Peter Russell-Clarke: the bearded bloke with a passion for art and food

Peter Russell-Clarke: the bearded bloke with a passion for art and food

Long before our screens were filled with celebrity chefs and tearful contestants fretting over bombe-alaska and croquembouche, there was a friendly, bearded Aussie bloke known as Peter, G'day, Russell, G'day, Clarke.

The 1980s series Come and Get It was a favourite in living rooms all around the country, but cooking is just one of the strings to many bows for the cheeky, bearded chef.

His career accomplishments are almost too many to mention, and all were achieved without the advantages of a privileged background.

Far from it, in fact. His early childhood included stints in foster homes, and as a young teenager he lived for a time on the streets of Melbourne.

Now 84, and living in country Victoria his personality hasn't dimmed. His conversation is still peppered with out of the blue comments and the odd unprintable word or two.

He is a typical Australian larrikin, who's career credits include political cartoonist for the Melbourne Herald, feature writer for The Age and a veteran television writer.

He has also written 38 books, and long before he hit our television television screens, there was art.

"Cooking and painting are in the same mould," he said. "With cooking you deal with colour, shape, form and taste. So too with painting."

Born in 1935, his father was a priest with the high Church of England working in Ballarat and his mother was a successful dress designer.

This all sounds quite respectable, until he explains how his father was defrocked and deserted his mother.

"My father did his theology at Ballarat but fell foul of just about everybody so they kicked him out," he said.

"My mother was a dress designer who did a show around Australia called "Three smart girls." She was an orphan, I think, brought up by a family in Ballarat. My father was married four times and my mother was the first of his conquests.

"He left after I was born. He went to Sydney. My father was a philanderer, a big handsome fella who would have his way with anyone who would stay still for a moment. He was the only truly amoral man I've ever met and he revelled in it. If you want to be a proper bastard, do it with flair. I thought he was bloody marvellous."

"To get back at the Anglicans for kicking him out my father put me in the Catholic Sacred Heart boarding school in Bowral, but he never paid the fees. The good nuns couldn't afford to look after kids that didn't pay, so I was brought up by foster parents. I was farmed out to good Catholic families who would look after me for three months or so and then hand me on."

He eventually found his way back to his mother in Tumut, in the Snowy Mountains of NSW, a place he still thinks of as home.

"She'd set up a dressmakers shop in Tumut sewing for the wealthy squatters' wives," he said.

Peter Russell-Clarke, chef, artist and much loved personality, pictured above with wife of 58 years, Jan.

Peter Russell-Clarke, chef, artist and much loved personality, pictured above with wife of 58 years, Jan.

"As a kid I was interested in reading comics and eating chocolate and generally being a bloody nuisance. My father found out my mother was living with the local timber cutter and his children were running around with no shoes on in the bush. So he got a court order to get my brother and I to Melbourne, but by the time we got there he'd shot off with another woman, leaving us with a stepmother I didn't think much of. I jumped out a window and lived on the streets."

He flippantly describes what must have been a lonely period of his life.

"I remember all the deadbeats, of which I was one, would go up to the Queen Victoria Hospital. There was a brick wall there, a furnace. We'd line up to get a good spot. It was lovely and warm.

"You would go through the bins behind the restaurants. The thing about lots of wealthy people is, they only eat half their meals. My favourite was the Florentino on Bourke Street. It made me appreciate food."

At this point black humour kicks in.

"I used to critique the food you know. If I thought the asparagus was a bit overdone I'd leave them a little note."

He tells this story without a hint of self pity, but it's clear his early experiences have shaped his famous irreverence and disregard for authority.

"The only person who's going to look after you is you. I don't think there's enough people who really concern themselves about looking after themselves."

His street smarts and ingenuity were to save him. His start as a commercial cartoonist and artist came with a job running messages and buying the artists' lunch in an advertising agency.

"Eventually, you just wash your face and try and get a job. They needed messenger boys to run - we were given threepence for the tram. I used to pick up a ticket from the gutter then give it to the accountant to reimburse - it was a good way to make threepence.

"While I was in the art department I was taught how to letter and how to use a pen and a brush. I think when necessity calls you learn pretty quickly. They realised I could do it."

He lived then mostly in bungalows at the back of Melbourne houses, doing gardening instead of paying rent. He was well established in the art world when the chef who says "cooking is just applying heat to food" created Come and Get It.

"I was writing for television at the time. So I wrote a series for the ABC. But then I realised the person in front of the camera got a lot more money than the poor bugger behind the camera. Not many men had beards in those days so I created this bearded chef character. Men didn't cook back then, except for barbecues, Fortunately in those days the executives at the ABC didn't care what you did, so you could do just about anything."

Peter on location during the "Come and Get It" days.

Peter on location during the "Come and Get It" days.

He is being humble. In the 1980s Come and Get It was incredibly successful and Peter Russell-Clarke was a household name.

The show ran for nine years, over more than 900 programs. To this day he's a passionate advocate for men cooking, healthy eating and Australian produce.

And what does he think of the modern crop of celebrity cooking shows?

"I think the medium of TV is there to educate people. These shows are just entertainment. The directors are more interested in having them yelling and crying, 'look, I've learned to make a chip!'"

He has been married to his wife Jan for 58 years.

"You know when you go to a funeral and they say, oh he was the best person in the world and mostly it's bull...t, well with Jan it's true."

The couple has survived many business ventures, adventures and misadventures, including when their house burned down in 2012.

Four book manuscripts and a collection of paintings he was preparing for an exhibition went up in flames, though Peter later commented, "I realised they were s.... anyway."

These days he makes his living from painting commissions, and has clients all over the world.

"I have to keep working, I've got a lot of bills to pay, otherwise they'd put me in jail."

Peter Russell-Clarke

"I don't just go squeezing colour onto a canvas and get the cat to roll in it and say, look how clever I am, look what I did, when actually the cat did it.

"I like each painting to have a story. If you look out the window at a beautiful view you might look at it but you don't see it. It's the same with a painting, you might look at it but you don't come back to it, unless it has an intriguing story."