Vic Cherikoff. The interview was in two parts. The first, face to face, at his warehouse/factory in Kingsgrove Monday February 25th 2013. The next, because of problems with my equipment, by telephone on March 11th 2013.
Vic Cherikoff is the scientist of the native foods industry, and began, as we shall see, with the Human Nutrition Unit at Sydney University by gathering foods in the wild, and submitting them to Bruneteau for testing in a European kitchen.
(Cherikoff began the interview by showing me a bell curve to explain the process of adoption of new products – in this instance Australian native foods)
At one end of the curve are early adopters – chefs that jump on something new, foodies that want to try anything new, people you couldn’t keep away from your product with a big stick. At the other end are the people still using analog phones – if they could get them.
The 13 per cent is where the Australian wild food industry is at. Not sure exactly where, but on a rip-roaring day, when I’ve had plenty of orders, I’d say we were at the tipping point – 16 per cent – you tip into the early adopters, then it filters through to the mass market. How long it stays, who knows. That’s a parameter of the product and the market. Then it gets absorbed and then peters out. That’s the life cycle of a single product. But you can apply it to a cuisine, an ingredient, to the uptake of ingredients, it’s a mathematical average which describes the life cycle of everything.
(I asked Cherikoff how he first came into contact with Australian native foods.)
I grew up eating a ridiculous number of foods – my mother’s from Harbin, her family from near Moscow. My father’s grandparents walked across Russia into China. I ate Chinese foods from an early age. One of my father’s aunts was an exceptional cook, I grew up eating duck’s feet, and gizzards, and my Russian heritage fed me sour cream and beef stroganoff. So I had an adventurous palate and appreciation that anything is edible. When I was in high school I’d go bushwalking and I would just nibble. I’d see fruits and I’d taste. I had a book by two botanists who became professors, Cribb and Cribb, Wild Food in Australia and I went to the Dickson Library (in Canberra) and found stuff the army had put out about survival foods. I was eating stuff and not knowing what I was eating: just tasting and spitting.
Then I did a science degree, got into oceanography, migrated to environmental biology and bio-chemistry. I was a student for over five years, and in all that time I was learning the botany of what I was eating. As soon as I could drive, I got a motor bike, took out the bike and parked it and went bushwalking. Then I did a science degree and began putting Latin names to the foods I was eating. Anthony Kidman was my biochemistry lecturer at Gore Hill.
He asked me was I till doing scuba diving – I ran a dive shop and taught diving course at the University of Sydney and NSW University – I’d go diving and eat sea urchins and scallops and sea squirts under water, the palate was always adventurous. Tony Kidman got me a job in clinical pharmacology at St Vincent’s because I could scuba dive.
I was collecting marine bivalves and using them as a biological model for how people responded to L Dopa used in treating Parkinson’s and Huntingdon’s Chorea. At the same time I was bushwalking and building a garden collection of wild foods.
The grant under which I was employed ran out, I applied for lots of jobs – nothing. Then my wife showed me an ad for a job analysing wild foods only two days a week. I hand wrote the application and made a big list of all the native foods that I knew and had eaten over the years. I got the job out of 84 applicants.
It was with the University of Sydney Human Nutrition Unit with (Dr) Jenny Brand-Miller. I landed at the unit, and I was going out and harvesting wild foods, communicating with the Northern Territory Department of Health, the medical service, the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the Central Australian Dental Service – the head was in the nutritional research foundation. I was analysing wild foods for carbohydrates, fats, proteins, fibre vitamins et cetera.
That was in 1983. We generated enough data to publish a series of papers on the nutritional content of wild foods.
We found that the Kakadu plum was the world’s highest source of vitamin C. Immediately academia slammed us,
Les Hiddins and Keith James [another native foods researcher] said it was total bullshit. Then I used High Frequency Liquid Chromatography as against the older method of measuring. We proved up to 3.2gms per 100gms. Shortly after we were sent down a sample from Darwin which we called the XPT Kakadu plum. This had 4.5% ascorbate.
There was this huge mass of in many ways disconnected nutritional research which foreshadowed the way nutrition research was going. A scientist at the CSIRO – Dr. Izabela Konczak – has described nutrition development as chunks of ten years, you can define the decades. A doctor at Bourke loaded kids up with vitamin C, transformed them. Vitamin C disappeared; then it was the quality of fat. Now it’s exploded into all these fragments like a meteor hitting earth. There are all these new sciences appearing – glyco-biology, studying proteins bound with sugars, how they are the communication between cells; the whole anti-oxidant story and how to explain that in a more holistic sense; then there’s personalised nutrition, nutri-genomics, what’s the best food for your genetic makeup, epigenetic nutrition, lifestyle medicine. They’re re-defining food and environment and stress and physiology and DNA. These are all inducers of inflammation: everything results in inflammation of some sort.
You can have a meal of wagyu beef and a meal of kangaroo – equal caloric and weight meals – and measure five different biochemical markers for inflammation. With the wagyu the inflammatory markers went through the roof and stayed there for 10 hours. The roo went up but it was gone in four hours.
(I asked him how he met Bruneteau)
One of my diving mates told me there was an Australian restaurant in Hornsby. And I had a freezer full of wild foods that had been stabilized – brilliant flavours. Fruit, tubers, a whole bunch of things. I rang Jean Paul and asked him what was Australian about his menu and he said I’ve got water buffalo. And I said that’s Asian. Jean Paul had already committed himself to Australian cuisine. Around that time we also began supplying Banjo Patterson Cottage restaurant
30 to 40 % occasionally 50% of the menu (at Rowntree’s) was spectacular but what let them down was the popular items didn’t have the oomph to carry them across the line.
(From here the interview was conducted by telephone. I asked why we haven’t adopted native foods in Australia)
Chefs are dabbling, there’s a boutique end now. The reality, corn, cranberries all sorts of things from other countries were adopted quite quickly but I think that was the leftovers from the spice trade where people were looking for seasonings and flavourings were the equivalent of gold – whereas we came in at the beginning of a massive rate of development. The connection between communities came about extremely quickly in the 1900s. It was easier to grow grain and bring it in and move it around the country than having to do the scientific development of the wild foods.
(I told him others have mentioned food racism)
There’s a part of that, you can’t discount that. But these are the English coming to Australia, they had no culinary tradition – they were living in cities in London and relying on a diminished diet, not like the Robin Hood era where they were eating venison and wild mushrooms and berries – all that was gone in the cities. It was a very impoverished diet.
(I asked for a rundown of the quality of the native Australian diet pre-1788
First to put it into context, the average [European] Australian would be eating 70 to 80 different foods a year – in the cities; the gourmand who’d be eating white asparagus when it came into season, eating all the mushrooms, the Asian vegetables herbs and spices – you’d be touching 100 ingredients a year; move away from the city, they’ll eat 40 sometimes less. I’ve been out on stations where they’re surviving on sheep, mutton, beef, occasionally yabbies local river fish – kangaroo they feed to the dogs they wouldn’t consider eating it, and a handful of vegetables. They don’t know what aubergines, are they don’t even know half the vegetables – these guys are surviving on less than a dozen foods – you’d have to put in rice and wheat and salt and pepper, they might touch 20 foods.
The Aboriginal people in traditional times, in the western desert, 150 different foods in a year. Move up into the tropical north, 750 different foods. And when you look at any components of the foods, antioxidants, anti- inflammatories, vitamin C, enzyme regulators, even mineral content and nutritional density, the wild foods are between 6 and 20 times richer. We seem to think oranges are a good source of vitamin C, they’re not they’re a better source of folate – an orange is about 0.1 per cent vitamin C, you’re looking at 50 times the level in the kakadu plum than the orange. And it’s not the number, it’s the quality.
We have several taste drives – we have taste drive for sweetness, a taste drive for fat and a taste drive for the micro nutrients that was overlaid in a social reward in a cultural setting – good hunters might keep the best portion of the meat themselves they might even eat small animals themselves if they thought there’d be more around tomorrow – often as the elders in the desert where their teeth would wear down, chewing was more difficult, they were given the softer meats the more nutritious organ meats – offal across the board was highly prized. They got the best nutrition and that allowed them to live a little longer. The great thing about game animals they’re full of water soluble vitamins like vitamin C.
The other interesting thing that they found at the work at the CSIRO is that the native fruits are very rich in fat soluble antioxidants whereas they are totally absent from conventional foods. We only get water soluble vitamins and antioxidants in fruit and veg. And we’re now puffing our fruit up with sucrose through irrigation and selection of bigger sweeter fruit and veg . Sucrose was absent from wild foods. There was another sugar called trehalose which is far more valuable and nutritionally worthwhile than sucrose – sucrose comes from three plants, sugar cane sugar beet and palm sugar. Trehalose is in any plant that can survive in tough conditions and then in the first rain it’ll be pumping and growing again the next day. We breed it out of our plants, it doesn’t get any trehalose if it’s mollycoddled – trehalose is known as an anti-diabetic anti-obesity sugar – it’s a slow release sugar, it’s only 50% as sweet – a lot of wild fruits are quite sour or only marginally sweet which is a good indicator of the presence of trehalose. When you know what that particular sweetness is like you can pick it.
(I asked did he consider the destruction of the land and the Aboriginal agriculture ruined their health)
Right across the board. Interestingly years ago I was camped out at place called Wutan up near Aurukun where the Archer and the Watson rivers join together. An Aboriginal man I met there told me that many elders believed the time of the Aborigine will be back again and the whites will become extinct – they’re waiting for us to die out. Now as long as wild foods survive and Aboriginal people forage and go back to a traditional lifestyle – there may be something in it. We’re getting nutritional diseases, 70 per cent of the reason we go to the doctor these day has a nutritional basis – we’re only supported by good medicine and that’s becoming more and more expensive. We’re probably going to have produce 70 per cent or more food and the only way to do that is through manipulation and the rubbish food we’re growing now. We can’t survive on that- it’ll fill your belly for a while and it’ll cause more nutritional problems and more people will die earlier.
Wild foods are the key to reversing a lot of the damage done by our modern diet. I eat a lot of wild foods – looking at the traditional intake of high protein low GI carbs – by embracing the Aboriginal dietary system I was able to lose 17 kilos in 17 weeks –and I’m now back following the same regime to lose another 10 kilos. Its interesting, if you can drop it off and if you maintain the antioxidant intake you can keep it off – you can eat normal food, supplement with a good quality rich source of antioxidants with wild foods look at a high protein intake and eat some game animal meat and you just lose weight. I had my blood pressure checked recently – it’s120 over 70. I’m 58 – it’s diet: my old man was the exact opposite. I think what’s going to bring Australian cuisine into play – it’s almost a necessity to include wild foods into the diet otherwise you’re going to get fat and sick.
Interview with Raymond and Jennice Kersh at Jeb’s Café in Redfern March 7th 2013
I spoke with Raymond and Jennice Kersh in a café in Redfern near where they live. A brother and sister team who have worked together in restaurants – Raymond cooking, Jennice animating and running the room – for many, many years before opening their first Edna’s Table on St Patrick’s Day in 1981. This is where Raymond began experimenting with Australian native produce
There were two more Edna’s Tables, the second in the MLC Centre in the heart of Sydney’s CBD opened in 1993 and the last, in Clarence Street opened in 1999 and closed in 2005.
In the last two Edna’s especially, the Kershs advanced the cause of incorporating Australian native produce in Australian cuisine
(I asked the Kershs why they thought that Australians have rejected native produce for so long)
RK: Convict complex. I think that Jennice and I suffer from Pyrmont peasant complex, I think the whole country suffers from convict complex. You’re still a servant to England.
JK: When we were at school, the girls in my school in the last two years would talk about as soon as they left school, they’d be going back to the home country. These were Catholic girls, so it wasn’t even they were Church of England. I always thought it was ridiculous, I didn’t get it.
(I asked them whether they agreed with Bruneteau’s phrase ‘food racism’)
BOTH: Oh yes
RK: Well, it’s the same thing. If you don’t believe in that Anglo Saxon philosophy. They tried to exterminate them didn’t they?
JK: And it was considered tragic or sad if you had to eat kangaroo or local food out of need and desperation. Many of the soldier settlers of the second world war did have to. We were very friendly with two bachelors who we visited frequently on their farm outside of Moss Vale and I remember the neighbours always felt a bit sorry for Pat and Leo because they had a big open fire – and I loved it – with wallaby stew on it. And they ate wood duck. Two white fellers. They had to eat them because they couldn’t afford to kill their stock – they gave them these little properties that were never big enough to live off. When we worked at the Hotel Florida in Terrigal where we started off in hospitality – all the waitresses were much older than me and they were all off soldier settler farms and they could sustain a living.
RK The first Edna’s was in Kent Street – still couldn’t sell kangaroo, but we had wild boar and buffalo, well that wasn’t indigenous. We used anything we could get and we used local produce from the Central Coast.
JK: Jean Paul had opened Rowntree’s in 1984 – but he had limited ingredients
(I asked did they serve Australian native Cuisine at the first Edna’s )
RK: We did with ingredients but not any meats at the time – bush tomato and native thyme and pepper berries. They weren’t so much hard to get as they were expensive. And that’s why it was hard. And you couldn’t put on the menu what you were using because nobody knew what they were anyway – we were just using them to create flavours but not specify what we were using.
(When did you start naming ingredients on the menu?)
RK: When we went to the MLC. [centre on the corner of King and Castlereagh Streets in sydney]
JK: And that scared the living daylights out of the customers.
RK: That was the worst move we ever made. By admitting it. Before we were using it and people were eating it unaware.
JK: Because it was just part of a flavour.
RK: We had a customer who was a real regular. He was a fantastic customer. He came to the MLC and ate the same food [he’d been eating at Kent Street] and read on the menu what he’d been eating all along and he turned around and said to me “what are you using this Abo shit for?”
(Was that a common reaction?)
JK: They wouldn’t say ‘the word’ but I remember my friend Mary telling me that a friend of hers, the journalist and editor Louise saying to Mary “I used to love Edna’s Table in Kent Street – what are they trying to prove? What are they doing using all those ingredients? I don’t go there any more.” A journalist saying that! This was widespread. The resistance and the judgement on what we were doing absolutely blew us away. We couldn’t believe it. It hurt. And we talked about it and said – what must it feel to be Aboriginal? This rejection we were suffering – personally and financially. We believed in it. Every cuisine in the world has been created from the food of the land – and we couldn’t use the food of Australia. We were putting up with this unbelievable rejection. People would stop me in the street and say “Jennice I used to love your restaurant but you’re doing all that bush tucker, I’m sorry.”
RK: And bush tucker was the worst expression – it really scared them.
JK: And the other expression was wild or native – just to use any word – and I remember Andrew Fielke saying to me in the mid-nineties “we’ve got to stop using those words.” And he was absolutely right but there was this fear – it was fear and a lack of embracing what was Australian. And that was the part that we felt deeply hurt about as Australians.
RK: It wasn’t just the customers it was other chefs as well.
JK: Other chefs were the worst. So judgemental, they’d scoff, they’d laugh. The inaugural Restaurant & Catering Awards we won the first two years for Best Modern Australian restaurant in Sydney. One particular chef came up and scoffed at it to my face.
RK: Another said how did you win the best restaurant award just because you’ve got a good lady out the front?
JK: There were individuals (journalists) who understood where we were coming from. But Terry Durack (restaurant critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and editor of The Good Food Guide at the time) and his wife (food writer Jill Dupleix)….
RK: They were slanderous. We got a hat before Durack arrived as the editor of the Good Food Guide. When he arrived, he took it away.
(Was there a change in the attitude of customers after the move to Clarence Street in 1999?)
RK: No. I don’t think so. But business came in spurts – you’re flavour of the month one week, then nothing.
JK: Whenever people from outside the country came they loved it. Because they didn’t come with prejudice, they came with open minds, they didn’t bring any baggage. It’s that baggage about not recognising the Aboriginal people and that flows through into the ingredients we were using. And we went out of our way to glorify the whole indigenous thing – not just what we did with food, but with the décor we were paying homage to them.
(I told them that Jean Paul said he thinks now it was a mistake to call them Aboriginal ingredients – he said it’s not the food that Aboriginal people ate. But that’s no reason why we shouldn’t be using these ingredients in our food. That might have worked better?)
RK: That’d be safer. Better for business.
JK: But for me, to call the bush tomato akudjura was important because that was respecting the indigenous people. I think Jean Paul is right. What he’s saying is that the flavours would talk for themselves.
(On closing Edna’s II)
JK: Heart breaking. We were losing money. And when you have an upmarket restaurant, you lose big. The overheads were enormous.
RK: If we were going to start a business today we would do exactly what we did only it would be tapas sized servings.
They pay $10 and eat it if they don’t like it its not so bad.
JK: They were scared if they ordered this main course at $30 they mightn’t like it. But this comes back to what Raymond and I have been saying – about the complex. We have embraced multicultural food more than any country in the world. Australia jumped in there and hugged it all – and they’d go to a Thai restaurant – any kind of restaurant – and have no fear.
RK: The average city person hasn’t been presented well with Aborigines. Most Aborigines around Redfern, if they opened a restaurant you’d say, no I’m not going to go there. If you only see [the handful of drunken Aborigines on the street] that’s the biggest problem – there’s an association.
JK: We still believe in what we did. What I would like to see is for Raymond to be teaching students.
Phone interview with Andrew Fielke MondayMarch 25th 2013
Andrew Fielke is, along with Jean Paul Bruneteau, Vic Cherikoff and the Kershs one of the pioneers of Australian native produce, as a chef – originally at his Red Ochre restaurants (the first opened in Adelaide in 1992) a grower and a supplier. He was the inaugural chair of Australian Native Food Industry Limited (ANFIL), the industry peak body, a position he holds again. I interviewed Andrew by telephone from his office in March 2013.
AF: I’ve been a chef since 1976, did a number of stints in Switzerland, Austria and London which is where I first thought about the lack of a true Australian cuisine – seeing so much regional and national food throughout Europe.
I came back and stumbled across a few native foods and became interested in them. I loved the flavours I tried, and
I started learning a lot about them – that was in 1985 – ever since the light bulb moment when I first tried quandongs.
I remember playing marbles with quandong stones as a kid growing up on the Murray because they’re beautiful round stones. It struck me then and there we never cooked quandong pie, Mum never made quandong jam and they grew all around the area. Why the hell didn’t we use this marvellous fruit? So I started learning a lot more through the likes of people like Vic Cherikoff. That’s been my career ever since, specialising in native foods.
We opened the first Red Ochre in 1992 – there are now three, all independent [two in Adelaide and one in Alice Springs, none owned by Fielke]. When I got out of the restaurant game in 2001 I was doing a lot of international guest chef work and I wanted to take native foods to a much wider audience than just one restaurant. So I started with food service products because that was a much cheaper option than the expensive packaging associated with consumer products and I thought I could use my contacts. So I started by selling raw native ingredients and then began to value add them and that has been my business for the last twelve or thirteen years. I also did an ABC series in the Asia Pacific region on Australian native food and Australian wine.
I sell my products on the Ghan (a railway service operating between Adelaide, Alice Springs and Darwin), restaurants and hotels, we deal with Voyagers group in Central Australia, the Hilton and others. And I’ve taken products overseas but that hasn’t translated yet into a sustainable export business.
I was the inaugural chair of Australian Native Food Industry Limited, and there are a number of (member) growers who have export businesses growers. For example they export lemon myrtle and one member, Chris Read, exports a lot of native pepper.
(I asked if business was improving)
It has been great for me, I’ve seen fantastic growth in the last few years. There are more growers, some fresh stuff coming onto the market. And a lot of the chefs want it now, chefs like Neil Perry – I saw native thyme and muntries on his menu – Kylie Kwong has been using a lot and even at Quay they’re using native ingredients from time to time
[Before] I was beating my head against a brick wall for years and years. I think people were too reserved, the old bush tucker stigma, it was seen as outback, crass, ocker – that was one thing. I don’t think too many chefs had the foresight to look at the true regional food in Australia, they’ve only looked at introduced regional food. And that is a real shame, I’ve despaired at it many, many times – why haven’t more chefs taken it on? Why haven’t they been blown away by the flavours as I have?”
I went to the trouble of finding out and even though it was hard working getting ingredients for many years, and some of them were in poor condition, being collected in a four wheel drives in the desert or the rain forest. It was not always pristine first grade ingredients I was getting to my restaurant door. But I persevered because I knew there was so much out there and you had to start – I didn’t expect the industry to develop over night and deliver perfect produce.But it has improved dramatically since ‘85.
(I asked how many members of ANFIL there were)
Good question. Not everybody in the industry has bothered to join unfortunately I think there are about 50/60 members – a lot more out there but only a handful at a big scale. But it’s certainly growing all the time, which is fantastic.
(Did he believe there was an element of food racism in the rejection?)
Not really. Just because it’s Aboriginal food do you mean? I’m not aware of anything like that. Whenever I do my guest chef speaking I always talk about the fact that we haven’t really embraced these foods and largely ignored them initially because for the first 150 years, before the first international migrants began settling here, it was a strong Anglo-Saxon mentality: we’ll go out and conquer the world and turn it into England. And we won’t eat what the natives ate because that’s dirty and crass.
(I suggested that the English did eat the native food in India, and even created a hybrid cuisine)
The Aboriginal people had a hunter gatherer existence, they didn’t have a western cuisine, cooking vessels and elaborate recipes – they used to flavour foods in certain ways, or wrap food in paper bark or rushes and put a few ingredients together but it was largely gather and eat and cook on the coals. That was never appealing to the British. And that’s why it was different to India because 200 or 300 years ago they (the Indians) were making curries and other concoctions. The British cuisine at the time (of Europeans occupation) was pretty staid and boring too – the settlers survived on billy tea flour and damper and mutton and beef. They never seemed to have bought a real strong food culture. I bet if the French had stayed here and settled we’d have a vastly different cuisine. The French are lot more adventurous and have a stronger inherent food culture – they’ll harvest wild mushrooms and eat the game meats and wild herbs and whatever that’s growing in their region. It was a different culture that settled here.
I don’t believe Australia has a true cuisine yet – we have a wonderful multicultural Australian style. I love the food we create here but to me the true cuisine of the country is what comes from the hearts and the homes. You know exactly what you’re going to get if you go to someone’s home in Thailand or India. If you go to an Australian home it’s all over the place. I don’t think we’ll have one [our own cuisine] until we start to combine the international ingredients with some truly Australian proteins and herbs and spices and fruits and nuts. And then when more Australian mums and dads start using Australian native ingredients in the home then we can start – almost – to lay claim to having a true Australian cuisine utilising true Australian ingredients. That’s my belief anyway.
 While it is not my role in these interviews to interpolate my own opinions, here I have to say I believe Cherikoff has missed the point. There is no bell curve to describe the use of onions or tomatoes or potatoes or Chinese food or Italian food: these are established and not subject to the vagaries of the market or fashion. My contention is that by now, our native ingredients should have achieved the same stability of use
 ‘Kakadu plum contains the highest recorded levels of vitamin C of any plant in the world (over 100 times more than oranges). It has five times higher anti-oxidant capability than the blueberry, and importantly, contains both water and oil soluble antioxidants (whereas common fruits and vegetables are low in oil soluble antioxidants). In addition, Kakadu plum has significantly high levels of vitamin E, folate and lutein (a carotenoid compound important for eye health), as well as being a source of minerals including magnesium, zinc and calcium. Its high potassium to sodium ratio may enable the development of foods to reduce hypertension… Recent research has established that polyphenols extracted from Kakadu Plum (and selected other Australian native fruits) have successfully inhibited the growth of cancer cell-lines.’ Australian Native Food Industry Stock take August 2012 page 27
 Many names of well-known people have been changed