[dropcap size=small]H[/dropcap]ow does a meal comprising 17 snacks and eight courses sound? Pushing it further, how does such a meal featuring dishes like pearl meat, dorrigo pepper, crocodile, fermented mangrove seed, black ants, kangaroo, gubinge and ox-eye daisy strike your fancy? No, this is not the Mad Hatter’s party, but a meal at Jock Zonfrillo’s Orana, in Adelaide. Zonfrillo’s genius plumbs the heart and depths of Australia’s Aborigine cuisine – and he isn’t even Australian.
Born in Scotland, Zonfrillo grew up with a healthy respect for food and the land, under the influence of his grandfather, a beef and arable farmer, and his Italian grandmother who instilled a love for good food and quality ingredients. Entering the world of professional kitchens, Zonfrillo worked at renowned establishments like Restaurant Marco Pierre White in London’s Knightsbridge, Michelin-star Chapter One by David Cavalier in Kent, Les Saveurs (also by Marco Pierre White), and The Pharmacy by Damien Hirst.
But it was his year-long sabbatical at Sydney’s Restaurant 41 that turned out to be a watershed for him. Captivated by the country, he grabbed the opportunity to be head chef of the restaurant in 2000. A stint at a consultancy followed, then Zonfrillo went on to head Penfolds Magill Estate Restaurant. During this time, he developed a growing interest in Australia’s indigenous culture and food, and set out on a quest to find out more.
How Australian food was generally defined “incensed” him, in his own words. It was “a bit of everything borrowed from the various cultures living in Australia”. He wasn’t convinced. And so the quest to find what constitutes “Australian cuisine” became a nine-year obsession. As a first step, he decided to talk to an indigenous person – and a rather random individual too, for he had no idea where to start. “There was an indigenous man who played the didgeridoo near where I lived, and one day I decided to sit down and talk to him,” he says. That first conversation in 2000, conducted by the roadside and lasting three hours, launched him into the unique career he has since carved out.
“He said, ‘stick a lime tree into a Murray cod and grill it over a fire.’ I didn’t know what he meant until years later, when I saw it being done by the Aborigines,” he recounts. The “lime tree” turned out to be a branch of the lime myrtle shrub which was used to flavour the cod. Zonfrillo realised that the only way he could get hold of information and knowledge was directly from the indigenous communities. But it took time and effort to get close to them, and to gain their trust, before they would share their knowledge. “They were often hostile and distrusting initially, and would refuse to let me (into their community). But, if they refused, I just came back another time and asked again and again – until they finally said okay,” he says. “I had to earn their trust.”
The learning curve was massive and went far beyond the kitschy “bush tucker food“ that has been around since the early 1990s, which was created more for tourists and novelty’s sake. Zonfrillo went the whole nine yards, first identifying the local ingredients that had been known to the indigenous people since antiquity, then grasping the fundamentals of their cooking culture, learning how they used the ingredients, and internalising the philosophy and reasons behind them. Only then did he attempt to interpret it for the ordinary diner in the urban kitchen. With that, he cooks “Australian food – a cuisine that tastes of this incredible country. We embrace post-settlement Australia, while respecting the culture and knowledge of the first Australians”.
In an unlikely-looking dining room hidden at the top of a fire escape, which seats just about 30, Zonfrillo churns out a completely new vocabulary of food. The cuisine at Orana is a harmonious flow of taste experiences which often features briny tangs from beach-foraged succulent plants, peppery forest ingredients, even a quick-fire savoury tinge from ants. The menu includes a subtle snack of Alexander palm heart heightened by the sweetness of Australian stingless-bee honey, a refreshing salad of pea shoots foraged from the Adelaide Hills, delicate squid with the tangy pop of finger limes, chewy pearl meat with the sparkling heat of dorrigo pepper, an oily yet clean mulloway broth with the gelatinous savoury pops of pig face, a seaside succulent, and a delightfully surprising dessert of smooth curd with minty eucalyptus oil and strawberry.
Flavours are matched in a most unexpected manner, using never-heard-of ingredients – think stringy bark eucalyptus, pig face, green ant, strawberry gum and sea blight – that constantly surprise and excite. Most recently, Zonfrillo has been introduced to sugar lerps, insects that live around eucalyptus tree leaves and suck the sap.
“They build a kind of protective dome to protect themselves while they eat the sap. It’s like a kind of candy, white and sweet like crystallised sugar,” he says. This menu also follows the six seasons which the aboriginal people observe, based on the weather patterns in the outback.
Yet, there are no dramatic fireworks with Zonfrillo’s cuisine. Instead, his dishes are served with a natural restraint and sensibility, respecting and showcasing the natural characteristics of the ingredients. Rather than a spectacle that wows, his cuisine sends the message that while the food of the indigenous people of Australia may be unusual to many of us, it is part of daily life for them. Such is his mindfulness about being culturally ethical and upholding his “responsibility to culture as a chef” that these principles underline his cuisine, which interprets for us the ancient culture of the land.
Jock Zonfrillo on the food destination that excites him.
A cuisine that excites him
“Singapore’s – always Singapore’s. I love spending a few days in Singapore and just working my way through the hawker stalls; there is always something new and exciting to enjoy, as well as old favourites. I love street food because it is the beating heart of a country’s food culture and always feels to me like I am eating in someone’s home. In Australia, I own another restaurant called Street-ADL and we serve popular street-food dishes from around the world, celebrating, of course, our great Australian produce and flavours at the same time.
The Biggest misconception about his cooking
“That it is a form of bush tucker, that it’s all witchery grubs and bushmeat – when it is nothing like that.”
New plans and initiatives
“This year, we are setting up the Orana foundation. It shares the knowledge we have learnt from the (indigenous) communities, to give modern Australia a bigger understanding of its native cuisine and culture – such as the healing properties of (native) ingredients. At the same time, it directly supports the aboriginal communities.”
285 Rundle Street, Adelaide, South Australia.
Tel: +61 8 8232 3444