Despina’s reputation preceded her months before our first meeting. A woman I met had told me about the wonderful cooking classes she had attended more than once, taught by this fabulous person to small groups which had waiting-list backlogs. Then, in line at the post office one weekday, I was approached by a gamin creature in a beanie, who introduced herself as Despina Petri. Even though we exchanged business cards and promises to catch up soon, it was a long time until we finally managed. Before we arrived at the inevitable subject of food, however, I was hearing the story of an arranged marriage at the ineffably tender age of nineteen.
Without a filament of self-pity Despina told me about her strict upbringing. She was born in Cyprus but arrived in Sydney with the family a four-year old. No extra-curricular activities were allowed – if Despina wanted to go to the movies she would be obliged to wag school – and her application to the Ryde Catering College where she wanted to train as a chef and dietician was thwarted by her disapproving father. The oldest of four children, she had never even had a boyfriend when, aged nineteen, she was sent by her parents back to Cyprus for the arranged marriage to the son of her mother’s best friend. Despina said that this arranged boy was ‘all right’; certainly for him the marriage assured an exciting new life in exotic, distant Australia whereas as far as she was concerned there had simply been no choice. Back in Australia the couple moved in with Despina’s parents until they acquired land out west and built a house near Liverpool. The marriage lasted seven years. ‘I did good,’ said Despina, ‘for someone you don’t love. I didn’t have kids – I thought I might have the strength one day to leave, and I was very careful not to get pregnant.’
She began attending spiritual workshops. ‘I realized that the way I was raised wasn’t on,’she said, ‘letting the family dictate to me like that. I realized the only person I had to make happy was myself.’ The last few years with her husband she suffered from depression. ‘I’d asked my husband to leave me many times,’ she said.
But eventually Despina found her way out; the house was put on the market (‘I moved into another room – I still cooked and cleaned for him,’) and finally she resumed residence back with her parents . ‘Within months I met Gary, my present partner. And we came up here.’
My relief at this part of a story more heart- breaking than I was prepared for was so great that I was left almost limp. Gary brought Despina up to the Northern Rivers, which was his home, about 12 years ago. Despina promptly did her Trade III certificate in Commercial Cookery at Wollingbar TAFE then a Bachelor of Social Sciences at Southern Cross University. ‘For me it was a lot of catching up with my education. My whole life I’ve been catching up.’
She and Gary live at Broken Head where there is her dream kitchen (marble benchtops, stainless steel, state-of-the-art equipment) where they make the fresh pasta they sell at the markets; from whence her hugely popular cooking classes are held. Teaching is her real passion, and teaching about food with a nutritional mindfulness in particular. She has named her soon-to-be-launched cooking school Hippocrates Culinary Institute and her small, personal classes of around eight students learn about sauce-making, preserving food, kitchen make-overs, Middle Eastern banquets and Mediterranean feasts. A very beautiful website bears all the information you will need to join the waiting lists. www.despinapetri.com