Where do you begin to describe Geoff Slattery and his constant, occasionally frenzied search for perfection? A former sports editor whose greatest joy after deadline was to munch happily on a clove of garlic? A writer who can weave into a story about coucous a sporting snapshot of modern life. A father, food critic and former restaurateur who tasted the perfect fruit cake at a local fete and launched a city-wide manhunt in search of its anonymous creator?

His guises might be varied, but all are inspired by the same spirit, and all of them appear in this, his first book. Michael Leunig, celebrated cartoonist and poet, who has worked with Geoff at the Age and theSunday Age and whose works hung in Slattery’s restaurant, describes his long-time colleague as ‘an ANZAC of the table. There is a courage about his work. If there be a mythology to the Australian character, then Geoff has it. It is not crude and patriotic, it is a robust joy that he brings into his food. He is not stifled by his education; he brings it outside into the Australian sunshine.’

Where did he begin? Not many of his colleagues know that Geoff Slattery began his working life, at seventeen, in a Melbourne accountant’s office. However, this attempt at an ordered professional life was shortlived. A year later, in 1971, he entered newspapers, joining Truth as a racing cadet journalist.

Geoff became a sports writer for the Australian in 1977, before crossing to the Age in 1979. At the Age he enjoyed a distinguished four-year tenure as a sportswriter and columnist, winning the National Press Club’s major sports feature writing award in 1981 for a story on Jack ‘Captain Blood’ Dyer.

I was a junior sportswriter at the other end of town with the Melbourne Herald when, in 1983, a colleague hung up his hotline and announced with some mirth that ‘Slatts’ had quit the Age to open up a sandwich shop in King Street. How wrong the messenger was, and how wrong we were to laugh.

But we weren’t the only ones.

‘He was buying meat from my butcher’, recalls Iain Hewitson, perhaps the most successful restaurant entrepreneur in his field. ‘I didn’t know him but my butcher told me about this sportswriter from the Age who was opening up this restaurant. I said: “Well, he’ll last about three minutes.” We all said it. But it was a very brave thing to do, done in sheer ignorance, of course, and Geoff was very pugnacious. His restaurant was very good and Geoff became a sort of jack-of-all-trades in the kitchen and the dining room, with no experience, and we all stopped sneering.’

There were others from the turbulent world of AFL football who regretted his departure.

‘He was the best Australian Rules football writer in Australia,’ says one of the sport’s most enduring gurus, Graeme Richmond.

Journalistic colleagues, of course, still enjoy a laugh at Geoff’s eccentricities. Peter Smark, senior columnist for the Fairfax Group, between chortles, has this to say:

‘I think Geoff was very upset that only about four episodes of Fawlty Towers were ever made. So he was determined to carry on the tradition. The unknown factor about eating at Slattery’s was not the standard of the food, which was always excellent, but the state of the liver of the proprietor. If he was in a bad mood he would abuse more customers per square metre than Basil Fawlty.’

My memories, from a brief tenure as a Saturday night waitress at Slattery’s, are a little different. Geoff controlled his ship totally; he toiled, he tasted, he listened, he gave orders, he thought, he read and he wrote – but he never yelled. In the restaurant, as in the sports department, teamwork was all.

Not that he ever stopped writing in those restaurant days.

‘He wrote a very good article about his first night at the restaurant,’ says Iain Hewitson, ‘and the ice-cream, which he had made so often at home, which didn’t set. It’s happened to all of us of course, but he’s one of the few who wasn’t too embarrassed to admit it. I respect him a lot more as a food critic for that reason.’

‘He was the first person to say to me: “Go out and read something, and learn from it”‘ says leading Australian chef Greg Brown. ‘He is an academic chef. He is tireless in his reading, and if there’s an obscure chef doing something new in Italy, he’ll know about it. Geoff’s about the only food critic you can trust to transfer his views to the plate. We disagree on a whole range of issues, but he backs up all his arguments with examples and he executes those examples.’

‘He proceeds from a position of goodwill,’ says Stephanie Alexander, the renowned food writer and restaurateur. ‘He really wants to have a good time and he never sets out to be harsh and funny like some critics. I’ve been on the wrong side of his reviews, but I’m comfortable with that because I believe he is fair. I don’t mind having a disagreement with him – and we’ve had a few over the years – because he is intelligent. And if he tastes something he likes, he is very generous in his praise.’

This is a view shared by the sports writers who worked under Geoff Slat- tery at the now departed Melbourne Herald -the pages of which he transformed when he was sports editor between 1987 and 1989 (and he still ran

the restaurant for his first year in the job) – and the Sunday Age, whose nationally acclaimed sports section he created in 1989 and guided for its first twelve months.

Although his food columns and restaurant reviews continue to grace the Sunday Age, Geoff again departed full-time newspaper work in the middle of 1990 to establish a publishing company, The Text Media Group. While this book is largely a collection of his recipes published in theHerald and the Sunday Age between 1987 and 1991, some readers may recognise the philosophies he expounds weekly on Doug Aiton’s high-rating radio program on the ABC’s 3LO in Melbourne.

‘Geoff Slattery’, says Doug, ‘is a long, lean, anxious peasant (and I mean that in the nicest sense of the word) who came on my 3LO program to talk about food and now gets more mail than I do. His approach to food is basic and earthy and tough. His approach to radio is bewildered and terrified. His impact is magical.’

Caroline Wilson, June 1991