Viewpoints from Aussie Cuisine

  • Building upon the achievements of the National Indigenous Culinary Institute, more Industry and Government initiatives that promote opportunities for young Indigenous Chefs are required.
  • The full potential and context of native ingredients to our culinary narrative is yet to be fully realised.
  • Rene Redzepi’s Noma pop-up offered an outsiders perspective on Australian Cuisine, however did not define it.
  • Native ingredients are both more robust and sustainable, given our projected population growth, and offer a viable alternative, amidst our growing salinity issues.

By Erin Ogilvie

Greg Hampton has been the Executive Chef at the social enterprise restaurant Charcoal Lane for the past three years. The restaurant has been running since 2009 and Mission Australia states that it is “a comprehensive training program for young people who have experienced barriers to employment”, particularly young Indigenous.

The trainees are selected for work in either front or back of house by a caseworker, with the William Angliss Institute providing additional training throughout their time at the restaurant. It is the only program of its kind in Australia, and is listed by Tourism Australia as one of the best restaurants for uniquely Australian food, among Attica (Melbourne), Orana (Adelaide), and Momofuku Seiobo (Sydney).

After completing his apprenticeship in his hometown of Hobart, Greg spent the next decade travelling and working across Australia, including a resort in Cairns where he met chef Vic Cherikoff. “He was one of the first guys who tried to commercialise native foods. He was doing a seminar in the city, and I worked with him for a few days. He went through every aspect: the nutritional qualities, where the foods came from, what to do with them. He was a really big influence on me, and started my passion for native foods.”

He then moved and settled in Melbourne, where he met and worked for Andrew Fielke, a chef specialising in indigenous ingredients. With Greg’s interest in native foods growing, he went on to run a native restaurant in Federation Square, and created and taught a course on Australian native ingredients at William Angliss. He says he was drawn to all the flavours and colours found in native ingredients, and was challenged by the fact that they were completely unknown to the majority of the industry. “It was mainly dominated by Europeans, who didn’t believe there was anything out there other than their own food. And I guess that drove me to prove them wrong!”

Greg was approached to work at Charcoal Lane early on. “They were trying to get me to come when they first opened, but it was a huge drop in salary and I couldn’t do it: I had a young family and was paying off a mortgage. So I said no but, a few years later, the opportunity came up again. One thing led to another, and here I am.”

Greg says that he sources the majority of his native ingredients from husband and wife teams, but also still works with Andrew Fielke. “He can basically get his hands on anything that we need, and sources a lot of his products from Aboriginal people. I get things from Western Australia, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales, Tasmania. I’ve got suppliers that I’ve used for nearly 20 years.”

Working at Charcoal Lane gives Greg the opportunity to cook with the kind of food he loves, and see how food and cooking can change people’s lives. “There have been a few who have come through and discovered that they can hold down a job, and do things well. Of course some do get lost along the way, so when the others come through and are successful, that’s what really drives you to keep going. That’s the most rewarding part.”

Stephen’s story

One of these success stories is Stephen Thorpe, who was one of the first trainees at Charcoal Lane and, after a few years off, joined the kitchen again in February 2015. Stephen has a generational connection to the building, as his grandmother played a big part in the opening of a community-run Aboriginal Health Service that used to be there. He says that he enjoy the community and family environment at Charcoal Lane. “One of the biggest things is also the opportunities that are given to young Indigenous people to transform their lives in the form of cooking or front of house service.”

Early in 2016, Stephen was awarded the incredible opportunity to work at the NOMA pop up, with two other Indigenous students from the National Indigenous Culinary Institute. “I tell you what, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, but it was really rewarding. It was a really fast paced environment, really demanding, and the calibre of restaurant is one of the best in the world. But I really enjoyed learning more about our native food and Rene’s philosophy, about how he sets up his menu. Because I am also on the journey of native foods, I thought that was a really cool thing to learn. One of the biggest things I took away was their respect for the source of where food comes from. We went out foraging, and to go and pick it in its natural environment: you’re taking it directly from the earth and putting it onto the plate. It gave me a bigger respect of food.”

Greg says that 90% of his young Indigenous trainees have no prior knowledge about native ingredients and, in teaching them, he can instil a sense of pride about their heritage. “You’ve just got to introduce them to a few ingredients and all of a sudden, they spark up. They think, wow, this is something I could be proud of.” He believes that Australia can achieve a national cuisine by his apprentices taking what they have learnt about native ingredients and integrating them into mainstream cooking.

The more Greg learns about our native foods, the more he realises that we have something uniquely Australian – a fact of which we should be proud. Further to this, he believes the industry can no longer ignore the environmental impact of trying to grow plants that do not exist here naturally. “As the population grows, and we need more water for crops, more fertiliser, herbicide, pesticide, we won’t be able to ignore it anymore. Because the plants that are meant to grow here are meant to grow here, and they don’t need those things. Look how much land where we’ve destroyed the salinity, growing wheat and crops like that. I think the lifespan of soil is only about 100 years when it comes to wheat, and then the salinity takes over and it’s destroyed.” He insists that the only way forward is to look at native ingredients as the future of Australian cuisine, which are both sustainable and highly nutritious, and portray our native flavour.

When asked about Rene Redzepi drawing attention to native foods, Greg is positive. “What he did was great for the industry; he’s done more in that short period of time than anyone else, and it will help us.” And what about announcing he had defined modern Australian cuisine? He gives a hard laugh. “It does make my blood boil a bit, because I’ve been doing it for 20 years.”

The future

So does Greg believe that his style of food, integrating traditional recipes with native flavours, is the ultimate example of modern Australian cuisine? Is this what is going to define modern Australian cuisine in the future?

“I like to think so, definitely. What’s exciting about it is that there is new stuff coming all the time, things that they’re trying to grow commercially that will come available in the near future. Up in Cape York, we’ve just discovered a

[type of] rice that is resistant to bacteria and rust, and the sort of things that have plagued the industry for years. We’ve got our suppliers for meats and herbs, nuts and fruits, but now we’re looking at more vegetables. They just started trialling a native carrot in South Western WA, which is called a youlk, which looks really cool. This is the sort of thing we need to concentrate on, because that grows in the poorest soils that are found in that area. There’s no point trying to grow rice in the desert, it just doesn’t work. This is the way the industry has to go now.”