OUTBACK TO THE FUTURE
WORDS ZANE LOVITT | IMAGES PER-ANDERS JÖRGENSEN
Jock Zonfrillo will do almost anything to convince Australians they need an authentic cuisine as amazing as the native ingredients. The Adelaide chef has visited more than 250 Aboriginal communities in the past years. On this trip to remote Nauiyu, crime writer Zane Lovitt joins the revolution.
Jock Zonfrillo looks as though he shouldn’t know how to cook. Even in his whites and apron, even hailing guests at the restaurant door, even reciting for you the facts of a given dish; his tattoos, his unruly hair, his gift for profanity suggest a punkish hipster. Not the owner and chef of a fine-dining establishment in central Adelaide. And not – especially not – the leader of a culinary expedition whose modest objective is the realisation of a wholly new cuisine.
One of those tattoos is a skull-and-crossbones, nestled among the Scottish flag and his children’s names. It’s there to remind him of his motto: “Why join the navy when you can be a pirate?” ”Really.” he says. “I mean, fuck the navy.”
For the record, he doesn’t look like a pirate either.
There are only six tables at Orana and it’s a fixed menu, while downstairs at Street there are communal tables and the menu is fixed to the wall. Jock is in charge of both eateries, but it’s Orana where the lights are dimmed just so, where there’s a sommelier introducing wines to your table, where the restaurant manager clears the plates. And it’s Orana where Jock’s culinary expeditions take flight.
But first, before the culinary expeditions, come the actual expeditions.
Darwin is 3,000km north of Adelaide, and the capital of the Northern Territory. Even so, it feels like a remote mining town. There’s dust in the wake of every car and the streets are empty on a Sunday. To get there you fly over a conveyor belt of open quarries and upturned earth, where Australia’s natural resources boom booms on.
But Jock is on the hunt for a very different kind of natural resource.
This part of the Northern Territory is red dirt and bushland cut into generous portions by straight roads that run forever. You can drive all day without having to turn the wheel or even brake, but for the occasional flock of wedge-tailed eagles feasting on roadkill. There are termite mounds that rise taller than a tall person and hiking out here you could easily get lost and never be heard from again.
In contrast to the loneliness outside, Jock’s phone is a perpetual onslaught of beeps and alerts. You wouldn’t think one man could be so popular. He reads the messages and writes back, while driving at a hundred on the open road. In the coming days it becomes clear that Jock needs two phones, and it’s not unusual to see him writing on both at once. When they’re not using a phone, when they’re not flambéing or shucking, his hands are balls of fidgeting energy, frantic without something to do.
After four hours of driving, our rented Land Cruiser arrives at a billboard: 'Welcome to Naiuyu, Daly River'. Naiuyu is pronounced Noy-oo-yoo.
This is a small town built around its football oval. The homes are single-storey and rambling and there are dusty boats parked in the driveways. It’s a tropical place full of palm trees and parrots. Dogs lie like corpses in the shade.
Most Aboriginal communities have a dedicated space for Aboriginal art. When Jock arrives somewhere for the first time, that’s where he goes. He can use the artwork to familiarise himself with the local foodstuffs: paintings of turtles and cherrubin, silkscreen prints of crocodile eggs and barramundi. It’s also where he meets people. Here, at the Merrepen Arts Centre, Jock meets Kieren Karritpul McTaggart, an artist who, a week from today, will win the Youth Prize at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards.
For now, however, he’s just an ordinary bloke. But his mother, who comes and sits with Jock beneath the ceiling fans, is far from ordinary.
Patricia Marrfurra McTaggart has fuzzy hair, bright, floral clothes and large spectacles on the crown of her head. She is quietly spoken and thoughtful. You have never met a person for whom the term ‘soulful’ is more appropriate. She has books about local plants and animals to her name, as well as dictionaries for the Ngan’gikurunggurr and Ngen’giwumirri languages. She hunts pigs, ducks, geese and wallabies and she’s licensed to drive a truck.
You hear this and you wonder if, in those dictionaries, there’s a translation for the phrase, “Renaissance Woman”.
It’s Jock’s experience that the person locals turn to for foraging and cooking advice is invariably a female elder. When people show up to ask her questions about bush tucker, they’re usually survivalists and military groups learning how to locate food in the wild, learning how to make traps out of whip vine, how to repel insects with cypress bark. But when Jock tells her why he’s here, she responds with a smile: ”You’ve come to the right person.”
Two years ago, during a seminar at the Margaret River Food Festival in Western Australia, Jock and the other panel members were asked about the possibility of a genuinely Australian cuisine. One of the attending chefs told the audience that “Australia is a young country, only 200 years old.”
To hear Jock tell it, he rebuked this comment so thoroughly that he earned himself a round of applause. And with his personable blend of hyperbole, profanity and self-assurance, it’s easy to imagine.
“It’s still, even now, two years later, quite a common thing here in Australia. People forget that indigenous people have been here for 40,000 years, and not just surviving, but prospering. Strong young men. Strong families living very happily on this land for tens of thousands of years before we even got here.”
Jock got here as a teenager in the early 1990s. As well as naïve surprise at the dearth of kangaroos hopping down Sydney streets, he felt the sobering surprise that would come to define his professional life.
“It was confusion. And it was a little bit of sheer amazement. How could we be this country with these amazing ingredients, but with no cuisine? It just didn’t make sense to me. I was dumbfounded by it, really. Slightly annoyed by it. Incensed by the fact that there’s such amazing produce here and no one had really given it the attention it deserves.”
So what Orana does is, it gives it the attention it deserves.
Even to an average Australian, one well-experienced in the eating of food, Orana’s menu reads like something from a Roald Dahl book: frozen green ant sorbet; crocodile and pickled grey mangrove. That, or a list of made-up words: smoked Goolwa cockle, Bunya and spruce pine, iceplant and bullrush ash, pandanus mother, vetch pea shoots, fermented lilly pilly.
In fact, your average Australian might have heard of pandanus or lilly pilly, but they didn’t know you could eat them. They might have heard of green ants, but they didn't know you could use them instead of lemon to season a dish. Your average Australian doesn’t know these things and yet, at any given moment, you can look around the dining room and spot your average Australian muffling their orgasms as they reach for another bite.
Jock’s four-wheel-drive follows Patricia’s four-wheel-drive out of town and into the wilderness of greater Daly River. On the back window of her car it looks like someone has written 'RED EARTH' where 'WASH ME' should be. It’s like a public declaration of the spiritual context in which they operate, a reminder to whitefellas of the connection these people have with their environment – although Patricia later clarifies that it reads 'ICED EARTH', a heavy metal band from Florida, USA, and was painted there by the fingers of local teenage devotees.
The cars arrive at a portion of bushland recently burned off by the locals. This is a traditional method of land management that leaves eerie segments of blackened trees and ash that crackles beneath your feet. Four women emerge from Patricia’s car and scour the ground for tell-tale green sprouts, those that seem indistinguishable from all the other green sprouts but which have such singular attributes as to prompt each of these women to sit cross-legged in their chosen place and hammer the dirt with crowbars.
To their number is added a Scottish chef, mucking in despite the heat of the day. His addition is a surreal image. But in a place as alien as this, surrealism is not difficult to achieve.
Therese kills a red centipede with a rock. She is Patricia’s cousin and roughly the same age, with straggling grey hair and a deceptively diminutive figure. Later she’ll point to her ankle and say, “See that? That’s a march fly. I’m gonna kill it.” And she does, with her bare hand.
A small plane passes overhead and everyone stops to look. Planes are rare in these parts. The conversation picks over what it might be doing.
“Care flight,” Therese says. “You know, doctors.”
Then she says, as if apropos of nothing: “Watch out for death adders.”
She doesn’t look to see the reaction.
The ground is hard like rock and heavy strokes are required. These are physically strong women, who dig, dig, dig, and Jock is equal to the task, bringing to bear the right mix of power and delicacy.
The aim is to fully unearth the carrot without breaking it.
Finally, Patricia’s comes free. She peels it and offers a piece. To eat it raw you chew the fleshy outside and spit out the fibrous core. Jock declares that it tastes like a cross between a potato and a raw chestnut.
“I’ve never had it before,” he says. “I think it’s amazing. Surprising it’s so sweet when the ground here is so dry. Fibrous but juicy at the same time.”
He says that, at Orana, bush carrots could be a stand-alone dish.
But the first step will be to break down that tough core. This might be attempted a hundred times, over the course of years, before the Orana team finds the right method and temperature. Perhaps a long period of braising, or fermentation, or the introduction of an acid or a heavy alkaline to assuage the texture. It’s the same experimentation that happened centuries ago to garlic, coffee, cocoa, olives…
Dig, dig, dig, until you unearth the solution.
This is what the forging of a cuisine looks like.
Most of the food at Orana grows wild and has to be foraged by Aboriginal communities, by professional foragers, or by Orana’s own kitchen staff.
They’re on rotation, each spending a month at a time gathering food in the Adelaide Hills.
‘We’ve got a pretty good base knowledge about what is here, there and everywhere, especially during seasonal change,’ says Shannon Fleming, head chef. ‘So it might be as easy as going for a couple of hours into the hills with my kids. They love it.’
And it’s this proximity to wild food that accounts for Orana’s location. Adelaide provides better access to the rest of the country, to all of the country. Wild produce doesn’t transport well.
Of course there’s a touch of ego in the way Jock talks about himself, but if this project were just about ego, if he merely wanted to be a household name, if he craved the label of Australia’s Most Fashionable Eatery, surely he would have opened in Sydney.
Jock’s boundless self-confidence has inspired considerable loyalty in his staff, many of whom came with Jock, when he left his last workplace, Penfolds’ Magill Estate restaurant, to share in the inception of Orana.
‘I could count my friends on one hand. Friends are kind of nowhere, really. I think my closest friends are the guys who I work with, who I consider my family. That’s it.’
The kitchen here is the size of a toolshed and it’s astounding that this should be the laboratory for Jock’s brand of mad-scientist experimentation. And yet the small space can only encourage – enforce – camaraderie among the scientists.
Recently, when Kylie Kwong sought advice from Jock for the creation of a beer flavoured with indigenous ingredients, some of his staff were disappointed that Jock so readily divulged his secrets. But Jock says that this missed the point: the goal is not a great dish or even a great restaurant, but a gastronomical revolution.
‘What I’m trying to do is I’m trying to connect everybody. The more people get involved, then the more genuine and amazing it will be. If it’s just one guy doing it, it’ll be shit.’
Jock Zonfrillo hates mosquitoes. He’s following Patricia’s Land Cruiser and he’s killing mosquitoes with an unexpected zeal.
When I ask him if he’s tried eating mosquitoes, he says, “Yeah, I have.”
He says, “They taste like blood. I didn’t like it, but I had to try it. It’d been eating my arm so it had to die.”
Something else that happens as he drives through the bush is Jock’s phone loses and then gains reception. These moments are like Armageddon, when every message, tweet and email he’s received in the last hour arrives at once.
The convoy passes through a remote patch of bush scattered with empty beer cans, empty bottles of grog. A leafless tree is decorated with cans and bottles and it’s almost artistic, almost Christmas. An exotic fruit tree bearing a very different kind of bush tucker. Patricia’s car doesn’t stop. When they reach the billabong it’s alive with bugs.
“This one smells all right,” Jock says. “A lot of billabongs stink.”
They’re here to find the tuba of the white lily, which drifts beneath the water and tastes like potato if the billabong is clean. Orana already uses these in a black pepper paste served with blue swimmer crab, but Jock hopes that this community will represent a new supplier.
“Whenever we can help a community by paying for it, obviously we will do that. I would sooner buy it from a community, over and above anything farmed or mass-produced. And I’m happy to pay a little bit more for it.”
Sometimes these communities are stunned by how much Jock is willing to pay. “There’s a whole financial aspect for them, to help fight for land rights, to help with schooling for the kids, buying textbooks, crayons, pens, pencils. There are a number of medications that are required in communities that they have to pay for. So there’s a huge reason to purchase from a community. But above all else, it’s an act of honesty. It’s an act of breaking bread. It’s one step closer to unity, to celebrating this place together. As opposed to them and us, you know?” Patricia wades into the water. Jock doesn’t hesitate to wade in, skinny jeans rolled up as far as skinny jeans will go.
It’s easy to imagine that the term ‘bush tucker’ was coined by Jamie Oliver, perhaps while touring Australia to promote his latest whatever. But actually it’s been the name for indigenous food, in white and black communities, ever since settlement. In the 1980s it started to trend, helped along by the broadening Australian palate and popular TV programs.
“When bush tucker happened in the eighties and nineties, they picked a handful of ingredients and thought, 'These will be marketable, we can mass-produce them, let’s go.' And then there was no information given to the marketplace as to what to do with them.”
According to Jock, this meant that consumers did little more than garnish an existing menu, or else they dried out native foods and used them as a meat rub.
“And that was supposed to be Australian,” Jock says.
“All you’re left with is something which isn’t really understood, but which is really really fucking good, but which is just sprinkled over a European menu. It’s hardly surprising that it didn’t work.”
Today, ’Modern Australian’ is the closest thing to a national food style, being a minor, local twist on recognisably international dishes. “It’s fusion, mostly pan-Asian,” Jock says. “Barramundi on a bed of bok choy.”
What he and the Orana crew have consciously developed is a form of cooking that begins with indigenous ingredients and traditional cooking methods, then enhances them with other ingredients, other cooking methods. If pumpkin will enhance the dish, they will add pumpkin. There is beetroot and coconut and goat's cheese in their meals. So it’s not bush tucker, it’s not Modern Australian, it’s not strictly native, but it’s not fusion either.
Jock says, “What’s wrong with calling it Australian?”
You wonder if there might be a problem with naming a cuisine after a country that doesn’t eat that cuisine. Not the way it eats Chinese or Indian or Italian. But the obvious reply is: not yet.
Patricia’s extended family has gathered beside the billabong for dinner, preparing a fire of bark from the whitegum trees. Including Jock, there are enough attendees to constitute a ‘mob’, a collective noun applied by the locals to literally anything.
Yesterday, Therese caught a mob of turtles, using a hook and line and raw meat as bait. It’s gruesome to watch, but the traditional method of killing a long-necked turtle to hold it by the head and twist the neck like a wash cloth. Therese kills one expertly, almost without noticing she’s done it. She sets it on the fire.
Andrew, who can't be more than seven years old and who, until now, has been sneaking up and shooting people with a toy gun, concentrates and twists the head of the second turtle. Shana is the same age and she squeals, “There's fat coming out, Andrew! You just killed it a lot!”
Don't tell Shana, but when that turtle gets placed on the fire, it starts kicking. Therese removes it. ”You might have to double twist him,” Bikhita says.
It seems impossible to understate how important it is to have the children participate, as well as the next generation of adult males, like Patricia’s son, the artist, Kieren. For the same reason, it is impossible to understate the enormity of the task these women have undertaken: to preserve their knowledge base. This technique for finding yams. That method of cooking kangaroo tail. This sound the white cockatoo makes to warn of crocodiles.
Therese says, “We want our culture to survive, unna? I think it might be dying.” “It is dying,” Bikhita says. And if you ask why, Therese will tell you: “It’s the drugs and alcohol.”
This is the same answer they gave Jock when he told them they were the first community he’d visited where the women did the hunting.
It reminds me of the beer cans that were strewn around the alcoholic Christmas tree. And it makes me realise how few Aboriginal men I’ve seen since I arrived in Daly River. Kieren is the only Aboriginal man here at the fire.
The turtles are given just a minute on the hot coals before they’re removed and the intestines are pulled out through the neck.
“We eat the guts too,” Therese says. These are cooked separately and taste like calamari.
The rest of the turtle is returned to the coals, shell-up. You tap them with your stick and when they sound hollow, they’re done. Just like baking bread.
“It’s a race against time,” says Jock. “Across Australia, there’s a large group of elders that will pass away in the next five years. We want to capture that information somehow. It should be available to their people. If we can do that, it’s as much for them as for us.”
Shana and Andrew teach me the kurunggurr word mamak, which means goodbye. Then they come and sit with me by the fire. Is there a sadder sight in the world than a turtle cooked on hot coals? Charcoal black, every limb stretched and solid…Mamak, long-necked turtle.
These barbecued reptiles are torn apart now on a plate of green plum leaves. Salt is added from a massive homebrand bottle and the group consumes everything but the bones, the shell and the bladder.
Therese has to leave. She does the night patrol from six o’clock, helping to pick up the drunks at the pub and take them home. As she pulls away, the crowd waves, “Mamak!” One wonders how long it will be before they’re waving mamak to this way of life.
Jock was born in Glasgow to an Italian father and a Scottish mother. At the age of 12 he was washing dishes, saving for a fancy bicycle. By 21 he was running the kitchen at the Hotel Tresanton in Cornwall. His UK resumé includes working at The Restaurant Marco Pierre White at the former Hyde Park Hotel, now Mandarin Oriental.
He first came to Australia in the 1990s but he settled here in 2000, which is the same year he recovered from his seven-year heroin addiction.
You ask if he’s replaced heroin with something else, and he says, “No. Except maybe work.” Which might account for this all-consuming life mission.
‘I knew I was setting myself up for a long series of battles, personally and professionally. And I was right. Two marriages later, I was fucking right. And both times because I live and breathe and am obsessed by food.’
The long hours of a dedicated chef are well-known, but on top of that has been Jock’s commitment to firsthand experience of these communities. Experiences that can’t be gleaned by phone. Can’t be Googled.
“Both of my ex-wives would say, ’There is always fucking something.’ And it’s true, there is. There is always fucking something. There is always a phone call from a community to say ’Quick! The emu plums are in season,’ and I haven’t seen them before. Do I go and watch a movie with my wife, or do I jump on a plane and go and have a look at this amazing thing? I’m going to jump on a fucking plane.”
While his marriages may have ended, his fatherhood has not. There’s a daughter in Sydney and a second in Adelaide. “Because I travel a lot, out to communities for weeks at a time, I don’t get to see my kids. But that doesn’t give me second thoughts about doing this, because my hope is that they will understand why I’m doing it, eventually.”
Does that mean they don’t understand right now?
“The younger one, she’s only eight, she just wants her dad. She just wants her dad to be at home. And she can’t, like any eight-year-old, can’t comprehend why dad has to go away and travel somewhere rather than spend a weekend with her. It’s nothing to do with the subject, it’s just an eight-year-old missing her parent.”
Wild ducks, hunted and shot by Miriam, are beheaded, plucked and gutted. As Jock looks on, Patricia appears to unfold the duck with her hands, removing pieces of bullet as she goes.
“That’s not your normal spatchcock…” Jock says.
They’re placed over the coals beside other cargo, a local word for meat. This includes wallaby fillets and bones and a pot holding wallaby heart and liver, cooking in water.
“We eat everything,” Patricia says. “Eat the brain, the eye, the tongue. Everything.”
The group feasts as the sun sets. The swarm-noise of insects builds like an approaching army. It’s time to leave Daly River. There are hugs, mamaks. Andrew shoots from the window of the four-wheel-drive. Jock promises to come back in October in time for magpie geese. This has been a short trip – usually he’d stay for weeks – but it’s been long enough for him to learn about bush carrots, to purchase ducks and long yams. You wonder if this place is truly special, or if this warmth and togetherness is typical of life in these communities, so far from the swarm-noise of the city.
Driving back to Darwin, Jock can barely contain himself. The speed of the Land Cruiser on the open road seems to add to his sense of eureka. He’s ignoring the mosquito that bumps its head against the window. He’s even ignoring his phone.
The source of his distraction is the local method for spatchcock, and his excitement pours out of him like a dam burst. I manage to record some of it on my phone. Here is just a fragment: “…the way they’ve done it, the two legs are beside the breast, so you can sit the two legs on the grill, with the breast hanging off so it doesn’t overcook, and the bird cooks evenly. It’s fucking genius. It’s fucking genius…”
A meal at Orana gives you a glowing sense of privilege, and not all because of the wine. The Orana family is there to say goodbye and to be lauded, deservedly, for the serving of a meal that was what it was supposed to be: a lush, exceptional experience. Mind-bending. Unique. And woven through it was something that felt like the stirrings of a culinary movement. Whether you’re right about that, or whether you’ve merely been swept up in the passion of one Scottish chef and a kitchen so delectably inspired by the frontier it inhabits, remains to be seen.
Jock is in no doubt. Chef, pirate, scientist, adventurer, potty-mouth; he is unconsciously adopting a new role – conservator.
The Orana Foundation is, in part, an incorporation of Jock’s ideals and his hopes for Australian cooking. But it is also intended to address the increasing fragility of Aboriginal culture, a fragility that Patricia and the Naiuyu people are battling against with every fire, every hunt. To support them in that battle, it will be a hub for communities, researchers and chefs; to share knowledge, to preserve it, and to develop it in perpetuity. The Orana Foundation, Jock says, will make native food, and the body of research surrounding it, available to all.
“I know that, if I do this properly, many people will start looking at these ingredients with a fresh pair of eyes. Chefs who are much better cooks than I am will make even better things, make even more connections, start visiting these communities and making new dishes. And eventually you’ll have a really amazing, unique cuisine in this country.”
Jock says, “You know, I’m not going to bring this journey to a point and say, 'Here’s Australian cuisine.' That’s going to happen long after I’m gone. And that’s really what the foundation is all about, to make sure that happens, whether I’m here or not.”
He says, “This will continue long after I’m dead.”
Zane Lovitt is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia. His first novel, The Midnight Promise, was published by The Text Publishing Company in 2012
”WHAT I’M TRYING TO DO IS I'M TRYING TO CONNECT EVERYBODY. THE MORE PEOPLE GET INVOLVED, THE MORE GENUINE AND AMAZING IT WILL BE. IF IT´S JUST ONE GUY DOING IT, IT'LL BE SHIT”
“IT’S A RACE AGAINST TIME, ACROSS AUSTRALIA, THERE’S
A LARGE GROUP OF ELDERS THAT WILL PASS AWAY IN
THE NEXT FIVE YEARS. WE WANT TO CAPTURE THAT INFORMATION SOMEHOW. IT SHOULD BE AVAILABLE TO THEIR PEOPLE. IF WE CAN DO THAT, IT’S AS MUCH FOR THEM AS FOR US.”
… IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO UNDERSTATE THE ENORMITY OF THE TASK THESE WOMEN HAVE UNDERTAKEN TO PRESERVE THEIR KNOWLEDGE BASE. THIS TECHNIQUE FOR FINDING YAMS. THAT METHOD OF COOKING KANGAROO TAIL. THIS SOUND THE WHITE COCKATOO MAKES TO WARN OF CROCODILES.
IT’S GRUESOME TO WATCH,
BUT THE TRADITIONAL METHOD OF KILLING A LONG-NECKED TURTLE TO HOLD IT BY THE HEAD AND TWIST THE NECK LIKE A WASH CLOTH.
"YOU KNOW, I’M NOT GOING TO BRING THIS JOURNEY TO A POINT AND SAY, 'HERE’S AUSTRALIAN CUISINE.' THAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN LONG AFTER I’M GONE. AND THAT’S REALLY WHAT THE FOUNDATION IS ALL ABOUT, TO MAKE SURE THAT HAPPENS, WHETHER I’M HERE OR NOT."HE SAYS, "THIS WILL CONTINUE LONG AFTER I’M DEAD."