Scottish chef Jock Zonfrillo is the driving force behind Adelaide’s Orana, one of Australia’s most progressive restaurants, in the vanguard of establishments championing native Australian ingredients.
Back in the ’90s, Zonfrillo had been one of London’s bright young culinary talents, 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 luminaires 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”.
Zonfrillo spent years undertaking 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, a large Aboriginal local government area of over 100,000km2 located in the far northwest of South Australia. It was one of the most confronting and beautiful experiences of his life. “These communities are extraordinarily disadvantaged and there are many serious societal issues, but at the same time they showed me incredible, complex harvesting methods.”
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 at all, but rather a food-focused 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, which means “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 an unbridled celebration of native Australian ingredients and its Indigenous peoples’ mastery of 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 delicious risotto.
“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?”