It should come as no surprise to anyone who has caught an episode of Annabel Crabb’s ABC series Kitchen Cabinet that she was actually whipping up a delicious-sounding dessert when she picked up the phone for this interview.
“It’s an interesting base – egg whites, almond meal and sugar – and the recipe calls for cherries and almonds but I’m using strawberries,” she said.
It’s one of the perks of the job for the renowned political journalist, who launched Kitchen Cabinet last year with a very simple, very effective idea: visit the home of a prominent politician for a meal, with the pollie preparing the main course and Crabb providing the dessert.
Informal, pleasant and often revealing conversation ensues.
“It’s very exciting to cook and actually have it be work,” said Crabb, who admits a liking for any dish that has to be “pre-soaked or slow-cooked or mollycoddled along – I cook to relax and I find the more fiddly and annoying it is the better”.
In putting together Kitchen Cabinet, she’s found cooking is not only way to dismantle defences and create a relaxed atmosphere, it can also create a bit of common ground between the interviewer and their subject.
“I remember in the first season [Federal Health Minister] Tanya Plibersek saying she loves cooking for people because it kind of demonstrates that, while she may miss important events or not always be around, the time she spends preparing meals or dishes is a way of letting them know she’s there,” Crabb said.
Kitchen Cabinet had its genesis in the work-related dinners Crabb would have with politicians when she first went to work in Canberra back in 1999.
“It’s an amazing place to work as a journalist if you’re interested in politics – it’s this incredible cauldron,” she said.
“You’re also working under the same roof as all your competition, which is kind of an unusual situation. So it’s competitive and you’re trying to get your head around complicated policy issues and you’re coming to terms with the power relationships that exist.
“Journalists need to understand that stuff or what you write won’t be fully informed, and the best way to do that is to get to know people. You can sit down with someone at their desk, your tape recorder out, but that won’t get you far. If you take someone out to dinner, get them a glass of wine, they will explain how things work. In the process you get an idea of what that person is like.
“It’s an interesting tango between journalist and politician, determining how much you can trust one another, how frank you can be. The most useful conversations aren’t necessarily the ones you write about for next day’s paper, they’ll be an anecdote or a story that will help you understand who that person is and how they fit into this world, and you can use that in the future. It’s really valuable stuff.”
Thinking it was “kind of unfair” that that level of insight was restricted to journalists, Crabb wondered how to allow the general public a glimpse behind the political curtain. When it came to putting the conversation on camera, there were a few question marks.
“When I pitched the idea, the million dollar question was whether the whole concept would survive the introduction of cameras,” Crabb said.
“I think it has and I’m not completely sure why, but I think it has something to do with location. Even though I’m a journalist, I’ve essentially invited myself into this person’s home, and as their guest it’s important that I respect their privacy, their sense of comfort. This isn’t a “gotcha” format and it’s not antagonistic; it’s a genuine effort to get people talking about their lives and their motivations.”
Kitchen Cabinet, ABC2, Wednesday, 9.30pm