For the host of SBS’s RocKwiz and Eurovision, growing up among the chaos, company and camaraderie of her parents’ restaurant kitchen led to a lifelong love of hospitality – whether that be waiting on a table of regulars or entertaining an audience.
Julia Zemiro

26 Aug 2012 - 5:58 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2013 - 9:31 AM

Picture it: The Home Cooking Restaurant, Bondi Road, 1971. For $1.25, you could get a three-course meal: soup, a roast of your choice with vegies, and dessert. My father cooked, my mother waitressed (she also taught at a secondary school during the day), and we lived above the restaurant. It was a quick trip down the stairs to work. I was five.

I was born a child of service. I like to help – always have, always will – it’s in my DNA. For many summers, my father was a waiter: a young Gregory Peck doppelganger, circa 1957, in Saint-Tropez, not far from his birthplace, Aix en Provence.

When we came to Australia in 1969, he found a job at Le Trianon on Orwell Street in Kings Cross, one of the best restaurants in Sydney at the time. French-looking, French-sounding, Dad’s promotion to maétre d’ was a lay down misère, but he also wanted to be his own boss at some point, and that’s where The Home Cooking Restaurant came in.

But, there was no French food. Not a baguette in sight. Instead, there was English fare, with people drinking bottomless cups of tea rather than coffee. French food at that time was considered posh and expensive, and this family restaurant for locals was an excellent going concern with lots of 'goodwill’.

Living above a restaurant had obvious advantages. I would often, after having my own dinner upstairs in front of the telly, sneak down into the restaurant for company. It was always full and we had a few lovely regulars. My favourite was an old man I called Grandfather. His name was Mick and he’d come to eat at The Home Cooking every night after the pub. His nose was always red, which I always asked about, to which he’d reply he had a cold. He would let me sit on his lap and I would 'help’ him finish his dinner.

I remember another night coming downstairs to return my empty plate and the kitchen was in full swing. I walked through the service area where Mum was dishing up tapioca and rhubarb, and our regular waitress – a tough old bird called Mary, all crinkle-cut wavy hair which she set weekly at a salon – was onto the steamed pudding.

I poked my head into the back kitchen where Dad was serving up the roast. He was dripping with sweat and red in the face. It was the first time I registered that his work was actually physically tiring. I went back upstairs, got a face washer, wet it, wrung it out and came back down. I still remember him breaking into the biggest smile. I had literally transformed him. Why would you not be of service?

Is it any wonder then, after living in restaurants, sitting in kitchens and folding napkins that I, too, would wait tables? And I loved it. To me, it’s an honourable profession to be taken seriously. It’s about liking people, making contact, being observant and never sycophantic, and getting the job done.

So in my teens and early 20s, whether it was waitressing at my dad’s French restaurant in the Sutherland Shire, or that Swiss fondue place in Bondi Junction, or the CBD businessman’s lunch pit where I wore fishnets and leather skirts, and received amazing tips, or indeed the novelty American-run joint in Darling Harbour where I dressed as a Hungarian gypsy for a year, serving up buffalo wings and prime rib, while singing Happy Birthday to the tune of the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, I liked being of service very much.

For a part-time job to get through university and acting college, give me waitressing any day over telemarketing where you invade people’s privacy at home. In a restaurant, most people are willing participants; they’ve walked into 'my’ place. I also preferred it to working in retail, where the exchange is only fleeting. As a waitress, you had at least half an hour to create some kind of connection.

But back to life in Bondi. The Home Cooking Restaurant would open at 5pm and close at 8pm, so our clientele were families and pensioners. It was quite a good gig really. We had a huge backyard, a little yellow Honda, a Hills hoist and a cat I loved. My bedroom upstairs overlooked bustling Bondi Road. I would get up in the middle of the night and sit on the sill to watch the 2am traffic go by, and wonder about tomorrow and, if after school, I would be able to play with our Czechoslovakian neighbour’s daughter.

I can’t remember her name now, but she had blonde hair, which she tied back in two of the longest plaits, always with red ribbons at the end, while I had a haircut like a boy. Her parents had a Czech restaurant to the right of us, there was a Greek greengrocer on the left, a chocolate shop across the road run by Hungarians, and just a quick double-decker bus-ride up the road would get you to the lightest, flakiest croissants, which to this day, I can’t quite find again.

And there was a kind of food schizophrenia in our kitchen because Dad served English food, but we ate French on the weekends: whole artichokes, radishes with butter and salt, avocado and vinaigrette, stews, ratatouille, and hot chocolate made with real melted chocolate. Sometimes I would crave a devon sandwich, but Dad refused to buy it.

Many of our French friends were Australian-born language teachers like my mum, or were in the food world. I would beg my dad every Saturday to take me to The Asterix milk bar on Oxford Street in Paddington, run by my dad’s best friend, to see his daughter Veronique, who was my best friend. We would rehearse ABBA songs for hours on end and make costumes. When the time came for Vero to return to France, I was devastated, so we prepared a farewell ABBA concert for the party. But we would never perform to our parents and their friends because I fell asleep. I just crashed. We were nine. I don’t think Veronique ever forgave me. I think of her at every Eurovision.

I remember my dad quitting smoking during that time. He just went cold turkey one day and kept a huge bag of Minties high out of my reach on the top of the shelf to get him through the cravings. The radio would be on and he would listen to The Naked Vicar and The Goon shows for a laugh, and to improve his English.

I associate so many smells with living around and working in restaurants, but there is one in particular that always comes to mind. If you have ever worked in a kitchen, you’ll know the smell I mean. It’s not unpleasant, but it’s kind of fatty, stale, and sweet and salty, and even when you clean up that kitchen good and proper, it lingers a little"¦ it’s in the walls I guess. While I don’t love that smell, it’s strangely comforting.

I had a little fantasy last year when I was in Paris. I was staying for a week on rue Montorgueil, a magnificent stretch of street for pedestrians only that’s filled with market stands and cafes. Every day, I had breakfast at the same cafe. It was not the fanciest or funkiest, but I seriously thought about getting a job there for a month. I wanted to be anonymous in another city and do that one thing – serving folk: 'Une bière, un kir, un apéritif," and ruminating on the day to come or the day just been.

As a waitress, I have been a counsellor, a comedian and attitude wrangler. I miss it. And it’s hard work. Obviously. But my favourite customer-waitress relationship was always one of mutual respect. 'Good evening. Tonight I am going to let you know when it’s coming, from where and how." Is it any wonder I host a show for a living? On RocKwiz, I still feel my job is to welcome people, make them feel comfortable on stage with us, and let them play – except there’s no food, but there’s plenty of drink afterwards.