Q&A: Paola Totaro, gun for hire

Paola in Italy with Antoine, who migrated from the Ivory Coast. Photo: Ella Pellegrini (click on the photo for more photos from Ella's website)
Paola in Italy with Antoine, who migrated from the Ivory Coast. Photo: Ella Pellegrini (click on the photo to see more of Ella’s work)

Paola Totaro (@p_totaro) is an Australian freelance journalist living in London. She writes for numerous media organisations including Fairfax, News Corp, The Guardian, The Independent, the BBC and Tina Brown’s Women in the World in the New York Times. One of Paola’s powerful stories this year reveals the exploitation of immigrants working in the lucrative tomato industry in Italy, the world’s third-largest exporter of tinned tomatoes. She also broke the story of alleged safety and security breaches resulting from cost-cutting at the Australian embassy in Iraq, featured in a series of front-page stories in The Australian.

Paola has been nominated for a prestigious Walkley Award twice, and has just finished two years as president of the London-based Foreign Press Association. She spoke with JASMINE SUTHERLAND (@JazMamone)

What is your role in the media industry?

I am currently a freelance foreign correspondent, living and working in London. I arrived in the British capital in 2008 as Europe Correspondent for the SMH and The Age and when I was asked to return to head office, chose to remain in the UK to freelance. I now work for anyone, a kind of gun for hire, and am in the unusual position of working for both Fairfax and Murdoch (The Aus etc.) as well as The Guardian, BBC, NYT and other publications (or whoever will take my story pitches!) A sample of my work is on my journalism page at www.paolatotaro.com

What tasks are you given in this role?
I primarily pitch my own stories although increasingly, I am asked to conduct interviews and cover stories in the UK and Europe when the staff correspondents are busy or in the field, I interview, profile, cover breaking news – pretty much anything needed and often at a moment’s notice.

What experiences have you had working as a journalist?
I have 25 years working as a journalist and editor under my belt. I’ve interviewed Prime Ministers, covered elections in places as far away as East Timor and Italy, travelled on a plane with the Pope, been the only Australian journalist in Westminster Abbey when William and Kate married. It’s been a blast. And continues to be! Yesterday, I went to dinner at Gray’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court that from medieval days trained barristers before they were called to the bar. I met a good number of the British High Court judges and when they are having a drink and relaxing it’s great fun! I also now that some of my most rewarding work has been telling the stories of those who are less fortunate, in refugee camps, in prisons, the homeless, victims of crime and more. Journalism allows you to be comfortable talking to anyone – and finding stories in every human being.

How did you become a journalist, and how old were you when you started?
It was a fluke. I was studying arts at Sydney Uni and decided to defer in my third year (I was also doing law and I hated it). I worked for a small media company and wrote a little piece about cliques at uni. My boss liked it and unbeknown to me, sent it to the SMH. I was called in for an interview and offered a three year cadetship. I never, ever looked back. (And finished my degree aged 41!). Two years ago, I went and did a Master’s with my redundancy money from the SMH! I started at the age of 21 at the SMH.

Is there any advice you would give to a future journalist who is looking to pursue the same career?
Write. Write. Don’t talk about writing. Write. And don’t fear asking questions. Be uninhibited, ballsy, and write some more.

Paola filing a story from St Peter's Square in Rome. Photo courtesy Paola Totaro
Paola filing a story from St Peter’s Square in Rome. Photo courtesy Paola Totaro

Interview: Neil Perry,chef for all seasons

To cook well, find the best ingredients: chef Neil Perry in his kitchen. Photo courtesy Rockpool Group.



Whether you’re a foodie, stay-at-home Mum, builder or chef in the hospitality industry, odds are you’ve heard of prestigious “three hatted” chef Neil Perry — Member of the Order of Australia and idol of young chefs everywhere.

Perry owns and operates six restaurants with partner Trish Richards. Before his signature restaurant Rockpool on George celebrated its 23rd birthday in 2012, he had opened a restaurant each year: two versions of the Rockpool Bar and Grill, and a successful Chinese venture called Spice Temple. He has filmed several television series, including Rockpool Sessions and Fresh and Fast. He is a also busy consultant for QANTAS.

Three years ago Perry added induction into the TAFE Hall of Fame to his list of accolades.

Perry’s goal is to constantly improve upon his success, and to commit to his food mantra, that the cornerstone of good cooking is sourcing the finest produce.

NH: Chef, thank you so much for your time this morning, I understand that you and your 600 staff are very busy. Just so you know a little about me, I’m a student at Petersham TAFE studying Journalism, and I am excited that you have accepted my invitation to be interviewed via Twitter. I have to ask you: how old were you when you first started cooking, and when did you realise the culinary world was you?

NP: Ever since I was young I was always surrounded by food working on the farm, and I was heavily involved in fresh produce and the preparation of meat. It wasn’t until I was 26 that I realised that this was going to be my career, and that’s when my passion for food and seriousness towards proper preparation really took off.

I’m interested in your celebrity status. When was it that you first realised that you were famous?

I’m not into the tag of being famous as such, I find working with the finest produce, the best suppliers – our real heroes – and bringing out the best in food by seasoning properly so continuously rewarding. Our suppliers and the fine purveyors are the heroes who deliver and hold the ingredients, we are the ones that make them shine even further. If I had to pinpoint a moment, it would be when you are in the supermarket and multiple people stop you to talk to you about your show on TV. This was around the year 2000. I guess they feel that they own a piece of you as you are in their living rooms.

You have an amazing career: you have fame, a television presence, young chefs looking up to you, a beautiful property, your picture in the Hall of Fame at Ryde TAFE and a multi-million dollar consultancy deal with QANTAS. What’s next for Neil Perry, what can the master do next?

I have no desire to enter another facet of the industry, but one thing that you can expect is the things we do well being done even better in the future. It’s all about constant improvement now, and not becoming complacent as there is always room for improvement and new things to do regarding food. I have over six restaurants and 600 staff under me, so I feel that I have enough on my plate. It’s crucial to do the basics right such as using proper oils, seasonings and spices and they form the flavour base, there’s no point going further if you don’t get the basics right.

What is your favourite ingredient to use and why?

I enjoy extra virgin olive oils, Murray (River) salts and anything to do with the seasoning of food, they are so crucial and the types are endless. The cornerstone of good cooking is sourcing the finest ingredients.

What was the highlight of your career to date?

Recently I received the award of The Order of Australia for contributions to society, younger people in the industry and in general recognition of my career. This was a great moment to get such great recognition from the government and apart from working with fine ingredients, the most rewarding moment to date. It’s awesome to know you make a difference.

This may be difficult for you to answer, but if you weren’t a chef could you ever picture yourself doing anything else? Was there such a thing as a back-up route for Neil Perry?

I never thought of any other career which was not food related, honestly. Ever since I was young I was wanting to know more and my family was very into food, so I guess the family history basically answers that question.

Chef, thank-you so much for your time, it’s been great interviewing you, and I wish The Rockpool Group more success in the future.

That’s not a problem at all. Thanks, mate.



Rockpool On George: http://www.rockpool.com/sydney/
Spice Temple: http://www.rockpool.com/sydney/spice-temple/
Rockpool Sessions: http://www.lifestylefood.com.au/tv/neil-perry-rockpool-sessions/
Fresh and Fast: http://www.lifestylefood.com.au/tv/neil-perry-fresh-and-fast/