An unrelenting search for the best produce has propelled the founder of Adelaide’s Orana restaurant into super-chef stardom.
My earliest memories of having this intense connection with food and ingredients came from my family, and you can’t get a more diverse mix than half-Scottish, half-Italian. I would go from my Scottish nana and granddad’s house making clootie dumplings, helping dry out these pungent cake-like morsels in the oven so as to form a skin on the outside, to my Italian nonno’s, where you walk into this heady environment and get smacked in the face with the smells of freshly baked focaccia, prosciutto and salami —complete polar opposites. Being exposed to such steeped traditions made me consider more than just the food, but also the cultural significance and origins of food.
When I was 12 years old, my first job was working part-time in a small restaurant washing dishes. I used to look to the chefs and admire how they worked amid this high-intensity chaos and the electric atmosphere. It was all action and as a kid, it was captivating. I was amazed at how these raw ingredients would come through the back door—game-like grouse and pheasants—and the chefs would transform these beautiful things from nature into dishes. So, I would be washing the plates looking over my shoulder thinking, “That is what I want to do. I am on the wrong side of the pans here.”
I only ended up washing dishes for two weeks. The chef in charge of the vegetable section had a motorbike accident and I put up my hand to take his spot. I did have two conditions though—one was to get a pay rise and second, I never wanted to go back to washing dishes again. And from that moment on, I worked in the kitchen.
The greatest lesson I learnt at that point, and I have learnt it over and over again, is that Mother Nature always provides the best. You can’t better what the land gives you. We can work with it, we can manipulate it, we can complement it, but we can never supersede that beauty of nature.
When I reflect back on the very early years of working with food—the ingredients we worked with then—it was very natural. There wasn’t a huge amount of interference; there wasn’t any need for ridiculously good-looking hairdos to make the food look fancy or taste better. It was always really connected to the place where we were from—the food had authenticity. Whatever came through the back door, whether it was fish or meat, all the ingredients that were used in a dish were all related to one another somehow. If you look at food today, chefs have arrived back at that. Foraging is all about using what nature provides us, and that has always been my passion.
Orana restaurant is one of my proudest achievements but what means just as much to me are the alliances I have made with Australian communities. When I can forge a relationship with a community—to be able to buy produce from them and make a positive difference to their lives—is hard to beat.
I’ve just been to Alice Springs where I was talking to locals about sourcing magpie geese—which up until now have been illegal to serve. The outcome was I can now legally buy through our connections. I couldn’t be prouder of moments like that because I’ve done something to help a community and to instigate change. I can highlight these ingredients that have largely been ignored or have been thought of as just bush tucker and cast aside, showing that they are world-class ingredients that should be recognised, to be a part of the Australian story of gastronomy.
Marco Pierre White always used to say to me, “Cook from the heart”, and that has always rung true for me. He wasn’t the only chef who said that to me. In fact, the very first chef I worked with in the vegie section said it and many of my mentors throughout my career have said it, and there has never been a truer word spoken. If you don’t cook from the heart then you are doing the ingredients, the dish and yourself an injustice.