Chef Zonfrillo is not alone in making efforts to encourage Indigenous ingredients and cooking methods. Michael Ingrey is the general manager of the National Indigenous Culinary Institute (NICI), which launched in Sydney in 2012 – in 2015 it also set up a campus in Melbourne – and trains around 20 Indigenous apprentice chefs each year. Ingrey hails from an inner-Sydney Aboriginal community in La Perouse, on Botany Bay. It’s part of the Dharawal region, where millennium-old rock engravings by the Dharawal people are found on cliffs that run down the coastline.
“My dream is to see one of our students as the head chef of a world-class fine-dining restaurant,” says Ingrey.
NICI graduates and twin brothers Luke and Samuel Bourke aren’t too far off. Luke is now employed at Sydney’s famed Rockpool while Sam works nearby at Rosetta, another of Neil Perry’s fine-dining restaurants. Despite the Western flavours foregrounded at their day jobs, they’ve both taken on the responsibility to pay tribute to their roots. Luke has spent time foraging in Sydney and Canberra with Elijah Holland, a chef who now runs Natures Pick, which supplies seasonal wild ingredients to restaurants. One of the highlights for him was discovering saltbush, a native herb that flourishes in the arid climate of central Australia. Samuel, meanwhile, travelled to the Tiwi Islands off the coast of Darwin. “It was a deep dive into how native foods are sustainably caught and grown and how healthy they are,” he says.
What Zonfrillo, Ingrey and the twins are perhaps most interested in, though, is how food could be a conduit for reconciliation in Australia. “The best conversations start over the dinner table. If people can start talking positively about native ingredients and food, this will flow on to the other bigger issues – human rights, colonisation and coming to terms with this country’s dark past,” Ingrey says. “Food creates community connections and partnerships, and therefore a greater understanding about culture and traditions,” adds Luke.
“Food creates community connections and partnerships, and therefore a greater understanding about culture and traditions”
Located in Melbourne’s Fitzroy, Charcoal Lane is the only hatted social enterprise restaurant in Australia. Everything at Charcoal Lane is a celebration of Indigenous Australia, from the unique cuisine to the cocktails and the fascinating stories and knowledge that its Indigenous chefs and front-of-house team pass on to patrons. Even the building has a significant history as the former home of the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service.
The chefs here are passionate about the protection of the native ingredients they use. “You can’t compare the kales and the quinoas to what we have in our backyard,” says Spencer Holmes, one of Charcoal Lane’s third-year apprentices who will graduate this year. He explains that the Kakadu plum, a small, green desert fruit that looks like an olive, has the same vitamin C content as around 20 oranges.
Charcoal Lane opened in 2009 and has about 30 students from disadvantaged backgrounds enrolled in its Certificate II programme each year. Holmes prepares a tasting plate and describes the colourful spread: there’s karkalla, a plump and crunchy native succulent found on sand dunes and cliff faces around the country’s rugged shores, that tastes like high-quality anchovy; a medley of jewel-coloured berries and the ingredient du jour, the finger lime; and a smoked eel mille-feuille with a crunchy twig of saltbush and a slice of emu. “It means the world to me to have the chance to learn about the food my ancestors cooked,” says Holmes.
Back in Adelaide, Jock Zonfrillo brings our chat back to Jimmy the busker. He hasn’t seen him since their discussion, but often thinks of him. Circular Quay was, ironically, the site of the first landing of the First Fleet in Port Jackson on 26 January, 1788, a date Australia celebrates as its national day. There has been significant debate about whether a celebration of this date is appropriate, and a groundswell of support for changing it.
Zonfrillo is just one of those campaigners and hopes the food of Orana can help educate a wider group of people on the importance of reconciliation. “Food is a subject that crosses all boundaries and cultures. That connection to food, the land, the earth – that is something that so many people in the world right now are looking for, and it’s been here the whole time.”
– PHOTOGRAPHY BY PETER TARASIUK
This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of SilverKris magazine.