Cooking with culture: How Mark Olive found fame in food
From Illawarra boy to ice-cream connoisseur, Mark Olive aka. 'The Black Olive' is one of Australia's most recognised celebrity chefs.
A culture steeped in the seeds, fruits and vegetables of the land. It’s a connection to Country that ensures you not only survive, but thrive and Mark Olive — aka ‘The Black Olive’ of NITV’s On Country Kitchen fame — has always persisted in his passion for his culture and promoting the significance of native Australian produce.
Born and raised in Wollongong on Dharawal Country, Olive is a Bundjalung man whose family are originally from the Northern Rivers region of NSW. An exceptionally talented chef, businessman and presenter, Olive exudes a calm and warm energy with a genuine disposition that has seen him become one of the world’s most sought after and recognised Australian television chefs.
Olive is one of five children with two brothers and two sisters. His father is Bruce Olive, who broke ground as one of the nation’s first Aboriginal NRL players in the 1950s and 60s.
“My role models are my parents, family and friends – each inspire me in different ways,” Olive tells me. “The stuff I do is unique and I push myself to devise and promote something that’s unique; to be a positive role model for our youth.”
Olive got his first major break many years ago, with the ABC’s former Indigenous Affairs program Message Stick where he secured weekly five-minute segments as TV Chef 'The Black Olive'. Then came the self-produced Foxtel’s Lifestyle channel hit The Outback Café which saw its international debut in several different countries including across Asia after a successful run on home soil. More recently he has starred in the popular SBS and Netflix series The Chef’s Line and now, with the exceptional On Country Kitchen with co-host comedian Derek Nannup, a Noongar man from Western Australia.
On Country Kitchen is a delectable concept building on Olive’s passion for fusing native Indigenous Australian ingredients with contemporary cooking techniques to create a dynamic and unique gastronomic philosophy. Nannup is Olive’s sidekick, so to speak; he is the hunter and gatherer of the native ingredients – taking them back to Olive, who teaches Nunnup what to do with them. Nannup comically confesses he can’t cook to save his life.
“Derek is truly hilarious — such an amazing community man, clown doctor [for unwell kids], dancer, actor, comedian and a ranger on land in Western Australia … but in the end, he’s just hopeless at cooking! We have so much fun on this series,” Olive laughs.
To call Olive a go-getter is an understatement. Alongside his TV shows, he is always working hard on many side projects, many which has seen his passion and brand expand across the globe. He has hosted cooking demonstrations and tours across the nation at major events and venues as well as internationally including in Canada, several parts of Europe and Asia, has participated in numerous media appearances and as a guest on shows, launched his own product line of native herbs, written a cookbook – 'Mark Olive’s Outback Café: A taste of Australia' —and more recently, teamed up with Connoisseur Gourmet Ice-cream company to create the Australian Native Collection.
Initially a steady chef for some fifteen years in commercial kitchens, like many chefs Olive became burnt-out and in need of a career change —something that tapped into the creativity of his soul. After seeing a flyer for a short course at an unemployment office, Olive enrolled at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTERS) in Sydney and later went onto study with Swinburne University’s Indigenous Performing Arts Course in Melbourne.
It wasn’t until Olive wrote his own screenplay, Passing Through in the late 90s, which was included as part of the critically-acclaimed SBS series Shifting Sands, that pursuing a career in media was undoubtedly is calling.
During his course at Swinburne, Olive amassed both the courage and drive to apply for entry to the highly competitive and prestigious Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) in Melbourne, where Olive took on a Bachelor of Film and TV (Producing and Directing). He may have been in a new industry, but his love for food and cooking never left. Olive’s passionate to reach large audiences with the significance of native Australian food really began.
“At the VCA I was able to meet many creative and talented people, and engage with people from differing art disciplines, it was through these connections I gained the confidence to look toward working in mainstream film and television,” Olive said.
Growing up in a household of women who were connected to land that surrounding them, Olive was both an onlooker and engaged cook, often with his mother, godmother and aunties teaching him the delicate balance between discipline and creativity in the kitchen. This resulted in natural, delicious and healthy meals made with the energy of love for family and a cultural connection which acknowledged their Indigeneity.
“I was only nine-years-old when I took a real interest in what Mum and the Aunties were doing in the kitchen,” he explains. “I’d be outside playing footy with my brothers, but then I’d spend time a lot on weekends watching and learning these cooking ways — they cooked with lemon myrtle among other native herbs; some of my earliest memories of native ingredients."
Prior to the destructive colonisation of our people and lands, our people not only saw themselves as an extension of the land in which their feet trod daily, but also understood it and what it could provide in terms of taste, texture and connection. Olive has come full circle in honouring his ancestors, tapping into his own intuitions and creativity as a Bundjalung man of this country; he embodies the beauty of sourcing, cooking and eating what the land provides.
“It’s about time we look in our own backyard for some of the most nutritious and delicious ingredients around; lemon myrtle, wattle seed, Davidson plum, native finger lime, bush honey, bloodroot and sea parsley to name just a few…”
Olive’s large and endearing smile, deep brown eyes that glint at a contagious jovial demeanour, his long curly dark hair, his humble disposition and intense passion for our people makes for an champion celebrity chef. At the brunt of it, Olive is a very talented cook, but he understands all aspects of the film and television industry.
Yet Olive is very humble and he is still amazed when people recognise him. Recently, on a tour in Europe people in places like Prague and Berlin stopped him for autographs.
“I’m just blown away sometimes,” Olive says of the recognition and support, “It’s just wonderful…”
Reflecting on his long career in both hospitality and television, Olive says it’s all about perseverance.
“I learnt a lot about persistence, about being prepared to be disappointed and to deal with the knock-backs but to keep persisting.
“A lot of the drive for the work I do comes from wanting to promote and celebrate our culture and food and be someone our young people can look up to.”
Beyond the technical production lights and highly-equipped kitchens where Mark Olive teaches the goggle-boxers of Australia how to revitalise and honour native foods, he remains the Bundjalung boy alongside his mother and aunts on Dharawal land; cooking with ingredients of Country, on Country, with Country.
Kate L. Munro is a Gamilaroi writer, specialising in the Aboriginal arts and culture sector, with published works in the Koori Mail, The Guardian and Ascension Mag.
On Country Kitchen airs Wednesdays, 8pm on NITV and is available on SBS On Demand.