“I have people ringing me up the next day saying they can’t believe they’ve tried 30 new ingredients they never knew about”

The recent and sudden passing of renowned Chef Jock Zonfrillo at the young age of 46 has left the industry and people around the world shocked and saddened at the loss of a man who’d touched so many.

Adelaide Dining Magazine has had the absolute privilege of working with Jock in past editions of the magazine, and in his honour, we look back at his 2014 interview with writer Lee Welch.

Jock Zonfrillo’s 2017 foreword, Adelaide Dining Magazine
Jock Zonfrillo’s 2014 feature, Adelaide Dining Magazine

Words: Lee Welch

Depending on where you stand, Jock Zonfrillo has either made an excellent start on figuring out our national palate or he has come along at just the right time to reinvigorate the debate. 

Either way, for this Scots chef, it was an obvious question. 

“I got off the plane in Australia in 2000 and wondered what it would be like to eat ‘Australian’, he says. But he couldn’t find anything identifiably or quintessentially Australian to try. 

The enduring 1980s ‘bush tucker’ incarnation of Australian food wasn’t doing anyone any favours. 

This puts Jock’s current timing right on the money. His symbiotic approach with Restaurant Orana and its downstairs sibling Street – one a high end food experience, the other a buzzy, funky setting featuring more familiar dishes with an Australian twist – is a clever leap forward in bringing us back to the Australian table. 

Upstairs in Restaurant Orana, there’s no menu. The idea is to put yourself in his team’s hands, sit back and enjoy a succession of up to 15 small dishes based on ingredients sourced from indigenous communities ranging from Arnhem Land to the Kimberley, Daly River, around the Red Centre, northern New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria. 

These wild harvests are supplemented by foraging – he has a fulltime contracted forager in Nimbin and he and his team forage locally as well. 

“The word ‘orana’ means welcome,” says Jock, and his mission is to welcome diners to an array of new flavours and taste experiences. “Nothing on the menu is not from Australia.” 

Each ingredient is known by the name given by the community it comes from and they receive direct payment for the wild ingredients they harvest. 

Jock has had to overcome deep mistrust with some indigenous communities to even get close to talking with them about the native ingredients in their regions, so he believes ensuring acknowledgment and payment is given respectfully is essential. 

He has also established the Orana Foundation to give chefs and farmers access to detailed information about ingredients, flavour profiles and cultivation. 

“If a farmer growing leeks changed 20% of his crop to karkalla [a native succulent also known as beach bananas or pig-face], he would be using less water and increasing his income straight away because chefs want to buy it, and it’s better for the environment,” he says. 

As an immigrant to Australia Jock could not (and still doesn’t) understand the lack of understanding of Australia’s indigenous culture. 

A powerful example of this is that the indigenous year has six seasons instead of four, incorporating those points in the year when the weather is not quite one season or the other. 

“There’s no calendar, they know the visual signs that show the changes. Like a flower blooming which means the local stingrays’ livers will be engorged, like a sort of foie gras,” he explains. 

Jock has set off like a latter day explorer of sorts, bringing back new knowledge and trying to start a conversation, not a conversion. 

Which brings us to Street, a subtly subversive take on the same mission.

Sure, there are grain-fed beef burgers, fish and chips and barbecued chicken on the menu here but alongside are raw Coorong mulloway, wild greens, and muntries on the cheese platter. 

It’s a baby step towards new experiences, surrounded by the comforts of home in the shape of familiar bar dishes. 

As if opening two restaurants at once wasn’t enough, Jock also found himself shooting a new television series for the Discovery Channel at the same time. 

This was an unplanned step to say the least, but it makes sense too, because the show’s focus was taking his exploration of indigenous food cultures to a world stage, travelling to ten countries in six months to seek out each culture’s native ingredients and knowledge. 

All this activity has only reinforced the complexity of the question of Australian cuisine for Jock. 

“I’m not on a soapbox for myself here,” he says. “It could take ten, 15 or 20 years to work out and I think Australians should embrace and be part of that change. 

“Now’s the time. If you asked me today what Australian food is, I’d say come and eat at Orana. But that’s not the final answer, it’s just the start.” 

Our deepest condolences and thoughts are with Jock’s family, friends and colleagues at this time – Adelaide Dining Magazine.