South Australia

The renegade chef

Jock Zonfrillo is on a one man mission to make Australians aware of the amazing food available on our doorsteps

James Steen

His arms bear a tapestry of tattoos, one of which is the skull and crossbones. “Why’s it there?” says Jock Zonfrillo, glancing down at the artwork engraved on his skin. “Well, why join the navy when you can be a pirate? If I apply that approach to everything in my life then I’ll always do something different. I’ll always be on the edge of whatever it is I do.”

The tattoo is a neat and colourful symbol of the chef’s alternative approach to life. The Glasgow-born cook is, I suppose, a sort of kitchen pirate – a fiercely passionate, determined character – who crossed the seas to forge a new life in Australia. Here he embarked on a personal mission to realise his culinary calling. Strange though it may seem, that mission was to introduce Australia to its own food; indigenous foods which are mostly known only to Aborigines.

From a tiny kitchen at Orana in Adelaide, Zonfrillo and his brigade produce exquisite dishes made often from ingredients that most Australians have yet to taste. There are things like saltbush, mountain pepper, riberry leaves, Lilly pilly and even grass. The more well-known kangaroo, marron (like crayfish) and lamb are there too, but at times the menu reads like another language and is utterly intriguing to the food lover.

Succulent seafood: Kangaroo Island scallops
Succulent seafood: Kangaroo Island scallops

For instance, have you tried Moreton Bay fig shoot with pandannis? Or prawn with Davidson plum? Orana (welcome in some Aboriginal languages) serves them in one of the most memorable meals you are likely to enjoy in any restaurant. He might have the air of a Glaswegian hardman but what Zonfrillo puts on the plate is refined, elegant and artistic.

“Australian cuisine is greatly influenced by overseas cuisine,” says Zonfrillo, 38. “There are many really talented chefs in Australia, and they’re beginning to use native ingredients, but it strikes me that we’re only at the beginning of a food revolution. I want more people to pilfer, copy, use, plagiarise what I’m doing. I don’t care if they do that.

“It’s not about me having the best restaurant in the world. It’s about reconnecting our country of chefs with a culture that’s always been here but largely ignored. That’s how we’ll have a gastronomic identity that’s unique and easily identifiable. It’ll be like the difference of walking into an Italian restaurant and a Chinese restaurant. As the ingredients are unique, and you can’t get many of them anywhere else in the world, then that is achievable. All the things are here. You’ve just got to put them together.”

He talks passionately on the subject, at times angry that indigenous foods have for so long been ignored, which is “bonkers” in his opinion. In fact, for a few years, “I stopped cooking because I found myself in a country where there’s no identifiable gastronomic identity – amazing chefs but no assimilation between indigenous culture and the food culture. I decided I couldn’t cook bloody bok choi with pan-fried barramundi anymore.”

Fresh produce: Coorong mulloway, native cherries and sea parsley
Fresh produce: Coorong mulloway, native cherries and sea parsley

It was then that Zonfrillo – whose career includes lengthy stints with Marco Pierre White in London and at Forty One in Sydney – stepped away from creating in professional kitchens, to create professional kitchens for other restaurateurs, as well as importing kitchen equipment. The farmer’s grandson also found the time to visit Aborigine communities, frequently heading off for days to learn about their food and its history. “I went from Adelaide to the Kimberley and stopped at 40 or 50 communities on that one trip. It’s a matter of when you get there, who you meet, as to whether it’s useful. Seven or eight of them ended up being productive.”

He mentions Geraldton Wax, which is used by many Australians as a pretty flowering groundcover shrub. “They put it in their gardens but don’t know,” says Zonfrillo, “that it’s a valuable food source. It’s been there, right in front us the whole time, but it should be with the herbs on the supermarket shelves. Pick it, give it wash, pick the needles and chop them and it’s ready to use in so many savoury dishes.” A few minutes later, we’re in undergrowth, picking plantain buds, which taste of mushroom.

Why did he pick Adelaide as a base? “It was a failed attempt to save my second marriage,” he says. “I sold the business in Sydney and moved to Adelaide to work on my relationship. Then I stayed in Adelaide to be close to my youngest daughter Sofia. But I also realised that I could get produce from the Northern Territory, Western Australia and the eastern states all down into Adelaide 24 hours earlier than I’d be able to do in Sydney. So geographically it made sense to be here. And our philosophy of using wild food means I can drive 10 minutes and I’m at the beach or the heart of the hills to get that food. I couldn’t do that in Sydney or Melbourne.”

Earthy ambience: Orana main room
Earthy ambience: Orana main room

Orana is a small, first floor restaurant and beneath it, on the ground, is Street A-D-L. It’s Zonfrillo’s busy bar, serving more indigenous-inspired dishes to the drinkers. His plan is to build an empire of these bars. “The future holds a Street in every state,” he says. “And in each one the food will be an expression of the regional produce.”

Does Zonfrillo, the pirate from Glasgow, consider himself Australian? “I am very Australian,” he says, “but I’m also very aware of where I come from.” And he points to his arm; beside the skull and crossbones is a thistle, the emblem of Scotland.

Restaurant Orana

285 Rundle Street

Adelaide SA 5000

Image credits: Matthew Turner (Jock Zonfrillo)

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