Meet the Scottish-born chef who’s pledged to change the way we think about native ingredients

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Jock Zonfrillo opened his acclaimed Adelaide fine-diner, Orana, to put the spotlight on native foods. Now, through his non-profit foundation, he’s promoting Indigenous food culture.

Jock Zonfrillo is worried. He fiddles with a set of custom-made worry beads that belonged to the late AA Gill, renowned UK restaurant critic and writer. He’s worried about relocating his entire restaurant team to Sydney for a pop-up this month. He’s worried about the expense. About whether “making a splash like this” is the right thing to do.

“What if everyone thinks we’re dropping into town and I’m that guy who just takes away everyone at a time when Sydney is suffering a bit?” he asks.

He might be worried, but at least he’s not angry any more. The Scottish-born chef first came to Australia in 1994 and worked for a year for Dietmar Sawyere at Sydney’s Forty One. He became angry at the lack of a recognisable food culture here and even angrier that in an entire year he hadn’t met a single Aboriginal person. “I was so f—king angry at everybody,” he says.

“But that didn’t help me. I was just the angry Scottish guy.”

When he returned in 2000 after a difficult period, a chance encounter with an Indigenous busker called Jimmy changed the course of his life. During a four-hour chat Jimmy said, “Whatever it is you end up doing, always give back more than you take.” It’s a mantra he has lived by ever since. Zonfrillo wanted to start a foundation that would help bridge the gap between Indigenous food communities and the rest of the country, but no one was interested. “In hindsight, I should’ve been less aggravated and understood that it was going to take time.”

The only way to get people’s attention, he decided, was with a restaurant. And so in late 2013 he opened Orana, his fine-diner in Adelaide. Gill was “one of the few people who got it”, says Zonfrillo.

“He came and did trips with us. When someone like Adrian thinks what you’re doing is important, you can’t lose sight of that. So you just keep f—king going.”

Today, 60-odd native ingredients can be found on Orana’s menu – perhapsSpencer Gulf prawns with fermented  Davidson plum or Goolwa pipis with beach succulents and finger lime. After three years using the restaurant as “the billboard”, in 2016 Zonfrillo was able to launch The Orana Foundation. A $1.25 million grant from the South Australian government soon followed, and last year Zonfrillo was awarded the 100,000-euro Basque Culinary World Prize for his work.

One of the foundation’s main goals is to help create an enterprise culture for Indigenous communities. First order of business? Compiling Australia’s first compendium of native foods. “The oral tradition of passing on knowledge is the most beautiful way to do it, no question,” says Zonfrillo. “However, is it possible for commercialisation benefits to happen just with that? Probably not. And the elders know that.”

In collaboration with the University of Adelaide and the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, the foundation has studied around 1600 ingredients (a study by the Australian government managed 12), looking at every detail,  from nutritional and gastronomic qualities to medicinal and horticultural. Many are sustainable and would be easily marketable as ‘superfoods’.

A cosmetic company needing an ingredient with high levels of vitamin C, for instance, could use the database to connect with communities that harvest such an ingredient. Parts of the database will be open, while others will be locked and layered to protect the intellectual property of Indigenous communities. “It’s the communities’ choice how it will be shared,” says Zonfrillo.

In May, the foundation started another project, the build of a packing shed in the Kimberley region. Zonfrillo began visiting Bruno Dann, an Nyul Nyul elder of Twin Lakes Cultural Park, more than a decade ago. He was there to source gubinge, a tart bush fruit also  known as Kakadu plum. Back then, Dann hand-harvested a couple of hundred kilos of the fruit a year. Now, with the new harvesting facility, he can harvest eight tonnes a year, with local communities in that effort.

SJB Architects, who reimagined the former Longrain site for the Sydney pop-up, worked pro-bono on the shed’s low-impact build; it includes solar and hydro panels and proper storage, meaning ingredients can now reach customers in pristine condition. In August, for instance, pandanus is harvested in the area and would be sealed in a bag, driven to Broome, processed in someone’s kitchen, driven to the airport and finally, days later, flown to Adelaide or Sydney. “Bruno has seen my enthusiasm for something at the moment I picked it, versus my enthusiasm for it when he sends it to me a week later,” says Zonfrillo.

Gubinge harvested by Dann is among the Australian ingredients on the Sydney menu. The chef isn’t ruling out residencies in other states, too. Zonfrillo, now 43, has a one-year-old son, Alfie, as well as two older children, and he hopes by the time he grows up these ingredients will be mainstream.

“Success to me means we’re not talking about native ingredients any more. They’re just Australian ingredients.” Would he have been less worried just staying in Adelaide? “Of course,” he says.

“But I made that pledge, a long f—king time ago, speaking to Jimmy, that I’d have the patience and willpower to change people’s perceptions, one person at a time. And we’re still doing it.”

Original Article from delicious