Australia Restaurant Of The Year Showcases Boom In Native Ingredients

Australia restaurant of the year showcases boom in native ingredients

When award-winning chef Jock Zonfrillo opened Restaurant Orana in the southern Australian city of Adelaide in 2013, he had a point to prove: native Australian ingredients are not "B-grade."

"We're not doing 18 courses of witchetty grubs (moth larvae)," said Zonfrillo. "We're making delicious food and we're doing it with Australian ingredients."


Even today native foods are rarely used in everyday cooking, unable to shake the gimmicky, witchetty grub stereotype created in the 1980s and 90s when the industry experienced a boom, primarily as a novelty for tourists.

But Zonfrillo is one of a growing number of chefs and foodies working to champion the little-known ingredients and see them used widely and, importantly, deliciously.

Restaurant Orana's 18-course degustation menu features foods most people have never heard of before, like kangaroo tendon served with Tasmanian mountain pepper or flathead fish cooked in a fire pit, with eucalyptus, smoked potato and leek.

So remarkable is the Scottish-born chef's cooking that Orana -- which means "welcome" in several Aboriginal languages -- won Australia's Restaurant of the Year in September.

"We had to do this," said Zonfrillo, who hopes the status the award brings to his restaurant will change the way people see native ingredients, once derisively dismissed as "bush tucker."

"Bush tucker" is an Australian term referring to the over 6,500 native varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs and meats that indigenous Australians have eaten and used in medications for tens of thousands of years.

"Even the name 'bush tucker.' It's the s..t version of real food," said Zonfrillo, 41, punctuating his ideas with the colorful language of a veteran chef.

"Is it bush tucker? Or is it just...Australian ingredients?"

According to the native food industry's apex body, Australian Native Food and Botanicals, interest in "bush tucker" has surged in recent years, with increased demand coming from Australian and overseas markets, particularly Asia.

"I would estimate quite confidently that in the last five years [the industry] has increased by 40 percent, it's been that quick," said ANFAB chair Amanda Garner.

Indeed, the industry has become so popular so suddenly that producers -- who almost exclusively forage and harvest from the wild -- are struggling to keep up with demand.

"We've had a lot of interest from Asia recently," Garner said. "But say an Asian country rings up and wants 200 tons of Kakadu plum, there's absolutely no way we can provide that."

According to Garner, demand has increased partly due to chefs featuring native ingredients in their luxury restaurants and showing the variety of produce available.

Or as Zonfrillo explains: "If you want to start a revolution, you need to make it easy for people to join."

Another entrepreneur behind the native food revolution is Daniel Motlop, the 36-year-old owner of Something Wild, Australia's first Indigenous-owned native greens and game provider.

As well as selling a range of products from his Adelaide Central Market store, the former Aussie Rules footballer has collaborated with a local distillery to create a gin flavored with native green ants.


The ants, which Motlop grew up eating in the Northern Territory, have bright, emerald-colored abdomens and a sweet, citrus flavor, not unlike sherbet powder.

For gin distiller Sacha La Forgia of Adelaide Hills Distillery, the flavors are a perfect match with gin -- though having to taste the ants for the first time was a challenge for him.

"Daniel gave me something like a half-kilo tub of ants and told me to have a play around with them, but I think I just put them in the freezer and tried to forget about them," 29-year-old La Forgia admits.

"But after six months he came by and said 'Eat an ant!' so I did, and they were great. It was very easy to create after that."

The gin, which has also been flavored with other native botanicals like finger lime and lemon myrtle, is due to be distributed in Japan later this year, and is already a hit with local drinkers.

"We're pushing the boundaries so native foods can be in a product that people can just buy," said Motlop, who also has plans to release a wattleseed beer in the near future.

But perhaps the most significant impact of the growing native foods industry is the flow-on effect it has on Aboriginal communities in remote parts of Australia.

For Motlop, being able to help create jobs and education opportunities is a major part of his business, which hires 40 Aboriginal harvesters.

"Our employment is all Indigenous, so all the harvesters and pickers and gatherers, they're all Aboriginal. So it's created jobs," said Motlop.

"We try to set up small harvesting businesses in Aboriginal communities around Australia and then they also hire a certain amount of pickers as well, so that creates jobs in places where there are no jobs."

Indigenous Australians, who account for 3 percent of the population, are some of the country's most disadvantaged citizens.

Along with being over-represented in the prison system, only two-thirds of Aboriginal Australians have completed high school, while almost one in two are jobless.

Having spent years in various Aboriginal communities, learning about native ingredients and Indigenous food culture, Jock Zonfrillo is also determined to help communities profit from their own history and culture.

The chef established the nonprofit Orana Foundation in 2016 to help develop Indigenous enterprise through supporting communities to research, document and commercialize native foods.

"It was incredibly humbling, but also very disturbing for me to go into some of these communities and see the poverty."

"This is the world's oldest culture, it's a culture that was making bread, probably, 40,000-50,000 years before the Egyptians were building pyramids," Zonfrillo said.

"If we're not looking after this and preserving this, what are we all doing here?"

As for the future of native ingredients, Zonfrillo is not simply optimistic. He is certain the foods will become mainstream.

"It has to," said Zonfrillo. "It grows everywhere, (and) it doesn't need a huge amount of irrigation or chemicals. It makes too much sense not to."