It was a chance encounter almost 20 years ago with an Aboriginal busker named Jimmy, on the waterfront walkways of Sydney’s Circular Quay, that changed Jock Zonfrillo’s turbulent life forever.
The salty Scottish chef is now the driving force behind Adelaide’s Orana, one of Australia’s most progressive restaurants in the vanguard of places championing native Australian ingredients. Others include influential fine-dining establishments such as Attica in Melbourne, whose head chef Ben Shewry had an episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table dedicated to him, and Peter Gilmore’s restaurants Quay and Bennelong in Sydney.
Back in the ’90s, Zonfrillo had been one of London’s bright young cooks, braising pig’s trotters inside the frenetic, three-Michelin-starred kitchen of the Restaurant Marco Pierre White. It was the dawn of the celebrity chef era and Zonfrillo’s boss was perhaps the very first one. Culinary luminaries such as Gordon Ramsay had trained under White, who had even been dubbed the godfather of this new “art on a plate” style of cooking. European royals, Madonna and princes from the Middle East were just some of the regulars Zonfrillo cooked for.
White’s kitchens were notoriously high-pressure, but the chefs partied as hard as they worked. This was the hedonistic decade of Britpop, Ministry of Sound and Kate Moss, after all. Zonfrillo’s wild lifestyle, however, also included sleeping on the streets. But on the last day of 1999, he packed up and moved to the other side of the world – to Sydney, Australia – to “find a purpose”.
It was something that proved more difficult than he expected. Zonfrillo says that though he loved Sydney, he noticed that Aboriginal culture and its culinary heritage didn’t seem to occupy the honoured place it deserved. Many of the country’s top chefs told him that Aboriginal food traditions simply weren’t worth exploring, that there was no “cuisine” to discover. “So in 2001 I left the kitchen because I couldn’t cook what I thought I should be cooking here in Australia,” he says. That was the day Zonfrillo wandered around Sydney Harbour, winding through the cobbled lanes of The Rocks and discovering Jimmy down at Circular Quay. “I sat down with him and had a four-hour conversation that changed my life.”
Jimmy told beautiful tales of the innate connection Indigenous people have to the land. He explained that in old times, when the tea tree bloomed, communities would come together for a corroboree, a spiritual dance to celebrate the Dreamtime. “But they also organised the corroboree because of food,” says Zonfrillo. “They knew that the tea tree only blossomed when snapper were migrating up the coastline. The trees were sending a message that the snapper had arrived, so they held this big event to hunt the fish and have plenty of it to eat.” Zonfrillo was floored. It was a connection to nature beyond anything he had heard about previously. He realised that people had misunderstood the complexity of what he saw to be the world’s oldest living cuisine.
“The trees were sending a message that the snapper had arrived, so they held this big event in order to hunt the fish and have plenty of it to eat”
Zonfrillo spent years making pilgrimages to far-flung reaches of this vast, sunburnt country, driving for days through the copper-hued, cracked earth of Australia’s dry centre to remote communities. The first was a visit to the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands, an Aboriginal local government area in South Australia of over 100,000km2. It was one of his most confronting and beautiful experiences. “These communities are extraordinarily disadvantaged and there are many serious societal issues, but at the same time they showed me incredible, complex harvesting methods,” he says.
Zonfrillo wants to eliminate the belief many Australians have that Aboriginals had merely survived off the land. “You don’t survive anywhere for 60,000 years – you survive in the freezing cold waters of Alaska for 15 minutes. You thrive for 60,000 years,” he says. In fact, the chef’s early ambition was not to open a restaurant, but rather a food focussed not-for-profit that could somehow give back to the communities he had met. He believed that as a chef, he could connect food and culture and help preserve the harvesting methods he had been shown. But nobody would give him funding. “So it became clear I needed to start the not-for-profit on the back of a really great restaurant.”
Orana, meaning “welcome” in some Aboriginal languages, opened quietly in an elegant upstairs dining space in central Adelaide in 2013. In just five years, the 10-table restaurant has gone on to win two coveted hats (Australia’s equivalent of Michelin stars) and was last year named Gourmet Traveller’s Restaurant of the Year. Zonfrillo’s dinner tasting menu involves a staggering 18 to 20 dishes and is a celebration of Australian ingredients and its Indigenous peoples’ expertise with them.
This palate-pushing food is always evolving. Take, for example, an exquisite salad of kohlrabi pickled in pandan and gubinge (also called the Kakadu plum) which comes with a quandong (known as the native peach), earthy wood sorrel and burrata foam; the dish could be modified the following week to include elderflower, Dorrigo pepper and lemon myrtle instead, depending on what can be sourced from the bush larder. Zonfrillo enthusiastically introduces the latest ingredients his team has been playing with: among them are bunya nuts, which come from prehistoric-sized pine cones that can weigh up to 10kg. These nuts, once a snack for dinosaurs, are cut up to resemble rice and made into a risotto.
The Orana Foundation is now a fully operating not-for-profit organisation, supporting communities to promote native Australian foods, as well as providing skills training and employment. In late 2016, the foundation received a AU$1.25m grant from the state government of South Australia, and six months ago, it partnered with the University of Adelaide on a two-year scientific research project that will build a database of 50,000 or so native Australian ingredients. They hope this will provide the breeding ground for a scalable, sustainable native food production and export industry run by Indigenous communities.
“This all just makes sense,” Zonfrillo says. “Why would you grow rice in Australia with the drought issues we have when we have so many other alternatives?”