Two of Australia’s Best Chefs on the Power of Connecting Through Food

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First Nations people have long been aware of how tasty this country’s native ingredients – Kakadu plum, finger lime, Tasmanian native pepper – can be. But white settlers and chefs, by and large, have ignored this bounty. When Jock Zonfrillo – a Scottish-born Italian chef – moved to Australia in 1999 from London, where he worked in high-end kitchens, he thought this insane.

“My experience didn’t match what people’s perceptions were,” says Zonfrillo. “That made me angry. Because I thought people just can’t see what I’m seeing.”

What Zonfrillo saw in these ingredients was the concept for a restaurant. So he created it with Orana, an innovative “upscale modern Australian” restaurant founded on his interest in understanding native Australian ingredients.

At first, people hated it.

“I lost 360 grand the first year we opened,” says Zonfrillo. “The second year, 280-something. But the reason to open Orana was to have a world-class restaurant serving delicious food using native ingredients, so people would look at them and Australian Indigenous culture in a different way. I’ve lost a lot of money in the process, but that has happened and that’s really good.”

Orana is now considered one of Australia’s best restaurants. It’s also the public face of the Orana foundation, a collaboration between Orana, the University of Adelaide and the Royal Botanic Gardens established to create and maintain a database of Australian native ingredients. “There’s almost 1500 ingredients on that database now,” says Zonfrillo. “There’s probably another 4000 at least to put on there.”

Zonfrillo is also putting back into the communities he draws inspiration from. This year alone he’s working on building modular packing sheds that can be erected in remote farming areas, working with local women in Daly River to produce honey, and harvesting freshwater prawns out of the Kimberly.

How did a foreigner become an ambassador for the country’s cuisine?

Pride of place

“When I was growing up, there was a great amount of importance put on where you’re from,” says Zonfrillo. “We’re all proud Scots, but my dad’s side of the family is very Italian, even though they’re living in Scotland. They cure their own meats, make salami, make fresh focaccia and cheese. They placed a huge amount of importance and pride in being Italian.”

Zonfrillo assumed he’d find that same sense of pride for native ingredients when he moved to Australia – particularly after he spent months in the bush educating himself by learning about it firsthand. But he says the fact we still use the term “native ingredients” shows Australians still consider them exotic.

“You don’t go to Thailand and order a bowl of laksa and have them explain to you this native bamboo shoot and native bok choy,” he says. “Until the word ‘native’ fucks off from our vocabulary here in Australia, I’ll be passionate about that. They’re Australian ingredients. It’s not native anything, it’s just an Australian ingredient.”

Original Article: Broadsheet