Sunday, July 4, 2010

When Home is... the Comfort of Food

Before even meeting Natalie and Simon Thomas, owners of The Sydney Picnic Company, it is obvious how friendly and comfortable their home will feel: ‘I will have the kettle on for you’, Nat emails when confirming the time for our interview.

And so it is as I walk into their lovely, tiny, weatherboard workers’ cottage located on a narrow lane hidden behind the main streets of the Sydney suburb of Woollahra. The house is impossibly cute with its white timber walls; bedroom overlooking the lounge area, the brick chimney and fireplace; the dining nook surrounded by windows looking across to the huge old camellia tree in the courtyard; and the long, narrow kitchen running alongside it.

‘We loved this little house as soon as we walked in. It was so cute with so much personality’, says Nat as we sit down at the dining table. Simon adds, ‘Everyone said how English it looked and joked that we came to the other side of the world to find England again.’

It does feel very English – even the name of the lane sounds like it should belong in an English village – and Nat and Simon have always loved old houses. ‘We need our home to have character and soul and I think you often find that in the older houses’, says Simon.

Nat adds, ‘We’re so used to the weather being crap in the UK that we have always felt home had to be a refuge and that feeling hasn’t changed.’

It was food rather than architecture that brought the couple to Australia in 2002. Arriving in Sydney for the first time while on their honeymoon, they ate out every night. ‘We had booked the restaurants before leaving the UK and people gave us money for our meals as wedding presents. It was great, we’d send them photos of us in a restaurant saying “this is the meal you gave us!”’ says Nat.

They both found the Sydney lifestyle to be very refreshing, loving the mix of city and beach and decided to move here soon after. Simon took the opportunity to leave his career in finance behind and move into the food industry, ‘My parents owned a wine bar / bistro so I grew up around food and it was my first job out of school for a few years. Being a family business I didn’t really appreciate what my parents were offering me though and just wanted to hang out with my mates.’

He feels he has come full circle now, ‘Food was always a passion; almost an obsession. Anything outside of work was always geared around food.’

They moved all their furniture from their home in Brighton, England into storage and shipped only eight boxes to Sydney. ‘Luckily we didn’t bring much with us as we hardly have room for furniture here,’ quips Nat. But what they did bring were the essential items needed to make sure they felt at home straight away: ‘We just shipped all our cookery books, Si’s knives and saucepans, any kitchen related stuff and all our bedding. That was enough to make any place feel like ours.’

Indeed it was also food that helped build the foundations of Nat and Simon’s relationship, ‘We were students when we met and during that time my mum had cancer’, says Nat, ‘I moved back in with my parents while mum was undergoing aggressive chemo. Her taste buds were all over the place and Si would come over to visit and we’d say to her “what do you fancy for dinner tonight?” She’d say something creamy or something spicy and we’d go off to the supermarket and cook for her together.'

Both of them still feel the way of showing someone that you love or care for them is best done through cooking, ‘I think food is the nicest gift anyone can give you. So much time goes into thinking about what to cook, then shopping for it, cooking it, clearing it away’, says Nat.

‘How people prepare food is a reflection of their personalities,’ adds Simon, ‘it means a lot when you go around to someone’s house and it’s obvious they have spent a lot of time preparing the meal.’

The couple agree that their favourite past time is having friends over for dinner, ‘When a friend is feeling down, this is where they come. We’ve looked after a lot of broken hearts and there have been a lot of tears on that sofa.’
What do they cook for a broken heart? ‘Definitely a roast’, answers Nat, ‘because when you walk into a house with the smell of meat and potatoes roasting it feels like home. As Nigel Slater says, “one of the best smells in the world is a chicken roasting”.’

Nat’s father passed away recently and on their return to Australia after his funeral friends would ask if she wanted to be on her own. ‘It was the last thing I wanted. I was saying “no, come over for dinner” or we’d go there for dinner. Food and eating with friends has been a massive comfort and I think it helps. In other cultures you feast when someone dies and I like that idea.’

Food is always at the heart of this couple’s life and home, ‘The most money we’ve spent in this house is on the dining chairs’, says Nat, ‘we spend most of our time around this table eating, talking, being together so we knew we’d need really comfortable chairs. We were both brought up in houses where you sat down to eat as a family every night and I still think that is so important. Sitting here we take the time to talk about what we’ve been doing and what we’re cooking.’

And now it has become their shared career too, starting a picnic catering business nearly two years ago. ‘We love having picnics in Sydney because when we arrived with not much money we would get a baguette, some cheese and a bottle of wine, find a spot by the harbour and eat looking at the amazing views feeling so lucky.’

A couple of friends asked Simon to create surprise picnics for them. Nat stitched personalised menus and looked after the presentation while Simon made the food. Their friends were amazed with the result. As Simon says, ‘Their enthusiasm rubbed off and made us think we could give it a go. It was something we could do that combined my love of food and Nat’s love of design.’

At the time Nat was stressed and unhappy working in the design field and they decided it was a now or never time to try working for themselves. It was a gamble that has paid off with the business continuing to grow steadily. They love being a part of other people’s special occasions and receive many emails and photos of their customers enjoying the picnics, so happy they are with the result.

Working together from home has not caused much of a problem either; Nat believes it was tricky at first: ‘a few times we had to say, “I’m just going for a long drive” and a few times we felt like killing each other’ but this is all said in jest and
Simon is quick to add that the transition was in fact quite easy.

What was hard was switching off from thinking about the business at the end of each day. ‘We had to make sure that at 6pm we tidied everything away and switched back to us. At the beginning we couldn’t stop thinking about work and the house stopped feeling like home which was a bit strange’, says Nat.

To rectify this, they converted their front entrance room into an office. ‘We really needed to separate the two spaces. I love doing the stitching and sewing of the menus and now feel I can make a huge mess whereas before it was all over the dining table. Without that separate space our lives became blurred.’

For Nat and Simon, home and food will always define them. ‘Home is such a sacred place,’ says Nat. ‘Every time I walk in here I think how much I love this house even though it’s tiny.’ As she walks me to the front door, she laughs, ‘but if we were somewhere larger I’d really miss not being able to talk to Si while he’s in the kitchen cooking and I’m in the bath a metre away.’

* All photos © Natalie & Simon Thomas

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