto’s most well known eateries, at home her parents were ‘mad hippies’, with meals often eaten off banana leaves while seated on the floor. But on other occasions, mainly when guests would come to visit, her father’s Austrian influence would kick in and traditional table service and manners were expected.

‘You never put tomato sauce in a bottle on the table, you’d decant it into a crystal dish with a silver spoon,’ Corby-Sue recalls. ‘It was about saying to people, I’m really glad that you’re here and I’ve gone to some effort.’

In an unusual twist, Corby-Sue’s paternal Austrian family spent time each year in India where much of their business was based, meaning not only were Yiddish and German spoken in their household, but Hindi as well. This Eastern experience also influenced her father, who became well known in culinary circles for his fusion cuisine and meant Corby-Sue was often enjoying curries featuring an East-Asian twist.

‘I ate food that came from all around the world,’ she says. ‘I have lots of memories of fragrant aromas.’

Yet while her standard home meals would often encapsulate the most interesting and innovative techniques and tastes, it was often the more traditional but memory-filled dishes that won Corby-Sue’s heart.

The herbed chicken schnitzel included in these pages is a nod to her father’s Austrian background and became a favourite childhood dish when, after announcing she would no longer eat veal due to its origins, Corby-Sue’s father changed the meat to suit her new tastes.

‘Chicken schnitzel was the most simple, mundane meal … it was not at all what I was used to but I loved it because for me, it was a treat to have food like that. I was getting served curries on banana leaves so once in a while I just wanted a piece of schnitzel!’

Another favourite dish was prepared by her father’s mother, who ‘was a terrible cook’ but would make her granddaughter a very well-done steak that Corby-Sue would then smear with mustard.

It’s one of her favourite childhood recollections for, as Corby-Sue explains it, ‘it wasn’t great food but it was the memory behind it’.

And despite the very different family backgrounds of both her parents, Corby-Sue says that the Jewish and Maori cultures had many similarities when it came to food.

‘We both love food and we use it for all the same reasons,’ she says.

As for how the religions co-existed, Corby-Sue says her childhood was typical of a North-American Jewish upbringing, in that it was quite assimilated. There were no Sabbath dinners unless they were invited to a friend’s home, and they didn’t celebrate the Jewish festivals, instead commemorating Christmas and Easter.

Yet her grandmother spoke Yiddish to her and they visited kosher delis often, and while the religious holidays weren’t celebrated, Corby-Sue’s father did try and educate his daughter in Jewish cuisine in his own way.

It was from him that she learnt how to make chopped liver, brisket and the traditional carrot dish known as tzimmes. ‘I just didn’t know which holidays they were associated with!’

The recipe for the Fave Passover macaroons were always made around Easter. Corby- Sue’s father used to tell her they were a special Passover dish, but having never been taken to a traditional Seder, Corby-Sue didn’t know what that meant.

These little Jewish touches made Corby-Sue yearn for more. At the age of seven, the family relocated to Essex in England, where many nights were spent in some of London’s most well known restaurants. It was where Corby-Sue first learnt how to use chopsticks and she put her well-versed Austrian etiquette to good use.

‘Because I’ve gone to school on four different continents, I’ve always been the kid who has the different accent, who is a little bit left of centre but I always got along with everyone,’ she says.

At the age of 10, Corby-Sue moved back to Toronto before her parents divorced and she moved with her mother to Sydney. She lived in a non-Jewish neighbourhood and started to explore different religions, but her Jewish background was proving to have a stronger pull than ever before.

‘I knew that I wasn’t considered Jewish technically because my mother hadn’t converted, so I knew if that was a path I wanted to walk I was going to have to convert,’ she says.

At age 19, Corby-Sue met and fell in love with an Israeli boy called Rafiand promptly moved with him to Israel. Not long after she arrived, she decided she was going to make aliyah, permanently becoming an Israeli citizen.

‘I loved Israel,’ Corby-Sue says. ‘They have a taste that is second to none and I loved Shabbat in Israel … you could smell Shabbat everywhere. You could smell the challot and cakes and the way everyone just knew Shabbat was coming.’

The mushroom and rice dish included in this book was taught to her by Rafi’s mother and was the first Sabbath dish Corby-Sue learnt how to make. Described as a ‘one-pot wonder’, the dish always brings back memories of Israel and celebrating the Sabbath in her newfound home.

On her way back to Australia before making the move to Israel permanently, Corby-Sue suddenly realised it wasn’t meant to be and so decided to stay in Sydney. A year later, at the age of 22, she met her future husband Mark and a few years later, she converted to Judaism.

‘I felt like I’d finally found my place,’ she says. ‘It was always there. As I said to the rabbi when I went to convert … “listen, you can’t knock me back because I’ve just come to reclaim what’s mine anyway”.’

Her husband’s family were South African Jews and through them, Corby-Sue became truly exposed to Jewish culture and traditions for the first time.

She began to celebrate the Jewish festivals, with Sabbath dinners now a weekly tradition. Corby-Sue embraced its meaning and purpose and while she’s now divorced, it’s still something she commemorates with her two children every Friday night.

‘Shabbat is that time for family, that time to sit there and talk about what’s happened that week … it’s about us talking about different stories, it’s the time for being together.’

Corby-Sue’s father had always told his daughter that cooking was a talent that came naturally to her, but with natural talent came the potential to not allow it much value or merit. He suggested she instead try her hand at whatever else she was interested in doing but forewarned her that one day, she’d return to the kitchen and her natural home.

It was to be an epiphany of sorts, for after trying her luck at acting throughout her 20s, then running a café and deli with her husband, Corby-Sue soon turned to children’s cooking classes, which then led to teaching parents, too.

‘I’m doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing,’ she says. ‘If I’m causing people to have a better relationship, or a relationship at all with food and if I’m helping people have a conversation about food, then I’ve done something pretty fabulous.’

And it seems the lessons learnt from her father at such a young age are being shared with her own children, as she often takes them to Sydney’s local provedores and educates them about produce and ingredients.

‘I always say, food is a language and you’ve got to teach the young … and that’s exactly what happened for me. I understood the language from food.’

As for the Jewish influence, Corby-Sue believes it’s something that’s always been inherently within her. And for her children, it’s a tradition and heritage they were lucky to be born into and one she certainly doesn’t take for granted.

‘They have something that I didn’t have. They know exactly who they are. For me as a child and a teenager, I was a bit of a chameleon, I could fit in but what was going on inside was, “I don’t know who I am”.

‘I just want them to know that this is who they are, celebrate it and what they choose to do with that obviously is entirely up to them but I hope it means enough that they’d want to continue it, share it and pass it down.’

Recipes in this Chapter

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