• Koori chef Chris Jordan uses food to communicate the importance of looking after our environment. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
By turning seawater into caramel, chef Chris Jordan is showing the damage done to our coast – and how Indigenous knowledge can save it.
By
Lee Tran Lam

5 Aug 2021 - 1:30 PM  UPDATED 9 Aug 2021 - 3:14 PM

There are many stories you can tell with seawater. 

For chef Chris Jordan, who runs Indigenous catering business Three Little Birds, waves and tides can carry narratives about family and food traditions.

"My dad's ashes were spread in Redland Bay, on the way to Minjerribah," he says, referring to the waterways near North Stradbroke Island, southeast of Brisbane.

"Three Little Birds was actually his favourite song by Bob Marley. That's why the business is called Three Little Birds," says Jordan.

The chef's earliest memories started to form "just after my dad passed away" – so he doesn't have personal recollections about his father. But you can't shake the seawater off the facts he does know about his dad.

"He loved oysters," the chef says. "He used to get them off the rocks." Then there were the hours that Jordan's father happily spent fishing.

The harmonies and choruses of his favourite song were heard long after he was gone, too. "My sister had Three Little Birds sung to her on North Stradbroke by my aunty," says Jordan.

The chef is too young to remember if he heard these intimate concerts, but his father's legacy lives on – via dishes and Indigenous ingredients that Jordan serves through Three Little Birds.

It's a world away from his first catering stints, which began as underground pop-up dinners in London nearly a decade ago. With much difficulty, he prepared six courses in a tiny cocktail bar on a Monday night – resorting to plating up on beer pong tables and even bathroom tiles. "It was pretty loose!" he says, and laughs. "I remember I had gin-cured salmon, curing in my lap, in a cab on the way to the venue!"

He went on to cater proper events for charities (Macmillan Cancer, Royal London Society For The Blind) and he even cooked for a supper club, where all the diners were blindfolded. This was a collaboration with theatre students, inspired by Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. There were actors tickling guests with feathers and leaves and whispering in their ears. There was a Welsh opera singer at one point.

"It was quite random," he admits. Jordan prepared mustard seeds and pea flowers for the first course – a reference to the fairies in the play (one is named Peaseblossom and another is Mustardseed).  

When he returned to Australia, he decided to explore his First Nations heritage further – through cooking, learning directly from different First Nations communities and studying Indigenous philosophy at the University Of South Australia.

He recalls a memorable encounter with Arabella Douglas from Currie Country, who runs Indigenous cultural cruises and supplies emu eggs and other native ingredients to restaurants like Pipit and Fleet.

"The first time I met her, I was telling her my story." He explained the significance of the song Three Little Birds – which she didn't know. "Can you sing it for me?" she asked.

"I started to sing it and then three black cockatoos flew directly over us. And that day, she shared a wealth of knowledge and put healing Country into perspective for me."

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Even though it wasn't his Country, it was the first time he felt really connected to the land. "It was really special," he says.

For Jordan, acknowledging his roots hasn't always been a straightforward process.

"I guess, intergenerationally, it wasn't something we were proud of – a lot of my family weren't identifying [as Indigenous]. We're still tracing things back," he says. "It's a journey I'm still on…So we still don't know which mob we're from." But he says he's "proud" of running an Indigenous business that celebrates First Nations culture in a community-gathering way through food. "It means a lot to me."

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Indigenous ingredients have played cameos in the various kitchens he's worked at: there was the citrus burst of finger lime during his apprenticeship, while saltbush, sea purslane and karkalla evoked local landscapes and expanded his culinary vocabulary at Melbourne's Pei Modern.

But he counts moving to Brisbane to work with Aunty Dale Chapman and her catering company, My Dilly Bag, as the start of his education in Indigenous foods. "She's been mentoring [me] and sharing her extensive knowledge of bush foods."

They both were presenting the First Night Feast at the Bleach* Festival, which was to take place on Yugambeh Country at Burleigh Heads on the Gold Coast on August 12, but was put on hold due to covid restrictions. 

"The idea of turning heads, not tables, is the concept behind it," says Jordan. The dinner features three dishes – Midden, Bleached Coral and Erosion – which tell a story about 65,000 years of Indigenous history and the ecological future we're facing. Seawater flows through each course – literally and metaphorically.

"Our coastal systems are highly in danger. I think we're about to go over a tipping point globally," he says. He hopes this event helps alert people to what's happening, so they can act on that knowledge.

"Midden is the best metaphor for that passage of time before colonisation," he says, referring to the first dish and what it reflects. Middens were a meeting place for Aboriginal people to eat shellfish. They're an incredible example of sustainability: middens were decorated with the shells of sea creatures, to track which species were eaten, so they weren't overfished. The shells also fed nutrients back into the earth. It illustrates how Indigenous people took care of the land for 65,000 years – and how we should draw on that knowledge to deal with the ecological damage caused by an industrialised world.

So Jordan will be presenting a dish that resembles a midden, featuring oysters and pipis adorned with native flowers such as banksia. There'll be coastal Indigenous fruits, too, like midgen berries ("a white-spotted blueberry with a eucalyptus taste").

"There's going to be dry ice hidden under all the rocks and shellfish and we're going to pour the seawater over it and have it mist and honour the coastal system, but also the honour the welcome and the smoke [ceremony] that's traditionally done as well," he says.

"When people eat their shellfish, they put the shells into the middle as well. That reference to the past will always be in the dinner."

The Bleached Coral dish illustrates coral bleaching and the environmental devastation of colonisation.

"I live with two marine biologists, so they let me know what's going on!" he says. "It's pretty dire straits."

The dish is physically white, featuring macadamia milk seasoned with seawater and fish stock. It also makes a point about sustainability by utilising every aspect of a fish – the roe is smoked and transformed into a whipped taramasalata. Even the skin gets used: it's fried and covered with macadamia oil dust. Nothing is wasted.

"I really want to highlight the absence of doing this within the commercialised food industry and directly link that to the bleaching of coral and loss of life in our coastal systems."

Erosion is meant to represent "our eroding future" and the damage to coastlines if nothing is done. Jordan is creating 'sand' from macadamia byproducts from the previous dish and representing disappearing dunes with pig face gel and dehydrated purslane. Warrigal sugar is sprinkled in and seawater is burnt with sugar and transformed into a yoghurt-infused caramel.  

"This is the past, present and future of this coastal system," he says of the menu. And the seawater can be a metaphor for renewal – or something different.

"Water is timeless, but is it actually timeless if the life is gone and the connection is gone? It could be a very short future [for the world]," he says.

"Together with Indigenous voices and leadership, we can begin to not only heal Country, but heal society, through regenerative practices and true reconciliation. A deeper understanding of place can lead to a place for future generations and everyone who calls this place home is responsible for its future," he says. "It's time to heal and come together as one."

Due to the current COVID situation, the current Bleach* Festival has been cancelled and it will return in 2022. For more updates on when this event will go ahead please check out @threelittlebirdsbne.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @leetranlam and Instagram @leetranlam.

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