Started by Stephanie Alexander and her Jamaican husband, Monty, mainly as a way to sell products imported from the West Indies, Jamaica House served curries, Jamaican escoveitched fish and a mean pumpkin soup. It quickly became an institution on Lygon Street, Carlton.
Stephanie Alexander was a librarian, not a trained chef, but says her mother gave her a love of food and understanding of the place of good food in a full life. In her biography, she describes herself as an “accidental chef”.
Her first restaurant, Jamaica House, was founded with her then-husband Rupert Montague, known as Monty. The couple had met in London and, on returning to Australia, saw the restaurant as a way to generate an income. The restaurant closed after a couple of years but re-opened in other premises with Tony Bilson as the chef. However, shortly afterwards, the marriage ended, as did Jamaica House.
Stephanie Alexander soon seized the opportunity to work with Mietta O’Donnell and Tony Knox at Mietta’s in North Fitzroy. In 1976 she opened the first Stephanie’s restaurant in Fitzroy, with an emphasis on classic French dishes. The first restaurant was modest in size, but soon built a reputation for exceptional food. It inspired her to go on to bigger things.
In 1980, Stephanie moved her restaurant to a grand mansion in Hawthorn where the setting would live up to the quality of the food. She and her family lived upstairs from the restaurant. Some years later, with her business partner Dara Dure-e, Stephanie moved out and installed a second kitchen and dining room upstairs. The investment involved was considerable – and ill-timed. The recession in the early 1990s hit the business hard but the publication of her book “The Cook’s Companion” in 1996 provided Stephanie with enough capital to buy out her partner, pay off her debts and, in 1997, close the restaurant.
Although she retained an interest in the (now closed) Richmond Hill Cafe and Larder, Stephanie largely abandoned the restaurant business and devoted herself to other projects, notably the School Garden Program.