Australian native food and the man who wants to bring it to the masses

Chef Jock Zonfrillo wants Australian native ingredients on supermarket shelves, and he’s working hard to make that happen.

Read anything about Scottish-born chef Jock Zonfrillo and you’ll inevitably find some statement about him “redefining” or “reinventing” Australian cuisine. So then, what does “Australian cuisine” mean to the man who’s redefining it? It’s not a revolutionary answer: it’s a combination of old and new, of past and present. It’s pretty much the answer you’d expect from most people: “Everything from traditional Aboriginal food and ingredients and recipes, right through to the Australia Day obsession with Sam Kekovich’s lamb.” We’ve got it all, why not use it? The big difference here, is that, in practice, most people leave the traditional out. When was the last time you saw kutjera, riberry, muntries or dorrigal pepper on a menu? Zonfrillo says, “I think [native ingredients] should really be at the heart of what an Australian cuisine is, but also encapsulate what happened at settlement, and what came from settlement, which obviously was some amazing ingredients – lamb included.”

Which is just what Zonfrillo and his team are doing in their Adelaide restaurants Street-ADL (a casual steak and burger joint) and the 25-seat fine dining space upstairs, Orana.

“There was nothing ‘Australian’, which really struck me … I was just confused and thought, ‘What is this strange cuisine, I don’t get it’.”

My question regarding whether a national culinary identity is important is dismissed as absurd. Zonfrillo laughs, “Of course!” Arriving in Sydney in the mid 90s, he couldn’t get a grip on our food culture. “I mean, Tetsuya’s was Japanese, Neil Perry was doing a sort of Asian thing, Claude’s was very French, and Forty One was a kind of fusion of French and, I guess, Japanese, but there was nothing ‘Australian’, which really struck me … I was just confused and thought, ‘What is this strange cuisine, I don’t get it’. And very naively questioned, where were all the kangaroos, and where were all the Aboriginal people. It felt odd, as a chef, to land in a country, that I couldn’t kind of reach out and touch it, to feel the cuisine.”

Zonfrillo believes that part of the resistance and disinterest towards Australia’s native foods is based on misconceptions, lack of information and that tragically Australian affliction, cultural cringe. “A lot of native ingredients got pretty tarnished going through the ‘bush tucker’ era … there were a couple of good restaurants but an awful lot of awful things occurred during that time and I think it just got a bad taste in people’s mouths. That’s why, categorically, people get facial neuralgia when you say ‘native ingredients’.”

Why is he so passionate about Australia’s Indigenous food culture? “It’s really the depth of it, and the longevity of it, it’s really been around for an awful long time and it’s been so rarely explored by the culinary world, and there’s a lot of sort of misconceptions within it that.”

Wanting to learn more about Australian cuisine when he first arrived here from the UK, Zonfrillo discovered there were really no resources available to chefs. “The first Aboriginal person I spoke to was a homeless guy who was playing the didgeridoo down in Circular Quay. I wanted to find out and to learn about Aboriginal people, the culture, the ingredients, and what those ingredients mean to their culture. I didn’t know anybody, so I just stopped at this homeless guy and I just asked him some questions – can you tell me about some recollections, some memories of food you ate when you were a kid, what did mum or dad cook?” An intricate story followed, of stingray caught at a certain time of year, when a particular plant is in full bloom, signifying the time of year when the stingray have engorged livers. “But when they go and hunt them there’s a particular time of day, when the tide reaches a certain point – and [the man’s] showing me the level on his shin – you’ve got to wait until the water’s just there, at a certain time of day when the tide’s on the way out and then, for about 15 or 20 minutes, they’re plentiful, and you can just spearfish them.”

The stingray is cooked over burning hot coals, “So he’s talking about building the fire up, letting the fire die down until the coals are white hot, putting the stingray belly-side down, onto the coals. The belly skin, because it’s engorged and stretched, as soon as it hits the hot coals it bursts.” The liver is removed and set aside while the fish is cooked. The fish rests while the liver goes back on the coals and seared for 30 seconds on each side. “Then they strip the fish off the bone and mix it with the liver, so it’s kind of like an awesome brandade [an emulsion of salt cod and olive oil] … my mouth was watering when he was talking about it.”

Zonfrillo explains that this story contradicted everything he’d heard about Aboriginal cooking from workmates in kitchens, “‘Oh, they just chuck stuff in the fire, they just eat to sustain life, basically they just eat because they have to eat.’ Yet that conversation I had with that guy, was not somebody who ate just to survive, that was somebody who ate for pleasure, that was somebody who understood cooking, that was somebody who understood flavour, that was somebody who understood that actions have an impact on flavour. It completely went against what I was being told by everybody. And that’s when I thought to myself, as a chef, the only way to go about this is to start visiting communities. So that’s what I did. I just drove into communities.”

This wasn’t always a successful approach, but, over time, Zonfrillo has established relationships with a number of communities all over Australia, and has been working alongside the Nyul Nyul people in the Kimberleys for over 8 years. (You can check out Bruno Dan discussing the food of the Kimberleys in a video on Orana’s website.) “When you go out and you start to understand a culture and the community, particularly, because all of the communities are very different, they have very different dynamics – you need to go out there and you need to spend time with them, and I love to do that. It’s like going back to school. You just go out there and zip it; just shut up and learn. That’s it. Because half the stuff that I get told when I’m out there, and half the stuff that I see, and their connection to the land through food, is absolutely phenomenal.”

Others have tried in the past to bring native ingredients to the mainstream but ultimately failed, “Unfortunately there wasn’t a huge amount of information given along with those ingredients in the marketplace, as in, where they came from, their traditional uses, recipes, seasons, you couldn’t get them fresh – as chefs, we want to see something when it’s fresh, we want to know where it came from – all of that information’s important.”

“If we can create over 400 species and throw them into garden centres, why isn’t it on a supermarket shelf? Some of this stuff … defies belief.” 

So how does Zonfrillo see home cooks using native ingredients and cooking styles? “Well there’s a lot of native ingredients which should be on supermarket shelves, unquestionably. For example, Geraldton wax.” Geraldton wax is a shrub endemic to Western Australia that is prized by local communities for imparting a lime-like citrus flavour – perfect for stuffing baked fish, for example.“There’s now over 400 species over here being used for various different reasons, predominantly for gardening. It’s a shrub that can tolerate all kinds of conditions including very harsh and dry conditions, and you can buy Geraldton wax in Bunnings, believe it or not! But that is a valuable food source for communities, in terms of flavour. It’s as easy to use as rosemary, thyme, anything like that. Now, that should be available as a bunch at the supermarket! And why isn’t it? If we can create over 400 species and throw them into garden centres, why isn’t it on a supermarket shelf? You know what I mean? Some of this stuff, for me – as a chef, and as a person – defies belief.”

Zonfrillo is working to introduce palates to native ingredients through his restaurants. “We’d have an average of maybe 40 different native ingredients on Orana’s menu at any one time, most of them fresh, wild-harvested from communities or our own foragers.” There are plenty of international diners at Orana, but Zonfrillo is particularly delighted to take Australians on that trip. “It’s fun, they come in and they eat and they say, ‘My god … I’ve tasted 20, 30 things that I’ve never even heard of, and I thought were absolutely delicious – but I’m Australian! And I’ve never heard of them before!’ So it’s a really positive journey for people to come and get stuck into it. I think it surprises a lot of people that these ingredients are so delicious.”

To expand on the work they’re doing with the restaurants, Zonfrillo is launching The Orana Foundation this year. “What we do in Orana [the restaurant] … is work with Indigenous communities to wild-harvest and then preserve that knowledge and culture. The Orana Foundation, basically, is going to be a bigger version of that. So we’re able to help more communities on a bigger scale and actually bring some of these ingredients to the general market. Make them available as a wild-harvested product, while it’s fresh, which chefs love. But also then start to lobby a little bit to supermarkets to get some of these ingredients in volume into supermarkets as a fresh product.”

“Wild-harvesting fruit is very healing to the land, and you’re giving a community a chance to come together and do something which benefits them all.”

Wild-harvest is a key part of the plan. “For example, we work with the Nyul Nyul people up in the Kimberleys. This year, it’s looking like a good season for gubinge, the wild plum up there, they’re looking at harvesting 8 tonnes this season. That’s 8 tonnes of wild-harvest!” A central drop-off point allows for anyone in the community to pick, and be paid per kilo. The fruit is then shipped to restaurants in Adelaide and Melbourne. “There’s so much good in that, a lot of money goes into that community to help everyday life, to help them fight to stay on the land. Wild-harvesting fruit is very healing to the land, and you’re giving a community a chance to come together and do something which benefits them all. And 8 tonnes of hand-picked wild-harvest fruit, to me, that’s a triumph.

“But you can do that in loads of different communities, in loads of different ways – there’s plums up there, it can be bush tomatoes somewhere else – each area of Australia, in terms of region, is fantastic for producing different kinds of food. So that’s the plan for the foundation. The foundation is all about giving back, at the end of the day. It’s a not-for-profit entity which aims to join all the dots that we’ve been doing in our little restaurant in Adelaide at great expense so far. So, it’ll be nice to see it blossom into something bigger and actually be able to attack some bigger projects and make a bigger difference than we already are.”

Native ingredients on supermarket shelves would inevitably require more industrialised farming processes. Zonfrillo believes that Australian farmers should be embracing native crops. “It’s another arm of the foundation that needs to work with Australian farmers. ‘Hey, listen I know you’ve got two hectares of leeks, that’s fantastic, your leeks are amazing – change 20 per cent of your crop to karkalla [pigface] which can survive a drought, can survive heatwaves, you don’t need to irrigate it, it’ll just grow on it’s own, rampantly’ … we just have to work together to work out how to crop it, you know, how to harvest it cost effectively. If you can imagine, 20 per cent of your land you don’t need to irrigate any more, you’ve got a product you can sell for a premium, and it’s weatherproof in terms of the climate here – what is there to lose?”

“If you can imagine, 20 per cent of your land you don’t need to irrigate any more, you’ve got a product you can sell for a premium … what is there to lose?”

So, what would Jock Zonfrillo like to see Australians cooking this Australia Day? He’s initially stumped, “Wow, good question! Well, if you turn on the television I’m sure Sam Kekovich will be telling you to cook lamb!” He concedes that, as lamb is in season, it actually makes a lot of sense to cook it on Australia Day. He cites one of the dishes they have on the menu at Orana at the moment as something that could be just right: a roasted lamb rack accompanied by very thinly sliced choko (“which is available in most people’s back yards”) tossed with a dressing made from bush tomatoes, quandong and dorrigo pepper. “So there’s an example of something that’s classically thought of as Australian, together with some everyday ingredients that are currently in season, that are very Australian.”

Original Article: Cooked.