When news dropped that the Noma restaurant from Copenhagen was relocating to Sydney for a 10 week pop-up showcasing some of the best ingredients in Australia, the food world exploded.
In a video created to launch Noma Australia, head chef and owner René Redzepi, arguably one of the most famous and influential chefs of the hour, explained how he was coming to the country to learn about its produce and to find inspiration in its ingredients. There was months of research and planning before he arrived, bringing with him his band of cooks, his now famous dishwasher, Ali, his entire front of house crew, sommeliers, local foragers and even staff families - around 100 people in total. All of them on a collective mission to taste, dissect, discover and eventually serve up a mix of native produce that Redzepi says: “most Australians have never seen before.”
We’re talking pigface, kakadu plums, a fruit with 50 times more vitamin C than orange, also known as gubinge. Lemon myrtle with its wonderful sherbet aroma, finger limes and their bursting citrus caviar. Neptune’s necklace, what Redzepi describes as the tastiest seaweed he’s ever tried. The list is endless. Fermented kangaroo? Check. Pepper berries, emu bush, mat rush and monstera deliciosa? We got it. Lilly pilly and salted bush lime? No problem. Posting on Instagram (Insty as they call it Down Under) was a nightmare, with serious time spent researching ingredients before hitting send. Once to check for the spelling on the strange sounding plants, nuts and fruits and the second to check the Danish chef, known for his humour and relaxed manner, wasn’t playing a cruel joke. I mean, Lilly pilly? Can that really be true?
“There’s many other things, we just touched it,” is how Redzepi sums up the project. “A lot of the stuff we just started working with and the most interesting thing right now would be the rediscovery of them. Next level, a decade in, would be the processing of them. How does that strange fruit actually become three different sauces? Different broths? So on and so on, how do they become a staple part of the cuisine?”
These are the questions Redzepi says he would ask if the Noma team were staying in Sydney for longer, but they’re not. This was a 12 month project of research culminating in a 10-week pop-up that sold out in minutes. A dinner service that attracted hordes of journalists, a 27,000 strong waiting list and the sort of mass media attention that only a chef like Redzepi can attract. It also added an authoritative voice to the ongoing dialogue about Australia’s dining scene and its use of indigenous ingredients.
What Rene is doing is basically educating
Redzepi says he never started with the intent of pushing the conversation around Australian cuisine, but that is what has inevitably happened. "I would just like more people to understand more about Australia and be more curious about this place," is how he puts it, but when one of the world’s biggest chefs comes to town and starts to cook with ingredients that many locals and professional food journalists have never heard about, let alone tasted, it’s sure to spark curiosity and debate.
“It took a Dane to come here and teach the Aussies how to cook their own food,” I heard more than one person quip while in Sydney, but that’s not entirely fair or true. There’s plenty of Aussie based chefs who have added to the aforementioned dialogue. There’s Peter Gilmore at the Quay and Bennelong restaurants in Sydney serving up a range of native herbs, berries and plants in a ultra-modern style. There’s Ben Shewry in Melbourne at Attica, putting diners in a distinctive sense of Australian place. Jock Zonfrillo at Orana who has dedicated years to unearthing and understanding the mass of wild ingredients that grow across Australia. Kylie Kwong who fuses native plants, herbs and proteins with high energy Asian cuisine. Matt Stone at The Greenhouse, Dan Hunter at Brae and let’s not forget Jennice and Raymond Kersh, former owners of Edna’s Table in Sydney, one of the first restaurants in Australia to champion the use of native ingredients, at a time when it was still illegal in most parts of the country to even consume Kangaroo. The list goes on, even Martin Benn at Sepia - a fine dining stalwart of Sydney - told me he plans to close within two years to open a restaurant that will further explore Australian cuisine.
Change has been bubbling for a long time in Australian dining, you can now buy kangaroo and crocodile in the supermarket and many of the chefs listed above are cooking proteins such as wallaby and emu. What Redzepi has done is amplify the conversation taking place around Australian cuisine, what it is and where it can go next. “You need to incorporate the knowledge from the original people, from the original land," explains the chef, “there’s so much incredible and excited flavour. If you start bringing that into the mix then something is going to happen. Then it’s going to be more profound I think.”
Kangaroo at Barangaroo
“I couldn’t feed people Kanagaroo, man, no one would order it… People called it roadkill and witchetty grubs.” I’m standing in a car park on Sydney’s old Darling Harbour and port when I meet Clayton Donovan, an Aboriginal chef with a big character, big tattoos, a big laugh and an even bigger knowledge of Australia’s vast list of untapped indigenous ingredients, or as he likes to call them, “bush foods”. He’s smoking Kangaroo as he talks, a dish he says was once the signature plate at his restaurant, a now closed venture he happily calls a failed “social experiment.”
It's going to take someone from the outside
We’re standing and smoking the meat in the Barangaroo urban development car park, not the most exotic setting for a barbie but we’re well placed for the discussion we’re about to have. Barangaroo is a newly built, 22 hectare site on the western side of Sydney’s Central Business District. To the left of us is a huge development of corporate and residential space, a mass of slick, shiny skyscrapers, restaurants, plush apartments, retail areas and the temporary home of Noma Australia. To our right is a huge green headland, a place developed specifically to reconnect the historical, cultural and botanical links Australia’s Aboriginal population once had with the area, thousands of years before it was colonised, taken over by settlers and turned into a shipping port back in the 1850s.
50% of this new development has been purposely kept free for green space and is part of an ambitious project to bring back many of the old flora that used to grow in the area. It has involved planting 83 different species that make up around 75,000 plants, all of them native and endemic to the original area. “250 years ago, as you were paddling along the harbour, if you looked back at this headland this is the sort of vegetation you would see,” explains Clarence Slockee who has joined us for the kangaroo smoke out, him and Donovan have been friends for years.
Slockee is an environmental educator who says he loves plants, animals and his Aboriginal culture. He’s spent years working with a range of botanists, Aboriginal tribes and his own family to gain a better understanding of native ingredients, how they are grown, consumed and conserved. The Barangaroo development has come under a lot of scrutiny, mixed in political bureaucracy, a number of plan changes and a controversial casino development, but Slockee is happy with how it’s played out.“This is a fantastic project, the only one of its kind in the world.. We have a lot of threatened species and a lot of extinct species and most of those are actually plant species…This place is trying to bring back these indigenous plants and quite a lot of this is edible.”
As the three of us stand in the car park, Slockee explaining the conservation project and Donovan sprinkling sugar and powdered native bush herbs into the smoker, a jus bubbling on the BBQ, conversation shifts to our left and the mighty Noma pop-up.
“You know, there’s only been a certain amount of research into native ingredients,” says Donovan as a plume of smoke and the whiff of kangaroo surrounds him, “they’re still finding stuff. At the end of last year they found another species of wattle seed, you get a kind of chocolate mocha flavour from them. That’s why Rene’s here, he’s loving it. There’s so many things we have that the general chef doesn’t know anything about. There’s not so much new stuff out there but this is so new and it changes your landscape altogether.”
Donovan says he closed his own restaurant in Nambucca Heads, about five hours drive from Sydney, because he was just too early in “trying to make bush food sexy”. He recounts dishes such as 48-hour citrus cured crocodile, served sashimi style with wasabi creme fresh and coconut foam. Using different bush berries in desserts and always trying to have fun with what he cooked, “I’d use the bush tomato, which is actually from the raisin family, and do a rum and raisin brûlée but diners just weren’t ready for it."
There have been a number of occasions when the pair say they thought bush food was coming to prominence thanks to famous chefs, television shows and particular restaurants, but each time they say the movement hasn't picked up any real momentum. “I’ve watched it now for 20-odd-years in the trade, it’s had three pinnacles of time where in Australia they’ve tried to implicate and push bush foods further and place them into the mainstream, but it all fell to the wayside.
“It’s going to take someone from the outside. We’ve been kicking around doing it and it’s been great with chefs utilising these things but it’s going to take someone of that calibre of chef to come into the place and really kick it off. All the young kids now, what will they want to do? They’ll want to use these bush foods, they’re being inspired by it.”
Redzepi’s arrival also coincides with a big push from Tourism Australia and their, ‘There’s nothing like Australia' campaign. A promotion specifically designed to focus on the strengths of the country’s food and wine offering. It also arrives at a time when diners and journalists are, as Redzepi says, “obsessed with the new”. All of this is happening in a place full of chefs researching and utilising what must be one of the biggest untapped bases of flavours in the world, the momentum Slockee and Donovan have been asking for seems to be hitting speed.
Redzepi certainly agrees: “I think this has been brewing for a while, the first time I came here it was already brewing, bubbling in the air... A lot of this stuff is wild, there’s only a handful of people that’s actually starting to domesticate a lot of these ingredients - they haven’t gone through the 10,000 years of agriculture history like Europe has with most of its foodstuff...It’s something that will take a long time for the prices to go down because it’s such a novel thing. If 100 restaurants wanted it tomorrow there wouldn’t be enough supply.”
Food builds bridges, it's just so powerful.
Many Aussie chefs have spat salt at the sheer amount of money Redzepi can charge for his menu, arguing that the ingredients he uses are difficult to source and cost way too much to run a restaurant year round. However, Slockee, forever the botanist, quickly rebuts: “People like Rene, with his profile, he’s getting the message out there... The fact that we’ll have chefs looking for these ingredients has a flow on effect on the industry, we’re not going to be able to wild source all of this stuff; therefore, we’re going to need to start growing more of these native ingredients.”
“Farmers of native foods do exist”, Donovan adds, “but people have been saying they’re crazy for growing these things. There’s a load of these people around that are doing these different native food farms and it will get cheaper because of the popularity and more people will get into the industry. Hopefully this keeps on rolling out and more farms will generate around Australia. It will knock the money down.” Rene says that the most difficult part of his work was in actually sourcing ingredients and although he thinks it will take a long time for prices to drop because of novelty, he explains that use of these ingredients is the key for creating a profound cuisine in the country.
“What Rene is doing is basically educating,” says Donovan, which he believes is the key to it all. “At my son and daughter’s school, a primary school, they asked me to come and do cooking classes for kindergarten for six months. Popcorn with cinnamon and lemon myrtle, fun kiddy things, kangaroo with bush tomato, making their own cordials without dosing up on sugars. Then we had a little sheet with what the ingredients were, what they’re used for and a recipe that the kids took home.
“I was in town the other week and one of the dad’s, this local builder, says: ‘Oi’, he was just going in the bottle shop. ‘Mate, I’ve got to have a word with you. On Friday I usually get a carton of beer, a dozen oysters and a kilo of prawns. Now, because of you, I still get my carton of beer but I’ve got to get two dozen oysters, another 2 kilos of prawns and what’s this bloody bush tomato shit and wattle seed? And where do I get them from, mate?’ This big, stocky builder, asking that, it was great…Those kids now look at our Native foods like onions, garlic and carrots and that’s what it really needs to be driven through.”
Native ingredients are now more prevalent on menus across the country than ever
Rene also echoes the education sentiment and has himself recently got involved with the Danish food curriculum: “That’s where you change things, that’s where you change things for a real. In a generation people can have a totally different perspective on their landscape, on who they are, on the food they grew up with. They can have an identity and it can belong to the land.”
The original Barangaroo name refers to an Aboriginal woman who was the wife of Bennelong, the man thought to be the first Aboriginal to act as bridge between British colonists and local Aboriginals. “The history around Aboriginal Australia has literally put breaks on culture”, says Slockee, “My great grandparents, for instance, were forbidden to speak the language, forbidden to practice culture. So automatically you have this massive speed bump and a big gap starts to form.”
Both Slockee and Donovan hope that the bridging of cultures at the table will be a strong way of helping fill these gaps. Donovan thinks it's something that all local chefs should feel responsible for, and Mitch Orr, a young Australian chef who runs the Acme restaurant, seems to agree. He says that although the native people of Australia are one of the oldest cultures on Earth this has not translated to the food on offer in the country. "Native ingredients are now more prevalent on menus across the country than ever, and there are chefs and other members of the industry working with indigenous communities on small scales, trying to make a change to the damage that's been done... This isn't to say it should be what defines us now, in 2016," says the chef, "Without knowing our past we can't move into the future."
The irony of local and international diners now flocking to Sydney, happy to pay $500 to eat ingredients once deemed as ‘witchetty grubs’ is certainly not lost on Slockee and Donovan who laugh hard at the idea. But this is serious stuff for them, a cultural crossing that should have happened a long time ago and one they hope is finally coming to fruition. “Food builds bridges, it's just so powerful," says Slockee, “it just brings it all together, it doesn’t show any colour. It’s one of the oldest rituals in the world, man. If it wasn’t a table it was sitting around a fire, or a rock, and all sharing.”
And with that, we tuck into our kangaroo.