What is it about Destination Flavour Down Under that stands out to you?
We’ve tried really hard in this series to capture a snapshot of the food of Australia and New Zealand in terms of its history, produce and ethnic diversity. It’s a big topic to tackle in only 26 minutes, once a week over 10 episodes, but I’m very proud of what we have made and how we have stayed faithful to our regional approach.
Can you expand on that regional approach please?
We sometimes can think of food in Australia as being just one thing. I’ve even heard people argue that Australia doesn’t even have a cuisine. I’m just baffled by that way of thinking. We travelled all around Australia in this series and we didn’t find just one Australian cuisine, we found dozens. There’s a huge regionality in Australian food and we’ve tried to focus on that, highlighting the regional differences in our food culture.
Every episode tells a different story of regionality. In northern Western Australia, where it was incredibly hot and remote, I used gubinge – otherwise known as Kakadu plum – to make ice-cream for the kids of an Indigenous community school there. We put the ingredients into cans, packed in ice, and the kids booted these cans around the schoolyard until we had ice-cream. We used a native ingredient and the processes available to us and, for me, that recipe summed up the area.
In South Australia we were on the Eyre Peninsula. It’s one of the driest parts of the driest state in the driest continent on Earth, but the food there is all about seafood. It produces some of the best in the whole world. I cooked some King George whiting out on an enormous dry saltpan. It was a simple dish, but something that spoke volumes about the region.
Tell us about some of the other dishes and whether you had a favourite?
I made a pie using hare, wild boar and venison in the South Island of New Zealand and a burger out of a mix of camel meat and camel hump fat in the Northern Territory. We met a woman in the Victorian High Country who produced amazing pork, so I cooked that in a salt crust and, because of the very strong Asian influence in Darwin, when I was there I filleted a saltwater crocodile and used the tail meat for a laksa. I had eaten crocodile before but one of the most surprising moments of the series for me was trying to get my head around a whole two-metre long salty being pulled out of an esky – head, feet, tail, everything.
The favourite-food question is asked a lot, and I think every crew member has one dish that stands out for each of them, but for me they’re all very memorable in that they really represented the areas we went to. They’re dishes I associate with the places we visited and it’s all about those places rather than being about me.
Who was the most interesting character you met?
I have to name two: John Young, a mussel farmer in New Zealand and Steve Sunk, a chef in the Northern Territory. John is a fascinating character with a great sense of adventure. He has grown one mussel farm into 70 around the region and lives in a James Bond-style mansion on top of a hill overlooking the Marlborough Sounds. He approaches everything with great joie de vivre, whether it is building a boat for his business, working on his scuba diving technique or making the perfect cup of coffee. Steve is a big burly bloke from Humpty Doo, a small town near Darwin. He’s a chef by trade and genuinely passionate about teaching hygiene and nutrition in Aboriginal communities. He also makes his own knives by melting down steel shipping ropes in a homemade forge in his backyard – he used one of them to teach me how to fillet a crocodile.
Which part of the Australian landscape most impressed you?
Some of the most spectacular landscapes I’ve ever seen were at Cape Leveque and Beagle Bay in Western Australia. They are unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the world. And the communities up there are just a joy to visit: every single person you meet is smiling. It’s north of Broome and it took four hours to get there on some treacherous roads and, at times, in the middle of a typhoon. I’ve lived in Australia for most of my life but this series taught me just how big and geographically and culturally diverse our country is.
How much had you visited New Zealand previously and did your opinion of the country change?
I used to spend summer holidays there when I was at high school, but I’d not explored it as intently and completely. We travelled the entire length of the North and South Islands and, on many occasions, just had to pull over to take in the landscape because it was so beautiful. That New Zealand is a beautiful place isn’t really a secret anymore – the Lord of the Rings films have seen to that – but what I didn’t know was just how much New Zealanders care about food. Even the smallest country town has great coffee, a local specialty and a great place to have dinner. No one is eating food for fuel; they’re eating for pure pleasure.
What was the most enjoyable part of filming this series?
We had a great crew on board, we’re all good friends and at times if felt like we were on a big holiday – and I think that comes across on screen. Travelling to Darwin from Alice Springs on The Ghan and motorcycling around the Victorian Highlands was particularly enjoyable. This wasn’t one of those food shows where we would talk about great food on camera all day, and then grab some old takeaway for dinner, which can sometimes happen on the road. On every shoot we had big crew feasts using the local produce we’d gathered. I’ve never eaten as well on a show and it’s because we had access to such good ingredients and were genuinely inspired by them. Our skeleton crew was six people, sometimes it would go up to nine.
And the most challenging part?
There are always things that happen that are extremely irritating at the time, but now seem funny. It’s all part of making television. One day we wanted to make a dish at the top of a cliff. We had to get there by boat, then carry 400 kilograms of gear up the side of the mountain, and by the time we got there the sun had gone down. Most of the series we were shooting in oppressively hot and humid conditions, which can get to you when you’re on your feet for 14 hours a day.
Being away from home for so long was difficult too. My son is only nine months old and I was filming for nearly six months of that. Sometimes I was away for two months at a stretch and that’s tough.
Is there a gourmet road trip you would most recommend?
I nominate the greater Northern Rivers area of New South Wales, but I don’t just mean Byron Bay. One of the best things about this series is that we went overland, so had the ability to see lots of places along the way – in this case Yamba and Mullumbimby for example. If you focused just on Byron you might miss all of the great places around there. This series is about the journey, not the destination. Who would think there is amazing food all the way from Uluru to Darwin? Because we live in such a big country sometimes we think only about the end point, and not about taking our time in getting there.
Do you have any comments or observations about Australia’s potential to grow as a food producer?
One of the joys was hearing directly from food producers on issues that affect them: on what a cattle farmer thought about banning of live cattle exports to Indonesia, for example. It’s all very well for us in the cities to go on about how we think we should to help farmers, or what we can do for rural Australia, but there’s really no substitute from hearing directly from the people who live it every day. Every person we met is proud of what they do. They’re business-minded, conscious of cash flow, focused on the consumer, and actively working to increase production. It's a tough life out on the land and it’s time we started listening to regional voices rather than dictating to them.