Aunty Beryl Van-Oploo is an Indigenous Elder and educator, whose career has spanned more than fifty years.
She’s now a go-to person for some of the world’s top chefs, including Noma’s Rene Redzepi. He has sought her advice on ways to utilise native Australian ingredients.
But it’s not just curious chefs seeking her knowledge, interest in Indigenous flavours are growing among the wider public, too.
“I’m just so proud that they’re starting to use ingredients as all Australians ought to use. I think there’s going to be a rapid change soon because everybody is buying it, everybody’s using it,” Aunty Beryl says.
The Gamilaroi (Kamilaroi) woman believes demand is rising as people learn more about wild foods and their potential to add flavor, without the need for sugar or salt.
“The flavours are unique, and you don’t need a lot of an ingredient. Like Lemon Myrtle, if it’s ground, you only need a half a teaspoon in a batch of biscuits. It’s the same with kangaroo, it’s gamey but then you can marinate it in whatever you like, but you’ll still get that gamey flavor.”
DO IT AT HOME
GOING INTO BUSINESS
After retiring from teaching, at a stage where most people begin to slow down, Aunty Beryl was made an offer she couldn’t resist.
She was invited to open up a hospitality school.
The offer kick-started her journey into business and fulfilled a long-held dream to create jobs for her many students, after graduation.
“I started the catering company because I was training, training, and training and there was nowhere for our young people to be employed. So I set up my own company and employed them as well,” she says.
In 2008 Aunty Beryl launched a catering company Yaama Dhiyaan and now also runs its sister catering company Biri Biri, which launched a few years ago to focus on modern Indigenous cuisine.
After running the cafes Gardener’s Lodge and Biri Biri, Aunty Beryl decided to shift her focus to catering full-time. With a growing number of Indigenous farms able to supply year-round produce, her business is thriving and she sometimes fills five separate orders in one day.
“Corporates are coming on board now. I think they’re starting to get a taste for it really. Some of those corporates are now employing our girls and boys as well.”
But Aunty Beryl has never aimed to serve just one sector.
“For me, it’s about sharing the culture and food with everyone. I do a lot of catering for pre-schools, always have, and anybody that rings up, Aunty will be there.”
Her sharing attitude arises from a deep commitment to Indigenous food culture.
“Bush tucker … has been growing for 40,000 years plus, because that’s what we lived off - my elders past and present. It’s everything that grows on the land.”
A RICH HISTORY
As for her own culinary journey, it started in her youth, cooking for her family.
“I was raised with 16 other kids in the house and, because my mum died when I was 14, my aunt took us all. We used to catch yellow-belly and river cod up in Walgett. So we cooked it on an open fire, we just threw it on chicken wire and that was it.”
Nowadays, while she’s still comfortable with open fires, she’s adapted recipes for fan-forced ovens.
“We do barramundi in paper bark with the lemon myrtle. Throw it in the oven. Paper bark is our Aboriginal foil.”
As an indigenous cook, Aunty Beryl has heard comments that might shock many small business owners.
She recalls one event at a Sydney market:
“There were these two little old ladies from the North Shore, counting their change out from their little change purses to buy a jar of jam off me at the stall.
“And I can hear one saying to her friend, ‘oh we’ve got to help these poor Aboriginal people’ and then they bought the jam. They raked up $9 for the jam! I felt like flashing my diamond at them,” she says laughing lightheartedly.
Despite confronting negative comments while running her businesses, Aunty Beryl treats others with respect and tries hard to pass that value on to her students.
“That’s why I’ve got where I got today because my oldies taught me that, never be rude and show respect, and it will happen for you.”
It’s that positive attitude which is a key to her success in promoting Indigenous cultures and passing on knowledge to younger generations.
“I hope the young people I’ve trained open up their own businesses and put it out there and, you know, I’m pretty sure that will happen.”
Watch this story at the top of the page, or catch the full episode on SBS On Demand.