It started with four salads and a granny trolley – and ended up changing more lives (and cooking routines) than anyone expected.
In May 2011, Hetty McKinnon began delivering home-made salads to locals in her Sydney neighbourhood of Surry Hills. Her humble business, Arthur Street Kitchen (named after her street address), allowed her to work from home while looking after her kids. It was way less intense than her previous job in PR, where hanging out with supermodel Helena Christensen on a leaky boat in Peru was just another day at the office.
The orders were slow at first: she only sold four salads, which she wheeled around with a granny trolley. But soon things took off: pre-orders for salads would sell out in 10 minutes, and the beetroot and chickpea salads with lemon and saffron yoghurt from her first menu would eventually notch up distances far beyond the Surry Hills postcode where she first hand-delivered them.
As Arthur Street Kitchen grew, so did the amount of recipe requests she received. To keep up, McKinnon self-published a cookbook of dishes called Community.
The first print run was gone in three and a half weeks.
Plum (a Pan Macmillan publishing imprint) picked up the book in 2014 and the book has since sold and sold and sold. In five years, it has notched up 100,000 sales and has inspired the new fifth anniversary edition of Community, which comes with bonus recipes and stories of people who have enthusiastically made (and remade) her hefty, flavour-packed salads: from her soba noodles with spicy fried edamame and eggplant to her barbecued corn and roasted pumpkin with black beans and jalapeño sour cream. The beetroot and chickpea salad that she first wheeled to her first customers all those years ago? That's a Community fixture, too.
McKinnon's updated book is dedicated to "all the home cooks around Australia who turned my passion for salads into a global community". In its pages, she writes: "In my world, salads are the ultimate sharing food." Readers all over the world have connected with this.
"In my world, salads are the ultimate sharing food."
"One of the greatest surprises to me has been how diverse the Community audience has been. There are literally no geographic, age or social boundaries to Community," she says.
Not long after it was first published, she found it on the shelves of a small Paris café. She has received emails from people who purchased the book "on the black market" and heard of salad-avoiding husbands now enthusiastically barbecuing broccoli after reading her recipes.
"I recently received an email from a woman in Barcelona who started a vegan lunch delivery business after a friend gave her a copy of Community," she says. "The impact of Community has spread far and wide."
Locally, the book has had loud champions, such as journalist Annabel Crabb, who has endorsed Community on her popular podcast. I've seen the book on the kitchen bench or bookshelf of nearly every home I've visited. McKinnon's Arthur Street Kitchen origins still live on – even though she relocated to New York in 2015.
"When I was in Australia last time, I bumped into several of the old crew around Surry Hills who used to order my salads. One of them told me that, after I left, they started up their own 'salad club' where they would each cook a salad from Community and bring it to work every Thursday (one of my original delivery days)," she says. "I loved that they kept the tradition alive.
"Just the other day, a home cook told me she used Community to cater for her own wedding." (It was a hit and many guests asked for the recipes afterwards). "That is so humbling, to think that people see these recipes as special enough to serve at their own wedding."
"That is so humbling, to think that people see these recipes as special enough to serve at their own wedding."
In the new Community edition, McKinnon writes that "the best cookbooks are usually the dirtiest" and she's been thrilled to see how 'trashed' people's copies of her book have become – with Instagram sightings of the pages getting greased with oil and crusted with food stains.
"This makes me so happy," she says. "At one of my book signings, a lady brought along her copy of Community which had notes written for each recipe, of every time she had cooked the dish and who she had served it to. That's dedication, right?"
While Community has inspired people to embrace vegetables all over the world, McKinnon credits her Australian family for making the initial idea and her salad-making business possible.
"I could not have started Arthur Street Kitchen if it wasn't for my mum," she says. "At the time, my youngest child, Huck, was only 12 months old. While I was cooking and delivering, she would come and help me look after Huck, while being my unofficial sous-chef, washing and chopping vegetables."
"I could not have started Arthur Street Kitchen if it wasn't for my mum."
"I would go out for deliveries and come home to 20kg of Brussels sprouts washed and trimmed, the butternut pumpkins all perfectly peeled and lined up on the kitchen island, while also making lunch for Huck and putting him down for a nap. These days were so special to me."
Arthur Street Kitchen brought her closer to her mother – and she credits her mum for introducing the Chinese flavours in her dishes: "the use of black fungus in my salads felt risky at the time, but my mother, who never made salads herself (apart from Chinese jellyfish salad), encouraged me to try it as an ingredient.
"I was surprised when my customers loved it, and was similarly intrigued when the seaweed salad, which was also my mother's idea, which I assumed would be too 'out there' for my local audience, also became a popular recipe."
Community didn't just connect McKinnon with her mother, but many dedicated readers of the book. The new anniversary edition shares some of their stories, whether it's Melanie Hansche and Jason Hoy (Arthur Street Kitchen regulars who have since opened a café in Pennsylvania and have served Community's za'atar-roasted carrots with farro and blood orange maple dressing) to Sarah Ponthieu and Nicholas Granger, who discovered Community in Melbourne but became McKinnon's neighbours in Brooklyn, New York (by total coincidence!).
Then there's Amy Low, a friend who remembers sitting at McKinnon's kitchen table, back in Surry Hills, hearing the yet-to-be-published author talk about plans for her first cookbook.
Low has since made Community's spicy fried edamame with eggplant and soba noodles many times: each serve is a flashback to the many conversations they had in McKinnon's old Sydney neighbourhood together.
"I felt really shocked that Community had won so many fans in my absence."
McKinnon admits she was caught off-guard by people's attachment to the book. She relocated to New York six months after Plum released it, so "I had no idea of how far and wide Community had spread," she says.
The author recalls getting a 36-hour-flight from New York to Australia for Perth Writers Festival nearly two years later, and it wasn't the jet lag that stunned her – but the fact people recognised her and wanted to talk to her.
"Honestly, I felt really shocked that Community had won so many fans in my absence. That was when I realised that Community had truly taken on a life of its own, which was almost independent of me, or Arthur Street Kitchen.
"It became a cult classic, all on its own, a people-powered success story propelled by the simple act of sharing food," she says. "It's the 'people's cookbook'. That's why people know me more as the 'salad lady' than 'Hetty McKinnon'. I kind of prefer it that way."
Community: New Edition by Hetty McKinnon is out now.
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