10 Minutes With: Jock Zonfrillo, chef owner, Orana and Basque Culinary World Prize winner

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 10th August 2018

Once described by the late restaurant critic AA Gill as 'the Mad Max of foraging', Jock Zonfrillo is a chef on a mission and has recently been awarded the Basque Culinary World Prize.

With 140 entries whittled down to ten stellar finalists, Jock Zonfrillo, the chef-owner of Orana in Adelaide, didn’t believe that he would win the Basque Culinary World Prize and stated that just being chosen as a finalist was an ‘honour’. 

The Staff Canteen spoke to Jock about his work in the indigenous community, his mission to find the next superfood and what it means to him to win the Basque Culinary World Prize.

https://www.thestaffcanteen.com/public/js/tinymce/plugins/moxiemanager/data/files/Photo Credit Nomad Chef.JPG
Credit: Nomad Chef

Jock was unanimously chosen by the jury in recognition of his work bringing greater awareness both to the indigenous communities of Australia and the products they use via his project – The Orana Foundation.

The significance of this hasn’t gone unnoticed to Jock, he said:“The jury and panel are people that we admire and are icons of our industry - this is what makes it even more special. It’s amazing to think people in our industry are giving me that kind of support.”

He added: “To be chosen and to have their backing is really something. Of course, for the project itself, this means a bigger and greater voice. Plus, its recognition for the people that I work with – it’s all good news.”

The Basque Culinary World Prize (BCWP) is organised and managed by the Basque Culinary Centre and the Basque Government. It's not just a prestigious accolade to win.

Jock will be awarded €100,000 for the Orana Foundation (with the Basque Government providing the financing for the prize), but hasn’t decided how this will be spent, he said:“That is something we must deliberate over very carefully. 100% of the benefit will go to the indigenous people, but also it will be nice to link the project back to the Basque Culinary Centre.”

Whilst the financial rewards will have a significant impact on the foundation, the greater reward will be the awareness this yields for Orana.

Jock explained: “The acknowledgement that this will bring is phenomenal and often that is what makes a difference. It’s not just about the money.”

The Orana foundation was launched two years ago after Jock has spent several years visiting hundreds of remote indigenous communities to understand the origins of ingredients and their cultural significance.

Set buttermilk%2C strawberry and eucalyptus ©Matthew Turner
Set buttermilk, strawberry and eucalyptus 

Jock recalls his first visit: “I got turned away several times, but on the seventh visit – I was let in. I was only there for a day and a half until I got thrown out by the police as I didn’t have a permit. That kind of summed up the situation to me and I looked at it like ‘I have been invited in here by these people, yet I have been thrown out by a white policeman because I don’t have a piece of paper. It was ridiculous.”

Despite this initial setback, Jock was not put off and continued on his quest to develop his knowledge of the indigenous culture. He makes it clear that he is going there just to have a ‘conversation about food’.

“I am just a chef and so the conversations that we have make the walls come down. We are talking about food - something that is a huge part of their culture. There have been 17 years of this conversation.”

Jock makes it clear that he never wants to speak for the indigenous people, but when I suggest that he is not necessarily speaking for them but simply giving them a voice, he is unequivocal in his agreement: “Exactly! Exactly! We are in a very fortunate position in gastronomy now and as chefs, we have a duty of care to use our voice to whatever cause we see fit if it is for positive change.”

He added: “By no means am I, or any of my team indigenous experts. Whilst I have had a lot of experience going into these communities, we never speak for indigenous people and we certainly weren’t the first people to use native ingredients, but I think we are the first people to go into it in any detail. It’s not about what we want to do - we want to help where we can, and we take the lead from them.”

One thing that he wants to use his voice for is to champion and increase the awareness of their cultural traditions.

Jock feels that the significance of their history and contribution to Australian history have been seriously undervalued: “It’s safe to say that 45 -50 thousand years before the Egyptians built the Pyramids, the indigenous people in Australia were living off the land and were farming sustainably and that has possibly been forgotten. I think acknowledgement goes a long way and there is a bit of a gap, but the Australian government are making great leaps and bounds to close that gap.”

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One of the biggest focuses for the

Orana foundation is to

develop their native-food database

Credit:  PA Jorgensen

He added: “Five minutes on Google and you can find tools and weapons that have been uncovered. People go crazy when the Pharaoh’s exhibition comes to London Zoo – people are doing bloody backflips. It’s the same thing in Adelaide – there’s a boomerang that’s tens of thousands of years old and nobody gives a shit about it.”

One of the biggest focuses for the Orana foundation is to develop their native-food database, which so far has 2000 ingredients. Jock hopes to increase this to 10,000, all of which will be scientifically checked to ascertain the health benefits. They will then identify any potential superfoods to see if they can be used as remedies. Jock explains:

“If someone is looking for a cure - here’s a database of 10,000 ingredients. If I was a gambling man, I would say there would be a handful of strong medicinal things that we may not have heard of and certainly a handful of superfoods.”

The Foundation and its mission have resulted in Jock opening his own restaurant – also called Orana. So, is he a reluctant restaurateur?

He said: “For a chef to say there are over 2000 edible ingredients that's all well and good, but there's no scientific proof, evidence or facts, so that is why I started the foundation and in order to start the foundation, I had to do the restaurant.”

Despite his averseness, his restaurant Orana opened in 2013. Jock didn’t want to revert to his fine-dining roots and instead wanted it to focus wholeheartedly on indigenous ingredients. 

“I did the whole Michelin star and fine dining thing to death," he explained.  "If I couldn’t cook this food, then I wouldn’t do it. I didn’t really want to open a restaurant, but it quickly became apparent that nobody knew what I was talking about when it came to the indigenous food and ingredients. Nobody could quite understand the magnitude of what I was talking about.”

What can diners expect when they eat at Orana? He said: “When someone sits down at the restaurant, they hear the stories and we talk about the culture – you can see it, hear it, taste it, smell it and understand it. Without the restaurant, it would have been impossible to start this foundation and that’s why the restaurant exists. It just feels like it has been a jigsaw – we have had to do each little bit at a time and we will continue doing that.”

Jock’s dishes include unusual ingredients such as riberries, kakadu plums, quandongs and lemon myrtle. He looks at the traditional uses of these ingredients and then formulates a process in the restaurant of working out how best to utilise it. Jock admits that sometimes this can take a day and sometimes it might take a year.

Jock Zonfrillo Credit Aaron Gully

Jock Zonfrillo, chef owner, Orana

and Basque Culinary World Prize winner

Credit: Aaron Gully

Last year Orana was recognised as Australia's Restaurant of the Year in 2017 by Gourmet Traveller magazine - the first time a restaurant using indigenous ingredients had won this award, so how important are accolades to Jock?

He admitted: “Any kind of recognition goes a long way and we are honoured whenever we win. Getting Restaurant of the Year was amazing, and the team deserved it – I have never met a harder working bunch of individuals in my life. The reason we have longevity is the staff - they are not just working in the restaurant, they are working for something much bigger.”

Looking back at his teenage self, does it blow his mind as to how much he has turned his life around – from a troubled homeless drugtaking teenager to the man we see today? What would he tell his 16-year-old self?

“I would be frightened to say anything just in case it turned out differently.," he said. "If you have told me then that I was going to be working with indigenous people – I would have laughed and said, ‘don’t be ridiculous’, I never considered for a second that I would be doing what I am doing now.”

Moving forwards, Jock hopes that the indigenous culture will get the full acknowledgement and recognition that they deserve. To achieve this, he believes that meaningful conversations need to happen, particularly with regards to indigenous-led enterprises which in turn will create jobs and opportunities within the indigenous communities.

By Emma Harrison


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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 10th August 2018

10 Minutes With: Jock Zonfrillo, chef owner, Orana and Basque Culinary World Prize winner