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“It’s incredible and the more you see the other finalists, the jury, the technical jury – I’m just gobsmacked and amazed and honoured to have the support,” says Jock Zonfrillo, chef and founder of the Orana Foundation, fresh from scooping the Basque Culinary World Prize.
For the past 17 years, the Scottish-born chef has dedicated himself to carving out a place for the culinary traditions of first Australians with the Orana Foundation and Orana restaurant, capturing indigenous knowledge, culture and highlighting the spread of delicious ingredients found in Australia.
The colourful chef’s journey hasn't all been plain sailing. Starting with completing one of the toughest culinary apprenticeships in Scotland, to getting sacked from a Michelin-starred restaurant and hitting London during a "crazy time" in his life, to joining Marco Pierre White at the time they were going for three Michelin stars, his journey to his current destination down under in Adelaide has been punctuated with hard work and tenacity: "I set a bar for what I thought was right in terms of standards and I stuck by it, right or wrong."
As the charismatic chef relaxed at home set amongst the vineyards in the Adelaide Hills, playing dad for the day, we found out more about why the foundation will be his life’s work, why “native” Australian ingredients need to go and how being a chef helps you have conversations without barriers.
How does it feel now the news of the win has landed?
The more I look at that I go "wow," and to have the support from those kinds of people the more I feel wow it’s just awesome, it feels really amazing. Virgilio Martinez and Matt Orlando sent a beautiful message this morning, both great friends and great supporters also of what we’re doing. It’s always nice to hear from other people when they lost out and we won, and it just shows you what kind of people they are – they’re just legends.
How did you first get into cooking and fall in love with it?
I think really, when I was young … the first time I went into a kitchen as a chef. Even washing dishes, I was aware of these manic chefs that were part of this machine, that worked like clockwork and every person had a purpose and a job and within that. If you took one of those people away or one of those people wasn’t working properly it was like taking a cog out of a watch and it just wouldn’t work properly. Even though it was my first night I was part of this machine, I was a cog and I had an important part to play. I was addicted to it from that first night.
What first drew you to working with the indigenous communities in Australia and what’s kept you there?
I kind of just didn’t connect with Australia. I came for a year in the '90s and I worked 12 months in Sydney and I just left feeling as if I just didn’t connect. I felt like I’d missed something. As a chef, you sit down in a restaurant and you eat salt and pepper calamari, or a steak or schnitzel and you go what the f***s going on here! I know there are indigenous people here, what’s the food, what does it look like, what’s it taste like, what does it smell like?
Can you tell us about your Orana restaurant in Adelaide and how you pitch it?
The restaurant only exists, really, because we wanted to start the foundation, and we couldn’t really get backing and support it without first showing what the subject matter is.
It was all very well me saying you know, “Hey everybody, we should be taking a look at this culture, the oldest surviving culture in the world. We should be paying attention to the fact that maybe they did, in fact, make the first loaf of bread given there are grinding tools which have been aged at over 50,000 years. There’s a fair chance they actually, in fact, made the first loaf of bread." But it’s not acknowledged.
We couldn’t have that conversation because people were still saying well what’s the outcome of the foundation? You’re talking about creating projects, businesses and enterprises with communities for communities’ benefit but you’re talking about doing it with food and ingredients we’ve never heard of. I knew that, unfortunately, I would have to make a restaurant that was a success globally, really, to draw attention to the subject matter which was indigenous culture and ingredients. The driving force was always the foundation, the restaurant was a necessity, and it still is a necessity, because it’s a window into the work that we do.
Why did you choose Adelaide to locate the restaurant and foundation?
Geographically it’s in the centre of the country, albeit south, and so access to communities is much easier from here. And, furthermore, not just access but if we’re trading with the community for ingredients, those ingredients can reach us 24 hours earlier than the East Coast. And that’s critical in the early stages fo work like this. To get ingredients to the restaurant as fresh as possible for them.
You have described the work of the Orana Foundation as a race against time, why is that?
It’s an orally passed culture. Traditionally stuff hasn’t been written down. So, as the elders pass, we, as outsiders, lose more and more information. And not all that info is ours, well none of it’s ours really; But certainly, some of that information goes a long way to understanding, respecting and acknowledging that culture. So, when that culture’s lost when someone passes, as it hasn’t been passed down or there’s been a misunderstanding, or a misinterpretation of that knowledge or there’s a gap, it’s super hard to re-discover that information given that that culture has been here for such a long period of time. They know more about this land and this climate and soils than anybody else. I feel that it’s like quick sand. It’s like a sand timer, it’s just slipping away bit by bit and every day there’s another piece gone that we might never know of or discover.
Have you noticed a change in perception from diners since first opening?
Yes, absolutely. If we look back to five years ago, when we first opened the restaurant, there were a number of Friday and Saturday nights when we didn’t get any customers at all. Whereas, now, years on, you can see a lot of Australian ingredients in a lot of restaurants around the country. And maybe we had something to do with that along the way, and if we did then I think that’s fantastic. We want people to stop saying it’s a "native" peach or a native whatever, it’s ridiculous. They are Australian ingredients, that’s it.
I just think we’re at a point that in order for us to progress the conversation about indigenous culture and its food, we need to become more accepting of the fact that it’s just Australian – that’s it, end of story. By using the word native, you kind of put up a boundary all of a sudden – there’s this invisible boundary between them and us.
Tell us more about Geraldton wax?
For years I thought it was pine, until I went into that community in Western Australia and they were stuffing barramundi with the herb. When you put that on the fire, you could smell lemongrass, kaffir lime, a phenomenal, amazing smell. In the morning the guy showed me the plant. As it turned out it was Geraldton wax. From there it was very much talking about: here’s this amazing herb that tastes like a cross between lemongrass and kaffir lime and it’s delicious. Great with a gin and tonic or fantastic in a stir fry.
People were looking at it going "That's ridiculous – my grandma grows that in my garden for wax flowers." Everyone kept banging on about wax flowers. And then I did a bit of research and you find out there are over 430 varieties for the horticulture and cut flower industry. Nobody had thought about eating it. And that’s a classic case of not listening, acknowledging or understanding, and a failure to communicate.
As a chef you’ve managed to transcend cultural barriers where policy makers in Australia might have failed, why do you think that is?
We have a conversation about food through gastronomy. I’m a chef and I can walk into a community and have a conversation with somebody about food. I’m there communicating with them about something that is very close to their heart and, also at the heart of their culture. And so, all of a sudden within five minutes of conversation with someone in a community they are able to identify that I’m passionate about food, which they’re passionate about, and the walls come down. I am able to have completely different interactions with communities than most other people. And that’s great. I think that’s at the heart of the Basque award as well. Gastronomy can instigate change and change on a level that politicians, etc. just can’t do.
Does the vulnerability of being a chef help you connect with a community suffering from problems related to social disconnection?
Absolutely. And much greater than that. I think it’s a hard topic to talk about. Particularly, those guys are very sensitive about it and we’re very respectful of it. But, there’s no question about it, a lot of the work we do is certainly geared around assisting and helping wherever we can with subjects like that. Nobody in their right mind wants to see young children commit suicide, nobody wants to see drug problems take over communities. It’s certainly very high on our radar that we can impact a community socially, just as much as we can create benefit. A lot of the negative aspects can be assisted by a lot of these projects, where all of a sudden there’s a reason, there are jobs, there are prospects and there’s hope. And that’s often what a community needs.
What are the Orana foundation’s greatest achievements so far?
I think just getting it up and running and starting the work. Like any topics like this, there are gatekeepers. One of our greatest achievements with the foundation was through gastronomy not going down the route of dealing with gatekeepers at all and just sidestepping them.
We are able to have a conversation directly with indigenous people rather than go through 500 red tapes between them and us before we can start a project and have an understanding, and build trust and understanding together. The database is a classic example. We’re building a database of ingredients. And, while a lot of that knowledge is public knowledge, a lot of that is also the knowledge of indigenous people. It’s not my knowledge, it’s not your knowledge. It’s culturally sensitive info. And I think that’s one of the biggest things. You have to start somewhere.
We’ve made hundreds of mistakes and we’ll make hunfreds more, but nothing will ever happen unless you move forward. Our intentions are 100% pure and for me, that’s the most important thing. We’re able to forge ahead knowing we’re trying to do the right thing.
What legacy would you like to leave your kids and grandkids?
I think I’d like to think I had some hand in changing what Australian food is. If you look at what we were talking about before – when I said it's preposterous this is native goats’ milk, native lobster and so on. I’d like to think the work we’re doing puts an end to that.
The work that we’re doing is not going to be finished in my lifetime, so it would be great if one of the kids could carry on after I’m gone.
Any thoughts on where the prize money will go?
I’m looking forward to a picking project we can do collaboratively with the Basque Culinary Center as well. I would really love to intertwine some kind of fabric from the culinary centre, so the award and the money has more of a meaning long term. Much past the recognition of the award itself.