How chef Jock Zonfrillo is helping bring back Australia's indigenous food culture
âSitting in his garden near Adelaide, South Australia, Jock Zonfrillo is filled with glee. âMy two English longhorns are arriving today!â he crows with joy. His happiness isnât just evident because he plans to make beautiful calves; in 2011, the Scottish-Italian chef and farmer Richard Gunner of Coorong Angus Beef imported livestock embryos from the UK to bring the close-to-extinction breed back to life in Australia.
That endeavour is just one of many legacies that Zonfrillo is building on Australiaâs food map. And, after 17 years constructing relationships and trying to open dialogues about Australiaâs indigenous food culture, those efforts have recently recognised: he was awarded 2018âs prestigious Basque Culinary World Prize. Itâs been a long time coming.
In 1990s London after accumulating Michelin-star experience with Marco Pierre White, the chef moved to Australia in 1995. After temping in kitchens, first at a rowing club then the Green Room at Sydney Opera House, Zonfrillo realised he needed to return to fine dining: âI couldnât believe Iâd gone from three Michelin stars to making 80 kilos of chicken curry!â He fast found a home at Forty One, which expanded his culinary repertoire for the remainder of his one-year visa.
âIt was a mazing as Iâd open the pantry and it was full of Japanese bottles and Asian ingredients; I had no idea what they were. But I remember wondering: âWhere are all the aboriginal people and indigenous ingredients?â No one talked about it and if they did, they had nothing positive to say.â
By 1999, Zonfrillo had returned to London, clocked up some miles with Gordon Ramsay and some more with White when Forty One called, asking him to consider a head chef position. He took it.
âIt was perfect timing as I was reaching the end of a serious drug addiction. With indigenous ingredients at the front of my m ind, I thought I could carve out the restaurantâs direction as head chef. But it wasn't well received.
âIt was an unknown area and no one could guide me. I needed to speak to Aboriginal people and that was harder than you can imagine in Sydney in the early 2000s. Iâd seen some Aboriginal buskers, and approached them. I asked one guy, Jimmy from northwest Australia, if I could talk to him about his culture.â Jimmy blew Zonfrilloâs mind.
âAustralian chefs had told me there was nothing to investigate with regards to interesting indigenous ingredients. Jimmy and I talked for four hours and it was a turning point in my life and career: he talked about fishing for mangrove jack (red snapper) and how they only cooked it on fallen dried mangrove wood because âitâs rightâ. As a chef, I liked that: itâs salt-of-the-earth stuff.
âJimmy also talked about the association between food, land and culture. Communities know when the tea tree blossoms on the Victoria coast that itâs a key indicator from nature regarding their diet; skates are fat enough to be fished. We neve r got skate whole in London restaurants, never mind them being fat! I listened to Jimmy talk about the tide going out and how they would spear enough skate for their and other communities, a dozen people fishing together. It was incredible.â
Jimmyâs precise descriptions confirmed what Zonfrillo suspected, that an indigenous food culture existed. âI thought, âholy f**k, thatâs perfectly seasonedâ, my mouth was watering. I walked away from that conversation changed; how I thought about food and how I looked at Australia. That whole conversation rattled me, that I could be in a country and not even have touched on that, but the greater problem was: âWhy isnât this knowledge more well-known?ââ
Disillusioned with cooking, Zonfrillo dropped off the scene to start importing high-end cookware; it gave him time to start connecting with indigenous culture. âI drove to Aá¹angu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands in the middle of the country. âThereâs a white guy whoâs a chef and wants to know about your cultureâ. The elders, who interview you, were like âwho the f**k is this guy?â. It took 30 hours to drive there and seven minutes to wait, talk to someone then be turned away. It was a sobering drive back to Sydney.â
The tenacious chef didnât give up. By the seventh visit, he was allowed to talk to elders, and word started travelling around the bush that heâd met a cousin or an uncle. Doors began opening in different communities.
Additional hurdles in the shape of his second marriage breakup and a failed restaurant project got Zonfrillo thinking. After spending three weeks in the Brazilian Amazon with chef Alex Atala of D.O.M. in SÃ£o Paulo, (known for his Chef's Table episode in season 2) he realised he could open an establishment highlighting indigenous culture through gastronomy. He took on a space in downtown Adelaide, using the ground floor for a street-food project and the first floor for Orana, whi ch would deal in ingredients âused by the oldest surviving culture in the world that has eaten off the land for 60,000 years. But for the first six months we didnât have any customers upstairs; at one point we had 23 credit cards because Orana was making a loss year after year.â
He didnât give up, however, and the next step was setting up The Orana Foundation, which preserves the knowledge of the culture and led to this yearâs Basque Culinary World Prize; following a first failed attempt, Zonfrillo then recruited Dr Norman Gillespie, former chief executive of Unicef Australia. âWe got seri ous about the foundation, Orana started to garner attention globally and things slowly started kicking into place. Five years on, we deal directly with communities, buying products and the money goes straight to them. Weâre also building a database of native Australian edible ingredients and with 14 academics working on it, have categorised almost 2,000 in 10 months.â
Once completed, the Native Australian Foods Database will be freely available but in the meantime, the foundation's work is about to really kick off. Zonfrillo adds: âAs weâre coming out of the academic stage and starting up projects, we can connect kids back into their culture and onto the land. Itâs an exciting time.
âAs the Basque Culinary World Prize is global, it opens up more conversations. People who previously would have said âoh, Jockâs banging on about native ingredients againâ will now have a conversation. Itâs been 17 years of going out into the community, pulling together knowledge and I now have a duty of care. I can make a difference.â
Find more information about Jock Zonfrilloâ's foundation theoranafoundation.org and restaurant restaurantorana.comSource: Google Australia | Netizen 24 Australia