“The Kimberley region is known as one of the world’s last great wildernesses, it’s bursting with truly epic landscapes, unique produce and of course, true-blue Aussie characters,” Jack Stein says in his cooking and travel show Born to Cook. He could also have added heart-stopping moments with local crocodiles and a finger-biting barramundi, “the best honey I've ever tasted, by a long shot”, and some amazing experiences learning about traditional Indigenous ingredients.
Stein – chef, new Dad, son of Rick Stein and apparently, a very ordinary fisherman – is pretty good at laughing at himself. This is good because occasionally, things don’t quite go according to plan. In the new season of Born to Cook, this time in Australia’s northwest, exploring the vibrant produce and spectacular scenery of the Kimberley region, Stein is startled by a crocodile; has a close encounter at a local waterhole with an enormous finger-biting barramundi nicknamed Nasty by the locals; and falls flat in his back in a field of watermelons (Jack and the melons all emerged unscathed). Throughout it all, he’s smiling. Genuinely happy, not “just smiling for the camera” happy.
And who wouldn’t be happy to have a chance to throw themselves in his Kimberley adventures?
Alongside fishing trips and crocodile encounters, Stein explores the amazing range of farmed and wild-harvested produce that grows in this vast 423,000-square-kilometres region. He learns about Indigenous food traditions and ingredients including the nutrient-packed gubinge (Kakadu plum), boab, native limes and bush passionfruit, visits a brewery and a distillery, harvests watermelons, gets put to work on a chia seed farm, joins a group making damper and harvesting produce in a community garden, cooks a huge feast in Broome, and travels through some truly epic landscapes.
“The whole place is stunning up here. I feel very privileged to be up here really because a lot of Australians haven't been here… everyone I've spoken to who hasn't been here just wants to come and I can see why,” says Stein, when SBS Food chats to him during filming.
“You get used to Australia being beautiful scenery, but this is just massive,” he says of some of the remote outback spots he visits. “You have this sense, you’re almost nervous. You can imagine, if you were just up here on your own with nothing, you wouldn't last long - this English bloke with ginger hair wouldn't last very long, that's for sure!”
Stein, of course, is no stranger to Australia. “It's such an important part of my upbringing, we were pretty much brought up here for three months of the year,” he says of regular family visits.
There’ll be plenty more – Stein’s partner, Lucy, is originally from Perth, and the couple’s first child was born earlier this year. “Milo is going to love Australia!” Stein says, when we catch up with him again just before the new series of Born to Cook starts (Born to Cook: Jack Stein Down Under airs on SBS Food (Channel 33). Check The Guide for the schedule. Episodes will be available after broadcast via SBS On Demand).
We could almost declare Stein an honorary Aussie – his first child shares the name of an Iconic Aussie drink, his “secret ingredient” in a pizza sauce he makes in the show is Vegemite and he included a pavlova recipe in his recently released cookbook, Jack Stein’s World on a Plate (apparently his father, Rick, used to make a passionfruit-topped pavlova when the family spent Christmases in Australia).
And in Born to Cook, he says, he was privileged to have the chance to learn more about Indigenous ingredients. “I hadn’t had the chance before to spend as much time on country as I did this time. I got to go spear fishing with Brian Lee at Cape Leveque which was amazing, and with Dianne Appleby, I caught blue nose salmon in Broome and cooked it up on the beach. Definitely, the best meal I've had and the most fish I have ever caught - it was a once in a lifetime experience.” During a visit to a community garden in Kununurra, he joins Miriwoong elder Agnes Armstrong and a group of children making damper before sitting down to eat a shared meal. “It was a really, really special experience to be invited to the community garden and sit with the aunties, and talk about all things food,” he says.
“It was a big community event and everyone was contributing, so there were lots of people showing us how to make damper and cook kangaroo tails the traditional way, how they would have done that in the past, plus somebody had picked a lot of wild food. We had boab root, we had boab leaves, we had boab seed, we had these special water-lilies they've eaten for generations and they made a huge salad out of it with some of the stuff that was growing in the garden, things like green papaya and chilli. It was incredible.”
Stein says he’s not a very lucky fisherman – “I am shocking at fishing, I can cook them but I can't catch them!” – but he actually does catch several in the show. He also visits a beekeeper and declares the saltwater paperbark honey he tries the best he’s ever tasted. “It was incredible, it tasted like five-spice, with a strong anise flavour.” He also visits gardens and farms growing everything from tropical fruit and Asian greens to quinoa. On a trip to the bush, he tastes gubinge – a small native fruit also known as billygoat plum or Kakadu plum that is very rich in Vitamin C and used by Indigenous Australians as a food and medicine.
At regular intervals in the show, Stein goes into the kitchen to cook dishes using local ingredients: a chia seed pizza, deep-fried barramundi, chicken tacos made with mango beer, fish vindaloo, watermelon nahm jim, rum baba, scones with gubinge jam, and more.
It wasn’t hard to be inspired, he says. “This part of the world is incredible… I loved every second of it.”