Hetty McKinnon Remixes Cacio e Pepe

“Family food doesn't have to be fancy.

Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Before Hetty McKinnon authored the cookbooks Community and Neighborhood and Family, she had a small but viral neighborhood salad-delivery service in Australia called Arthur Street Kitchen and wrote a blog by the same name. She also now operates a food journal, Peddler, and recently launched a podcast, The House Specials. She joined us at the Union Square Greenmarket to demo cacio e pepe beans and greens, and spoke to us about moving from Sydney to New York, the misconceptions about vegetarian cooking, and her next cookbook.

I grew up in Sydney, Australia, and I had my three babies there in quick succession. I was working part-time freelance for a local PR agency and they'd asked me to come on full-time. I thought to myself, As a woman, you're quite lucky sometimes to get these breaks in your career. But do I really want to go back to doing PR? Is this my passion?

Up until that point, I had not wanted to work in food. It was not a dream of mine, but while the kids were little, I'd started cooking more at home, and I had discovered the world of cookbooks. I discovered this world of flavor and spice.

I discovered this world of flavor and spice. 

I started cooking these big vegetarian meals. I've been a vegetarian for 25 years. And I just thought, Well, I love salads, and even though the food is so incredible in Sydney, in my neighborhood, I couldn’t find the style of food that I was making at home.

I thought to myself, I'm just going to make some salads, put them on the back of a bike, and deliver them around the neighborhood. It was just this fun thing for me to do. It was old-school and it remained that way. It was never an app; it wasn't a tech company. I had a manual mailing list, and I would send out an email every Wednesday, and people would just order via email. People would just literally hit reply and email back their order. Despite having a background in PR, I decided that I didn't want to promote the business. I wanted it to grow via word of mouth. This was 2011.

It was called Arthur Street Kitchen. This all took place out of my home, where I cooked. I didn't want it to be a big business; it was just meant to be something that was quite meaningful — for a person to actually cook your food and bring it to you and having that whole complete chain from start to finish.

It grew on its own, and quickly, as people started telling each other about it. But I was always doing everything myself, and my first child was only 1 at the time. So, about two years into the business, I wrote down all the recipes — up until that point, I'd never written recipes before — but people kept asking. I'm not a chef; I still don't call myself a chef. Then there was this one week during my deliveries when three different customers said to me, “You should write a cookbook.”

I decided to make a book because I wanted it to be beautiful. I didn't want to just keep emailing recipes around. That first book, called Community, has never been released in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world, actually, other than Australia. It sold out in three weeks, and I was mailing them all out. It was like, Whoa, what's going on? Why does everyone want this book? It wasn't just people in my neighborhood who'd been eating my salads for the last two or three years; there was a national demand.

Then that book got picked up by a publisher, and it’s now an Australian classic. It's actually being rereleased in two months as a fifth-anniversary edition, with new recipes and stories about people who've been cooking from the book. In Australia, my book really changed the landscape of food and the way home cooks saw vegetables. Over the years, I've had just so many emails and messages from people about how that book has changed the way they live, the way they eat, the way they cook together. That spirit of Community has gone from this tiny little concept to this national movement.
I’d always wanted to live in New York, and my husband’s job relocated us. It came at a time when I felt I had to take my business in Sydney either to the next level or do something else, because it was getting really out of control. I thought I could go to Brooklyn and start all over again.

I always feel that my personal and my professional lives are the same. The work that I do and the food that I cook is so much of a reflection of what I'm doing at home, and vice versa. So, to me, cooking is not a chore. It started as a connection with the community; now it's a way of me connecting with my children. To have that family meal at the end of the day is such an anchor in modern life.

I don't cook fancy meals at home ever, really. My dinners usually take 10 or 15 minutes. And don't get me wrong: We get takeout like every other person, but it needs to be an extenuating circumstance for me to order food during the week, which is ironic because I think for a lot of people it's probably the other way around.

A home-cooked meal, whether it's tomato soup with cheese toast, is a mind-set. In my latest book, Family, I tried to communicate that in the recipes. Family food doesn't have to be fancy. It shouldn't be fancy, actually.

A home-cooked meal, whether it's tomato soup with cheese toast, is a mind-set.

The biggest misconception about vegetarian cooking is that it's boring. I do think, though, that it requires more thinking — a consideration of how you're going to cook to make it interesting. And I don't think that's a bad thing. It can be as simple as roasting your cauliflower and then adding a spice like cumin — sprinkling some on before you roast it.

At the Greenmarket, when we were cooking the broccolini in Deep Cut, people were so shocked because I wasn't boiling at first. Because that's what people's instant reaction is, that you have to boil the vegetable. I almost never boil vegetables because you're not adding any flavor in that mode of cooking.

The cacio e pepe beans and greens that I made at the Greenmarket is probably one of my favorite recipes in the book, and from what I've seen, it's one that people have cooked frequently. I think it's because it's really simple. It's a familiar flavor. Cacio e pepe is my favorite pasta dish. If it's on the menu, it's going to be in front of me. I'll eat it any which way. But I don't want to eat a bowl of pasta every night for dinner. The dish is symbolic of the way I cook.
Photos by Vincent Tullo
There's an Asian chapter in Family that has some of the recipes I grew up eating, that my mum would make for me. And so my next book — which won’t be out in the U.S. until 2021 — is a deeper dive into the way my food reflects who I am as a person. It’s going to be an Asian cookbook, but with all these other influences. It's not particularly traditional, but it encapsulates who I am, which is a third-culture kid. It’s a great way of describing this whole generation, where you've grown up in a country that's different from where your parents grew up. You are a melting pot of who they are and their values and their traditions.

It's not particularly traditional, but it encapsulates who I am, which is a third-culture kid.

Food is emotional. And it should be emotional. I feel like in the late 2000s there was so much of this fast-paced cooking. When people read my stories, I really want them to really feel something.