Susie's recipe for success
Dr Susie Chant Dr Susie Chant is a devoted foodie whose journey into academia was anything but direct.
University of Adelaide alumna Dr Susie Chant is a self-described country girl who packed in an awful lot before turning her sights to full-time on study and research; and becoming an Australian expert on the history of local foods.
After cooking at an English palace and working on an island paradise in her twenties, she launched three successful restaurants and a few bed and breakfasts in South Australia’s South East.
A major point of difference at the time was her strong focus on local produce – a commitment to her community long before such food experiences became fashionable.
It was an intense grounding at the sharp end of the food sector that has given Susie unique insights for her current roles.
Today she is the Academic Manager of the global culinary institution Le Cordon Bleu, a lecturer with the University of Adelaide’s Entrepreneurship, Commercialisation and Innovation Centre (ECIC) and a member of its Food Values Research Group.
While food has always been her passion, when Susie was fresh out of school her parents tried to steer her in a different direction.
“At some point one of my parents said to me they didn’t think that food was going to make a good career for me,” says Susie. “So I studied teaching and interior design before doing commercial cooking and ending up back where I always wanted to be.”
Susie won the dux award in commercial cookery for most successful chef and then headed to the UK where she applied for the job as nanny at Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill.
“The Duchess of Marlborough interviewed me and said I believe you belong in the kitchen, and there I learnt how to cook game birds and all sorts of weird and wonderful things,” says Susie.
The Duke and Duchess were keen entertainers and Susie found herself preparing banquets for a revolving door of famous people. After nine months she resumed her travels and ended up as a chef on the Grand Caymen Islands in the Caribbean.
They were experiences that proved invaluable when she returned to Australia and launched her own hospitality businesses on the Limestone Coast and Coonawarra.
“Running a restaurant is very hard work and it’s difficult to make money, so you have to be really astute,” she says. “I treated my restaurants as a tourism experience with the food all locally sourced, which made them unique at the time.
"The whole local food phenomenon then exploded and it was exciting being part of that.
”Her restaurants won several tourism awards and she still owns the diVine Cafe in Penola, which she leases out.
Throughout her life Susie has always been prepared to challenge herself and has never been afraid to leap at opportunities as they arise. It’s an attitude that resulted in her sudden switch into academia at the age of 47.
“I was flicking through a magazine and came across a scholarship for a Masters in Gastronomy at the University of Adelaide. The application involved writing an essay and I was so surprised that I did well because I hadn’t studied for decades.
”After graduating Susie won another scholarship at the University, this time for a Masters in Entrepreneurship and Innovation after she pitched a business idea relating to ethical foods. She graduated in the top 15 per cent of her class for both degrees.
By this stage Susie was hooked on study and research, so when one of her lecturers suggested doing a PhD on local foods in Australia she leapt at the opportunity.
The doctoral challenge was also a way of honouring her father Kevin Chant, a farmer and community leader in their home town of Millicent.
“My father was forced to leave school early to work on the farm and he always felt he had missed out with his education,” says Susie. “When I had the opportunity to do a PhD he was so excited for me and part of the reason I wanted to do it was I felt I was doing something for him as well.”
Sadly, Susie’s father was too unwell to attend her graduation ceremony last year and died a few weeks later.
But he was alive when her thesis, A History of Local Foods in Australia 1788 – 2015, was announced as the winner of a coveted Dean’s Commendation for Doctoral Thesis Excellence.
Susie’s research took her back to the beginning of European settlement in Australia when sourcing local food was a matter of survival.
“During my research I came across about 50 different concepts relating to local food which were really unique to Australia,” says Susie. “Today people are very interested in eating different things for ethical reasons and they really care about what they eat and put into their bodies.”
One of her next projects is to turn her thesis into a book.
“It’s a really interesting story and I’ve been looking at ways of reworking it so that it appeals to a wider audience. I’ve done all the groundwork and have some good back stories, including my own personal journey.”
Finding the time to write the book could be Susie’s biggest challenge.
As the full-time Academic Manager of Le Cordon Bleu in Adelaide, part of her role involves managing relationships and professional development at Le Cordon Bleu schools in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Madrid.
Susie describes her part-time role at the University of Adelaide as her own professional development.
She is a member of the Food Values Research group, which is involved in research projects that explore the historical, social, cultural and political aspects of food production and consumption, an area which ties in with her PhD studies, and lectures in food ethics and entrepreneurship for ECIC.
Story by Ian Williams
Photo by Chris Tonkin