Fresh off a sell-out Sydney pop-up of his three-hatted Adelaide-based Restaurant Orana, Jock Zonfrillo will open a food laboratory investigating ways to commercialise indigenous foods to meet a growing demand – in part fuelled by Zonfrillo’s passion and expertise.
The Indigenous Flavour Lab will open next year, funded by venture capitalist and philanthropist Mark Carnegie.
The lab, modelled on the likes of Rene Redzepi’s Nordic Food Lab and Ferran Adria’s el Bulli 1846 lab, will investigate ways to use indigenous ingredients for commercial products, funnelling profits back into indigenous communities.
Zonfrillo’s restaurant uses predominantly native ingredients, such as gubinge (Kakadu plum), warrigal greens and miso made with wattleseed in its fine dining experience.
“We get hundreds of requests from all over the world about using indigenous ingredients, and currently there are real problems in the supply chain,” says Zonfrillo.
“We want to change that, scale the supply to meet the demand and show people that we’ve got some amazing food growing here.”
Zonfrillo, a Scottish-born chef who opened Restaurant Orana in 2013, was the winner of the 2018 Basque Culinary Prize (valued at $200,000) for his Orana Foundation, which champions native foods and has recently been announced as a judge on Ten’s reboot of Masterchef.
He met Carnegie through his work building a waterproof, fire-proof and cyclone-proof shed in remote Western Australia, which will allow the community there to store food properly. The prototype shed was funded by Zonfrillo’s Basque Prize money.
The lab is the next stage in Zonfrillo’s plans to make native foods more mainstream and commercialise them. “We want to figure out how to make a coffee product, an Australian spirit, a fresh produce range and a packaged product range,” says Zonfrillo.
The lab will be located in the former Blackwood Bistro, the casual restaurant that Zonfrillo also owns and runs, below Orana.
“Ultimately Orana is a thirty seat restaurant in Adelaide. Yes, it’s had an impact and it serves a purpose, but we need to do more.”
The lab will have a dedicated team of research scientists and chefs, and will draw on the expertise of Orana’s existing staff.
Many indigenous farmers, Carnegie notes, still hand-harvest, making labour time-consuming and expensive.
“Going up against mass-produced products from big conglomerates with massive marketing budgets who’ll cut their grandmother’s throats to save half a cent is really hard, but especially when you are a cottage industry like many of these small suppliers.
“It’s not as easy as just saying, ‘We’ll close the gap.’ Because the gap’s too big. We need research and development.”
Carnegie, a venture capitalist known for his generous philanthropy, has his pick of causes, but was drawn to Zonfrillo’s passion for indigenous culture.
“When Singo [friend John Singleton] got divorced – one of the times, anyway – I said, how does this keep happening, mate? And he said, ‘Look at the track record.’
“And I think about that – the track record – every time I put my money behind something. Jock is one of Australia’s best chefs. Think about it – Adelaide, indigenous food – how on earth did he make that work? But he did. So he can make this work.”
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Lauren Sams is The Australian Financial Review’s Luxury editor based in Sydney. She edits the quarterly glossy LUXURY and writes about lifestyle including the arts, entertainment, fashion and travel. Lauren has worked as a features editor and fashion journalist for ELLE, marie claire and more. Email Lauren at [email protected]