I remember the first native herb I ever tasted. It was around Casino and Wardell in the Northern Rivers region of NSW where lemon myrtle grows in abundance and made regular appearances in my aunties’ fantastic scones. It wasn’t until the mid 1980s that I started experimenting with flavours like wattleseed and warrigal greens, and things I’d pluck from neighbourhood trees. It was a time of experimentation. As a chef, I’d been trained in the traditional way and wasn’t exposed to native foods professionally, so it took a few years for it all to come together.
My first cooking memories hail from Wollongong, where I was born and where I grew up, watching Mum cook. And then the day came at school when we were told we had to do work experience. We were given two choices: to spend time with a chef or a mechanic. I went with the chef.
After my early cheffing years, I moved to Sydney in 1993, and, three years later, I was part of a bold new restaurant called The Midden, which had a mission to feature native ingredients on its menu. We were one of the first kitchens in Australia to cook with emu and kangaroo, and quickly discovered we had arrived too early. People were put off by the idea of eating Skippy.
Luckily, more Australians today are embracing the native flavours and foods that make up our national cuisine. And it makes perfect sense that its popularity continues to grow. We have amazing produce being farmed around the country, but so much of it is exported to Europe and Asia where the market for it is booming.
Now, finally, we’re getting somewhere. The popularity of cooking shows and the increasing access to the ingredients means that people are keen to have a go. They are making up a dukkah (spice blend) using native herbs to encrust kangaroo and ordering crocodile lasagna. My job has taken me around the world and I teach people about native Australian cuisine, and in my own kitchen, I’m still mixing and matching flavours and pairing textures and colours for new dishes. Even after all these years, I think the options are endless.