A trip by Scottish chef Jock Zonfrillo to Australia changed his life and the fate of Australia’s indigenous cuisine. He was on a sabbatical from Restaurant Marco Pierre White that won a third Michelin star but that trip to Sydney was the turning point to an amazing journey of discovery.
“I went back to Europe after this trip and kept thinking and thinking and asking myself why Australia was the only country I had visited where I could not taste anything about the culture of the country. There was no taste of original flavours of the country. There were good restaurants but they were French or European, not Australian.”
Zonfrillo moved to Australia in 2000 and has been there since then going on a journey that has led him to open world renowned restaurant Orana in 2013 which means ‘welcome’ in some aboriginal languages.
While working at Restaurant 41 and Magill Estate Restaurant in Adelaide he set off to try and discover the history and taste of Australian food. And to do that he needed to travel and meet aborigines.
“I’m not creating Australian cuisine from scratch,” he tells Food and Wine Gazette in an interview. “Australia has been a good resource for tens of thousands of years. Aborigial people have been living for 50,000 years and eating off the land. I came to Australia as a Scotsman and just asked a few questions about the culture.”
Zonfrillo said when he travelled to Spain, Italy, China or Japan or Thailand, there is a distinctive cuisine. “There is Italian cuisine, Chinese cuisine, Thai cuisine etc. When I first travelled to Australia in the 1990s there was food, restaurants as well as great French restaurants. I came straight out of a three Michelin star restaurant. There were very good chefs but it was French food, Asian, stir-fry with asian flavours but I could not taste Australia.”
His first conversation with an aboriginal person set him on a journey of discovery that has lasted 16 years. “When I moved here back in 2000 and immigrated permanently, I started to ask questions to aboriginal people. The first aboriginal person I spoke to was a homeless guy. I asked him to share his memories of what he ate as a child, what he had learned about food and seasons.”
“What this man told me was at exactly opposite ends to what all other people had told me when I arrived. I had been told not to bother with aboriginal people or their culture. I had been told that they just put some meat on the fire and eat it. They basically ate for sustenance and that’s it. In other words there was no gastronomic intrigue or value.”
Zonfrillo said that after speaking to this man he had many important conversations with him. One was about a lime tree and how they used it to stuff the branches inside the fish. I tried to draw leaves to show him how it was done in other parts of the world, but he just was saying no and drew what looked like a needle. “He was describing stuffing the fish with the lime tree, with the scales on, using a specific type of wood for the fire. He was talking about the fire, the coals, when the wood burnt and became embers, they had to be a certain size and then they would tap the embers with the stick and then he would know that he could put the fish on the fire. This was almost a philosophical discussion about food and did not reflect cavemen who just ate food just to fill their belly.”
The Scottish chef said this man was talking about how important it was to follow a certain process, make the fire in a certain way, wait until the coals were at a certain temperature and working with limes and aromas. “It was like a conversation with a chef.”
He recalls how he had another conversation about how they fished for stingrays and how they used the livers of the fish. He told Zonfrillo that they would wait for the flowers to blossom, wait for the tide to reach a certain height and then they knew that the waters would be full of fish. They would then go spear-fishing to catch the stingrays. “They would cook the fish two ways, either boiled in sea water or they cook them on a fire, with a particular type of charcoal, fire at a certain temperature, covering them with a eucalyptus leave to keep the smokey flavour inside. But when they cooked the fish, the first thing they did was to cook it belly side down on very hot coals. The belly split, and the liver, which was almost raw was removed. The fish was cooked all the way through and then the liver was cooked for 30 seconds on each side like fois gras and as then rubbed into the fish. The process was just like making brandade. These guys had been making brandade for many thousands of years. This was like brandade on steroids.”
That conversation changed everything because it was here that he learned that there was more to Australia than what people were thinking and it was here that he took the decision to spend time going around the country.
“It has been a bit like going back to school. It is a whole new experience for me. I learnt there are six seasons if not more. Everything is different. I was classically French trained but everything was different. I observed, worked and learnt. It was not just learning about food and drink but more importantly the culture.”
Zonfrillo is also developing a non profit foundation that he hopes will help communities to realise what they have and empower disenfranchised communications he works with to think more about gastronomy by identifying ingredients to harvest.
“I am not saying that I am the definitive answer to gastronomy in Australia. There will be many chefs that will come after me in 10, 20, 30, 50 years. They will have new ideas and new techniques but they must always remember where the roots are. They must celebrate the culture that arrived 40 years ago but also that which dates back thousands of years.”
He says people in the 1980s thought they were eating Australian cuisine but there was no consideration to culture, no respect for the seasons.
There is still a lot of learning that needs to be done, he says. “There has been a lot of misunderstanding of indegenous people and culture. With gastronomy we are trying to change that. We allow people to look at things differently without any politics or misconceptions.
How does today’s trends in world gastronomy effect him? “It does not effect me at all. I am focused on what I am doing. I still have a lot of work to uncover. It is like anything. when you renovate a house or restaurant, you have to strip it. You look at the natural feeling of the building and work on that with your ideas. You have to keep in mind tradition because that is how you obtain the best results. What is happening around the world is always interesting. I spent a lot of time in Brazil with Alex Atala. He and I share the same philosophy. Sometimes, it is important to travel for long in one go. In 2012, I spent months in Rene’s (Redzepi) kitchen to understand his mentality, where to draw the line and whether there was a line that needs to be drawn.
Zonfrillo says that we are at an exciting phase for Australian cuisine. “This is one of the last frontiers to be discovered. There are more chefs experimenting with native ingredients. I have been doing it for a long time. But it would have been impossible for me to open the restaurant before because it would have gone bankrupt in three months. The general public was not ready for it. That has given me plenty of time to think, to learn to experiment, to get things wrong, to have ideas that I thought were fantastic for six months but eight months. By the time I opened Orana I was ready.”
Food photos courtesy of Restaurant Orana