I always called myself a home cook: Hetty McKinnon’s New York neighbourhood

Former Sydneysider turned Brooklyn local, Hetty McKinnon is a self-described home cook who revived the humble salad, and gave it new life through her thriving delivery business, and two acclaimed books packed with recipes. Now she’s back with a magazine about food culture, created in her new neighbourhood. She speaks to Aerostorie about leaving Sydney, moving to London, and eventually, migrating her family of five — and her many projects — to New York.

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“I think I always wanted to live somewhere else. I just feel like there is a whole world out there, and living in Australia you sometimes feel like you're very far away from everything else. That obviously has its advantages, but for me, I just like to throw myself in the deep-end and push myself out of my comfort zone.

The first time I left Australia, it was hard. We had a really hard time settling into London. I was in my 20s, and for the first year I really hated it and wanted to go home. Essentially, I don't really like working for other people. I worked for myself in Sydney before moving to London.

In London I worked for an agency for, like, four years. I grew to love it. Now, I do love London. I feel like it's my spiritual home. I love so many things about it. The aesthetics, the architecture and a lot of the culture there.

Then we had kids, so we came home. I was really happy to go home, because I really wanted to be with my mum. That was my calling. Sydney's an easier life — an easier place to be with children I think. But I found it really hard.

The first year back, I just felt really out of place. I was in a very different situation than I when I had lived in Sydney before. My life had changed because I had children.

But then we established this great community, and that's when Arthur Street Kitchen started.

Coming to New York, it wasn't actually planned that far in advance. An opportunity came up. At the time, Arthur Street Kitchen was riding high. It started off as this little business at home, and it was still a little business at home.

The book had come out nationally, and was really popular. I had reached a stage of the business where I was like: I don't know what the next step is.

A very big part of that business was that I did everything. I thought of what I was going to make, I made the food and I delivered the food. From concept to completion, it was just one person doing it and I loved it so much.

It was a kind of magical business, because people received the food in the spirit that I made it. There was just this wonderful, symbiotic relationship between the cook and the diner.

But when the book came out, a lot of people wanted to jump on the bandwagon and it was growing and I just couldn't really handle how popular it was getting, because I wanted to keep it small.

I could have just gone out and hired people, and gone bigger, but I didn't want that. It wasn't the point of the business.

Neighbourhoods are different. And people are different. The concept that works in one place might not necessarily work in another.

And then there was some talk of New York, and then I just really jumped on that, and made it happen.

We always wanted to live in New York. We wanted to do it before we had kids. We had gone in the green card lottery. Twice. We actually got it the second time, but we'd just moved to London and kind of thought, we can't do it now.

I kind of feel like we were destined to come here. I just didn't think it would be with three children. But you've got to take your opportunities where they come.

I really thought, well, if I'm going to go anywhere to do this business and try and take the concept to another city, I thought New York or Brooklyn is the place to do it.

I guess that was, subconsciously, my answer to not knowing what to do in Sydney and growing the business. I just take it somewhere else and start all over again, to create that smallness again.

But it didn't really turn out that way. I grew in a different way. I came here, and with social media everybody knows you're here.

Everyone expects you to do things a certain way. I came here with no expectations, but with an idea that I would start this business, and do it, and build it again, the same way I did in Sydney.

But what I learnt was: neighbourhoods are different. And people are different. The concept that works in one place might not necessarily work in another.

New York has these crazy health and sanitation rules. You can't cook from home, even if you're just going in and out of a commercial kitchen you have to have licences. And every piece of paper costs, like, US$300.

And people would say, ‘You should open a cafe, we love this food, you should open a cafe’.

In typical New York fashion, I became — I think for like almost two years — really overstimulated by all the possibilities. And I found it really hard to actually decide or land on one thing that I thought: this is the incarnation of Arthur Street Kitchen in Brooklyn, this is how I make it.

I did a lot of pop-ups in those 18 months. I did a regular pop-up every Sunday at a cafe that was not being used.

Every time I did these things it was very well received. But I think, at the end of the day, I really just wanted my own base.

I did salads subscriptions for four months of last year, where I tried to replicate this ‘delivering food on a bike’ scenario. But I had to cook from a commercial kitchen. So I would go to a commercial kitchen in Williamsburg. I would cook there for four hours. I would schlep everything back home and then get my bike and ride around the neighbourhood.

But Americans are different. They don’t want to have a chat on the doorstep like Australians do. Everyone would say ‘Oh, just leave it at the door, I'll get it when I get home’.

It was all those elements that I really loved about the business in Sydney — the cooking from home and just throwing it on my bike, and taking it around the corner and talking to people as I delivered them food. All those elements weren't really there.

I kind of had to regroup and think how do I do this without going down the line of opening a cafe, because owning a cafe in New York is really hard work. It isn't my raison d'être for serving food. It's not to create volume or to serve lots of people and make lots of money out of it. That's not my reason for cooking.

Just very recently — well for most of this year — I've been working on this studio, this test kitchen, which has been open for a month. That's my base. I'm doing it with a friend and she kind of does a similar thing to me.

For a long time we were looking for a space where we could build a really big kitchen where we can do everything that we can't currently do from home. We rent it full-time, but I can just go whenever I need it.

We built it to look like a home kitchen, so it's very big. It's really beautiful. The feedback we've had is that it feels really warm and homely, so that's kind of the idea of it. We're really thrilled with that.

What I did realised very early on is that I wanted to create these small food experiences in New York. Like, in the biggest city in the world.

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Moving with children makes you settle into a city faster than it does without children. When you arrive, you are much more targeted. So when you move, you move for the school. You do all this research.

Prior to arriving in New York, our entire research was about schools. I know a few Australians in this area who've moved with children, and everyone lives here because of the school. All the research about where we live was related to the public school in that area and what school we were for zoned for.

When you get the place, you move in and kids start school and you're in a routine already. It creates an instant community when you have kids at school, because you instantly have people to talk to. That was pretty interesting, but I do compare that experience to moving to London and not really knowing anyone and having to make friends, having to find a job, and then, find friends through the job. It was just a really different experience.

We learned to live so minimally. We left Australia in the October of 2014 and we travelled for a couple of months through Europe before we came to New York. We lived out of two suitcases — five people out of two suitcases. I say this, and people think I'm joking, but I'm not.

Then we got here. I remember feeling, after living so minimally for two months, ‘I don’t want this stuff’. Let's get rid of all this stuff from my life, and I'd be a lot happier.

Anyway, we've accumulated a lot since we've been here.

When we moved, the kids were 4, 6 and 8. That was part of the reason that we really wanted them to move. We lived in an amazing neighbourhood in Sydney. They knew everyone, and they’d never really had to make friends before. They knew these kids from birth, basically. They went to the same pre-school, and they go to the same primary school.

I felt like, with our kids, it was such a charmed childhood, that I'm like — this is actually not that real. In the bubble of Australia, everything’s so easy. They could have just existed. They could have gone through all the way to year 12, having known these kids their whole life.

I just thought, I really want them to feel a bit uncomfortable. And to learn how to deal with feeling uncomfortable, and learning to fit in somehow. I think it’s a great life skill.

Hetty's newest project, Peddler. (Jeremy Smart for Aerostorie)

Hetty's newest project, Peddler. (Jeremy Smart for Aerostorie)

New York is the weirdest city ever! Where we live is pretty normal, and that's one of the reasons we wanted to live here. It’s very safe and the kids ride their bikes outside and it’s fine.

I’ve been doing all these book signings and I did one at the Greenmarket last week at Union Square, and the personalities are just hilarious, and a bit troublesome sometimes. But that's New York for you.

I feel like, everyone in New York, no matter where they are or what stage of life they’re at, kind of feels like, at some point, they can be somebody. I don't know if they really want to be, but there’s a kind of bravado or something about people that live here.

The scary thing is people can get very lost in the system. It's an expensive place to live. There's a lot of older people who just... I don't know how they live, to be honest. They live in these rent-controlled apartments. They use those coupons. I don’t know. It's just so vast — the very rich to the very poor, and everything in between. It’s a fascinating place. I’m still trying to work it all out.

Everybody asks: ‘How long are you staying? Are you going to move back?’ I don't know how to answer that question. It just fascinates people for some reason.

With kids it's harder, because they’re getting older. When they first got here they were young, and now my daughter's just started a new school. She’s in middle school here. And everything they're learning is so Americanised already.

My little one, he started school here and started getting an accent when he first started. And then it went away. They kind of go in and out.

I have a feeling, my oldest, she would probably speak in a different way at school. And then when she comes home she'll probably go back to her Australian accent. In the first year or so she was very self-conscious about speaking in class because she knew that she sounded different.

I remember that actually, when I moved to London. I worked in this open-plan office and I was working in PR. During those days there was a lot of talking on the phone. I remember just feeling really self-conscious about making phone calls because everyone in the office was English, everyone just knew it was me when I started talking, because I spoke differently to everyone else. I do remember feeling self-conscious about that.

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I don’t see myself as a professional chef. People call me that because they don't know what to say. I always called myself a ‘home cook’ in Australia. Then, when I got here my agent — I have a literary agent here — said you can't call yourself a ‘home cook’. Americans don't understand that.

She said, well, you can call yourself an entrepreneur. She calls me an entrepreneur in her official literature. I guess in a broad sense, that's correct. But I still see myself as a home cook.

The way my mother cooked for the family, I guess, is my biggest influence. That generosity. It was almost like a need to feed. It was just what made her happy. And that's what makes me happy.

I talk about wanting to keep my business small, because serving 100 people a day is not the point of what I want to do. I think that definitely comes from that because when I feed someone it makes me really happy. So I want that to kind of savour that experience.

Someone asked me this question the other day, and I thought it was really interesting: ‘When you create a recipe, what are you thinking of?’

I'm thinking of the final person who’s using that recipe. The person who is cooking it and in what context they’re going to be cooking it and how they should be feeling when they're cooking it and how they're going to feel when they eat it, or how they're going to feel when they're served it to somebody else. It comes back to the reason why I cook.

The happiness of the person that you're feeding is what keeps me going.”


Aerostorie looks inside the pages of Peddler’s first issue, Hetty's latest publication which explores the food culture of New York’s Chinatown and we also learn to cook a dish deeply treasured by Hetty; her pho noodle salad with tofu, wombok and broccolini from her first book, Neighbourhood.