It seems the future of food in Oz is set to glow even brighter. Aboriginal elder and food educator Aunty Beryl has opened an inner-city Sydney cafe staffed by Indigenous apprentices, serving up delicious meals accented by native ingredients. All the while, a new program has been set up with the aim of uncovering Australia's first wave of high-profile Indigenous chefs.
By
Saman Shad

UPDATED 9:31 AM - 6 Sep 2013

The Indigenous people of Australia have been eating bush tucker for tens of thousands of years. It is said the first white settlers who learnt how to eat off the land from the Aboriginal people fared much better than those who did not. This tradition of passing down knowledge of food to those within and outside the Aboriginal community still exists today and is highlighted by schemes such as the NICI (National Indigenous Culinary Institute) and the Gardener’s Lodge Café, run by the inspirational Aunty Beryl.

Aunty Beryl's bush tucker cafe

Overlooking the duck ponds of Victoria Park in Sydney is the Gardener’s Lodge Café. Aunty Beryl Van-Oploo dreamt of opening up a bush tucker cafe in the abandoned lodge for many years. Finally her dream was realised in November 2012. "We’ve got a lot of Aboriginal history in Victoria Park," she says. Indeed the duck ponds themselves were once an old waterhole where the Gadigal people of the Eora nation congregated.

Aunty Beryl’s passion with food started at an early age when she would go fishing and hunting off the land with the "oldies".  'Fresh wholesome food was what we were taught at home. We ate a lot of kangaroo; we fished and cooked on an open fire. It was always cooked fresh. There was no refrigeration, just a couple of ice boxes."

The simple, yet incredibly relevant, mandate of eating fresh, wholesome food is something she’s been passing on to her students at Yaama Dhiyaan culinary school, a place she also runs. The café, however, is somewhere the apprentices will not only learn, but also get crucial working experience.

"First and foremost the cafe will provide employment for Aboriginal people," she says. Quite often she has to start from the basics when teaching students how to cook. 'A lot of young people don’t know how to boil an egg," she says with a laugh. 'But they are passionate. They come here and find their niche."

The menu café offers a lot more than just boiled eggs, though. You’ll find buttermilk wattleseed pancakes with munthari and riberries and macadamia honey (pictured), and kangaroo and stout pie with garlic mash and bush tomato sauce, to name a couple.

The apprentices get to incorporate their own unique sets of skills and experiences to create the dishes served at the cafe. 'We develop recipes here with the students. They bring their own knowledge and we work around that," says Aunty Beryl.

She hopes to create a lifelong passion of food and cooking within her students, something she’s already done within her own family. 'If you teach kids at home how to cook, you grow up with it and it doesn’t leave you. I’ve passed on my passion for healthy cooking to my children and grandchildren. Just the other day, one of my grandchildren said, 'Nan, I’d like a Vegemite sandwich, but no butter’." She laughs. 'No butter! Imagine a three year old saying that!"

Three hats for Indigenous kitchen apprentices

Barry McDonald, the owner of Fratelli Fresh, realised there was something not quite right in the Sydney food industry when he couldn’t think of any well-known Indigenous chefs working within it. By setting up the National Indigenous Culinary Institute (NICI) with co-founders Bill Wavish (a former Woolworths executive) and tourism veteran David Baffsky, he hopes to change all that.

A number of chefs from Sydney’s top restaurants have also joined to help create a three-year industry-focused program geared to discover the next high-profile Indigenous chef. They anticipate that the graduates from the program will serve as role models within the community.

"We hope to increase awareness in communities about the enjoyment good food can bring," says Cain Slater from NICI, 'a mentor in the culinary field for younger Indigenous youth to aspire to."

The trainee chefs will work in restaurants including the likes of Guillaume at Bennelong, Aria, Rockpool Bar & Grill, and Catalina, to mention a few.

"NICI students will work at Sydney’s top restaurants experiencing the best produce and service, and gain the best skills with the William Angliss’s industry-designed program," says Slater.

Taryn and Josh are part of the current batch of students. Taryn is of the Gumbaynggirr people from the NSW Mid North Coast. Taryn’s grandmother is her role model and passed her passion for cooking onto Taryn. Taryn joined the NICI because, as she says, 'I love cooking, plain and simple". Josh is of the Yuin people from the NSW South Coast region. Josh saw the NICI as a great opportunity for him as he loves cooking. He wants to be a chef because he would like to create good memories for people through his food. They are set to become future stars of Australia’s culinary scene.

Gardener’s Lodge Café, Victoria Park (beside Sydney University), cnr City and Parramatta roads, Camperdown, NSW, (02) 9692 9778.

NICI applicants contact Anita on (02) 4747 7906 or email NICIprogramsNSW@angliss.edu.au.

Photography courtesy of City of Sydney.

Read our article on bush tucker in fine-dining restaurant.

View our native Australian recipe collection