Appendix 8

Gay Bilson was born in Hawthorn, Melbourne in a house owned by her grandmother. Her mother worked when she was young and then not. Her father was a foreman in a family owned factory. Schooling was first at a suburban state school, then a girls only public high school. This interview is in two parts, firstly, notes from her email reply, and next from an oral history at the National Library of Australia. The first part is reply to the email:

‘I wonder is it something to do with the generation of which Tony and I were part of choosing to cook and also being articulate about it?

‘In retrospect I don’t think we were particularly articulate but we did talk about it. And the press were ready to listen. Things don’t happen in a vacuum, things have to be ripe for change – a burgeoning middle class, lots of travel. I remember people used to say we learned from migrants (Italians in particular) but that’s completely wrong. We only began to celebrate migrant cultures after we had travelled (your Wogfood!).

‘And me? I had begun to cook with great interest before I met Tony (Melbourne 1973) but had no thought of cooking professionally. We drove to Sydney in a clapped out Porsche with around $9 between us, and the Bon Goût was born because a man Tony knew worked for Leon Fink who owned the Mansion House building. The chapter on the Bon Goût in Plenty is a good summation of this era.

I knew nothing and learned on the job. Tony knew what he was doing (basic French food) but in retrospect the food was, let’s say, confined. But we did make friends of our diners, Labour Party people and journalists and artists and writers, a version of cafe society I guess (although Germaine Greer, brought to the BG by Margaret Fink, sneered at the idea that this was Oz cafe society!). I reckon the change you’re interested in began in those years. Patrick Juillet was part of it- the glamour and the sleaze!

 

NATIONAL LIBRARY OF AUSTRALIA

Oral History Section ORAL HISTORY PROJECT

Recorded interview with GAY BILSON

Interviewer: Heather Rusden

25 March 1994

When asked what the kitchen meant to her at an early age, she replied ‘Having to do the dishes… I didn’t want to stir the cake mixture, I suppose I wanted to lick the bowl… I do remember perhaps when I was 11, 12, 13, making some sort of pikelet and also making a cream puff pastry and sensing of gratitude on the part of the people who then ate it, congratulation and gratitude. I have said often and written often that one of the reasons I found such fulfilment in a business which is really to do with feeding people is I love the thanks.’

Of her grandmother’s kitchen she said ‘it seemed sort of musty and old-fashioned but it certainly wasn’t a kitchen where a lot of cooking was done. But I do have a very strong memory of sitting on … there must have been a mat on the floor of this kitchen and eating my grandmother’s porridge with linseed and raisin in it and loving it. It seemed to me to be the kind of food that was offered with love, I mean the food of comfort and domesticity and a generous bowl of porridge and I liked its smell.

‘I lived in the kind of house where if I were, for instance, to have studied medicine and become a doctor a halo would have been strung above my head and angels’ wings on my back because of that very middle class attitude towards professions like medicine.’

She studied Arts at Melbourne University, and became a cataloguer in a library. It as here she recalls her first experience of ‘eating out’

‘…the first time I ever ate in a restaurant – if you could call it a restaurant – was the cafeteria at Melbourne University Union Building when I went there in 1962. My first real date, I suppose, was at an Italian restaurant in Lygon Street in Carlton – this would be 1963. I suppose I was enchanted by the accoutrements and paraphernalia but I don’t think that’s got anything to do with my ending up as a restaurateur.

‘I watched friends I had made when I was living in Carlton and Parkville and at Melbourne University inviting people to dinner and to me showing enormous sophistication about setting the table and things like that. I wanted to do that too. So I started reading recipe books I guess, I started inviting people to dinner and going to far too much trouble and probably not cooking anything terribly well at all but I don’t think I made any great mistakes of taste.

‘I would still say now that I certainly don’t view myself primarily as a cook, which is why I asked you to describe me as a restaurateur. I’m interested in all the details of the table and the table in the dining room and the dining room’s place in its environment – it’s a sort of Gestalt of the whole experience of eating. My contribution, I like to think, is one of good taste inthe serious definition of that term, not its lesser and trivial definition.’

Bilson married her first boyfriend, had two children in the mid-sixties and went to live in America where he worked for IBM. When the marriage ended, she came back to Australia in 1972.

‘Well, I suppose you’d say it was the beginning of my career. I actually went back and worked for two days in the library. I bumped into Tony Bilson in a pub in Carlton where he had a restaurant – this is the end of 1972 probably. We went to Thredbo where he got a job cooking in some lodge’s restaurant and then to Sydney because someone had offered him a space to have a restaurant in, which became the very grotty and unsavoury Tony’s Bon Goût. I was by then pregnant with a child by him and began a decade – or more than a decade – of crazily hard work.’

HR: Were you enjoying the work in the kitchen?

GB: I loved the satisfaction of it all. It seems to me I’m not – I possibly am now – I’m not naturally gregarious but in fact I love dialogue. I mean, I love talking to someone across a table and suddenly by having a restaurant I found I was where I wanted to be.

It was during this time that Tony and Gay first went to France.

‘What was happening in France then, and which filtered to Australia, was the removal of stodginess and heaviness in French cooking. I do think that people likeMichel Guérard are wondrously creative and inventive and he, for example, is a truly great person of his time in that profession. It was a sort of French revolution within one area of culture because one of the things we tend to forget is food is part of our culture. We took notice of it here because we were still under the impression that the only really fine food that we could aspire to was French food and I would still say there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.’

After three years, Tony and Gay Bilson sold Tony’s Bon Goût and went to Berowra Waters. Tony left her, and she went on to create what was called, at the time, one of the world’s best restaurants. After that, she took her chef at Berowra Waters, Jani Kyritsis to Bennelong in the Sydney Opera House.

‘I have very strong ideals about the way the food is served, how we treat the diner, across all levels of what it needs to run the restaurant, including the whole aesthetic of the dining room and sense of welcome and leave taking and all that sort of thing. It doesn’t suit everyone but I won’t compromise. I’m not going to have someone say to me, well, the majority of the Australians want this, therefore if I’m to be a successful part of this market I’m going to give them what they want. We’ve never worked like that, so in that sense we’re part of a small group of people who please the few but those few are enough. I mean, Australia has an extraordinarily small population and I’m incredibly grateful that there are enough people to enjoy eating there, that we have enough support to keep on going.’

 

An interview with Tony Bilson

Tony Bilson was born Tony Marsden in Sydney. His parents, Jack and Evelyn Marsden owned the Collingwood hotel in Liverpool. When his father was killed in a car accident his mother married Bob Bilson, who adopted Tony and his two sisters. His interest in food and restaurants is inherited from his mother ‘I wanted to be a restaurateur from the time I was thirteen’ Bilson told me ‘it was an entirely literary decision. One of the first books I remember was Fine Bouche (a history of the restaurant in France by Pierre Andrieu, translated into English in 1956).’ From those earliest of times, Bilson’s influences and inspirations have been French. After finishing school at Melbourne Grammar, and graduating from Monash University in Politics and Economics, he took a job at The Reserve Bank. His mother died at that point.

TB: I was a lot before Damien. I went into it in ‘62 I didn’t have permission really. my parents didn’t want me to go into cooking. But my mother died and my stepfather remarried a woman that none of us liked – I didn’t have much to do with him after that – I was really an orphan at 20 so I was free to go my own way.I’d worked in the Reserve Bank in the days before computers – so to work your way up through stockbroking and reserve bank you were on a filing cabinet for 3/5 years at least until your mid-twenties. That doesn’t seem like a long time now but at 20 it’s a lifetime to be dealing with filing cards and the people working in accounting I found dreary – I was far more interested in the arts.

I’d done French up to matriculation and I was aware of French culture. My mother subscribed to New Yorker, and I was a reader. We didn’t have TV when I was young and I read about restaurants. My mother had a terrific library and in that library were books about NY restaurants, the Belle Epoch which I really loved – it was a lot to do with sex too.

Q: Did the arts include cooking in those times?

Well they sort of did because of [hotelier, restaurateur, art dealer] George Mora’s involvement – Balzac was a big change for me. He had the Melbourne art establishment in the Reeds [John and Sunday whose home Heide was a centre for the avant garde artists of the time] and others flocking to George’s restaurant which embraced a bohemian culture which included fee love if – you want to call it that –and a libertarian lifestyle. At school I had John Brack as a teacher. It was interesting seeing the film on the Reeds yesterday, while there was there a knowledge of artists which included Tucker, Nolan et cetera and the Boyds people like Brack and Pugh and that group were outside of that.

Q: Was there much involvement in gastronomy with the Reed crew?

TB: A lot of the arts involved in Balzac, the people who were included Phillip Jones who inherited Heidi from the Reeds

Q: Would it have happened if you had grown up in Sydney?

TB: Except there was Rudy Komon. Rudy introduced Len [Evans] to Fernand Point[1]. He took Len to the Pyramide. The sommelier at the Pyramide taught us all – they had wines going back to the 1850s – and it was all thanks to the dollar in those days, these wines were incredibly cheap – we were drinking all the great years that’s where we learnt. And then [English wine merchant] John Avery came out and he was very knowledgeable of course. Len used to get a lot of his wines from John Avery. A lot of the old burgundies that we used to drink came from Avery’s Later I was involved in the push – in Melbourne I used to share a house with Adrian Rawlins. I was always a libertarian, I don’t know why but I always was. My sister was married to a ballet dancer at the Australian Ballet, my claim to fame at the time was that I taught Rudy [Nureyev] the twist.

Q: So it was through bohemia?

TB: Yeah it was very much a bohemian thing. Melbourne and Sydney seemed to go through stages – I think Melbourne has another spurt on now. Although I haven’t had a decent meal down there for yonks. And I’ve never agreed with that [superiority of Melbourne] actually if you look at the people who get hailed as great chefs it’s the sound of one hand clapping.

The railway lines between Ballarat and Melbourne had first class clarets and champagne and Escofferian menus on the trains- there was the Hotel Menzies – it was the place when I was a kid. My father went out and shot four hundred quail and we did a dinner at Menzies as a fund-raiser for Bob Menzies in ’56 I think. Compared to what was going on in Europe

There were some good restaurants in Sydney in the sixties – where Doyle’s is was a terrific seafood restaurant. Romano’s and Prince’s were all run by Italians of course. In terms of real gastronomy I don’t think they were very good to be honest. You were more likely to get good food in great houses, a bit like England.

Leo [Schofield] was a very good critic. The thing is Leo was the one critic that had really good international experience in great places. Leo didn’t know much about wine but at least his ambitions were high – I went to a dinner for Jim Spigelman last night and the wines were just shocking. He had an old Riesling that was completely fucked and he served it … Leo did know his foods and did know his wines in a general sense just not in the Len Evans sense.

Q: Manners – at the time we all went – what’s he doing?

TB: That was the other thing for me I was thinking of going to a Swiss Hotel school but my mother died on me.

Bilson came to Sydney in 1965 and began working for restaurateur and president of The Wine & Food Society, J.K. (Johnny) Walker at one of his restaurants Rhinecastle (the other was The Angus Steak Cave) Cellars, first as a dishwasher.

TB: Johnny Walker had good experience in Europe – the chefs he employed Paul Harbulot and Jean Ansourian – he was taught by Escoffier’s sous chef – they both knew their classical stuff really well [as did] the chef who had Bouillabaisse in Melbourne – there were chefs doing one star provincial – not [Michelin Guide] knives and forks – but there were some pretty good French restaurants at the time. The hotels were mostly German chefs and that was a different scene – properly garnished schnitzels with anchovy and boiled egg on top.

 

An interview with Anne Taylor

Anne Taylor began her life as a chef/restaurateur somewhat later than the other interviewees,  but the restaurant she opened in Sydney’s Taylor Square, Taylor’s, was highly regarded by other chefs.

Q: A little personal history – growing up education.

AT: born in Cobargo on a diary farm on the far south coast of NSW, Jewish grandmother , German grandmother both obsessed with food. So there was lots of growing and bartering. We lived ten miles inland and so we went to Bermagui for oysters and fish every week and my dad’s farm had a talc mine on it and the man who had that mine had the right to do whatever he wanted to on the farm as farmers will tell you now but he was very nice and he had an oyster lease at Merimbula where I think the best oysters in Australia come from and so each week he’d bring us a hessian bag of oysters which we had so many we’d eat what we could raw and put them in the oven till they opened and eat more. In a bowl with a spoon. When people say to me between four people shall we share a plate of twelve I think oh Jesus. The women in my family were all good cooks and we had abundant food.

I went to Bega high school, didn’t do brilliantly because I wasn’t all that excited about school but well enough to go to University at NSW where I was going to be a teacher but when I saw the other people were teachers who just wanted to get married and not do anything I thought I better find something else to do so fortunately got a good enough result to get a Commonwealth scholarship so I started in a PhD then I asked did I really want to spend my life in academia so by that stage I’d bought a little house in Taylor’s Square on Taylor Street on my Commonwealth Scholarship and my part-time job at the Old Tote and Parade theatre because I was majoring in drama and I had a tenant who was a lecturer in business finance at NSW and he said one day ‘you should get a job! Write out your curriculum vitae’ which I didn’t know what that as, ‘ and my secretary will type it for you.’ And that was for the Film Censorship Board. So I became a film censor, and having always thought of film as an inferior art form I became addicted to it.

Q: What were your parent’s expectations for you? Did they make them clear?

AT: Yes, to be educated and not be dependant on a man, t be able to look after myself. I suppose to do better than they had.

Q: Did they see being dairy farmers as not good enough?

AT: Yes. They wanted me to be able to have choices in life. They didn’t say you have to go to university. They just assumed I’d be a school teacher, something professional. But I think like all parents they want their children to be happy and fulfilled. I think they assumed I’d get married and have children. And were probably a little disappointed that I didn’t. given my time over again I may well have thought to have children because now its acceptable to hire a nanny or get someone to look after them. In my day intelligent women had to do things themselves. Its not something I sit around ad feel regret about.

Q: You’re in Taylor Street and you’ve got a little house and you’re now a film censor. Is that a paid job I thought it was a volunteer thing.

AT: It’s a highly desirable job. There’s a board of review which consisted of people like Caroline Jones, Rowena Danziger. In my day it was a fantastic job./ I did eventually get sick of kung fu crap and we also did TV. Our first office was in the Imperial Arcade and there was a frozen yoghurt place at top of the stairs I’d always be running up to get an ice cream.

I think this was 1975 0r 6. I dropped out of Uni after a year and a half. I could always go back and finish my PhD if I felt so inclined.

Q: what was your thesis?

AT: On an English 17th Century Nathaniel Lee how his dramas differed from renaissance plays in that his was the new baroque style.

Most days we all went out for Chinese lunch. It was in the days when Greg Doyle had his first restaurant in the city in a pub and Patric Juillet was in the imperial arcade. We had lots of money we’d all go out for lunch every day. I can’t tell you what’s its like sitting down at 9 in the morning and seeing a French film like Providence where John Gielgud was always reaching out for a close up glass of Chablis and the droplets of condensation dribbling down the side you’d find yourself reaching out for the glass – so we’d all have to go out and have Chinese banquets for lunch. It wasn’t an expense account and because we were working we wouldn’t be like journos and have a bottle of wine and a beer chaser followed b\y a whisky. We were all relatively sober. I made some good friends there.

In 1976 I took my first trip to Europe – the UK, France Italy and Greece in six weeks and I think I lost 10kkgs in London because the food was so appalling – scotch eggs and ham in a pub – and then when I got to France I devoured all those wonderful things which I’d never had before, regained weight and when I got to Italy it was an absolute revelation and transformation that veggies could taste so fantastic. And that’s when I thought ‘I could open an Italian restaurant! in Sydney and serve food like this’

I was of a generation where all my friends were reading Elizabeth David and then Marcella Hazan came out and of course Julia Child – most weekends were spent going to each others houses making croissants and making all kinds of exotic dishes. And of course I was of an age and a time when if you wanted to do something in Australia you didn’t need a million dollars you just worked hard and did it.

Q: What I’m saying here is that you and your friends were early foodists.

AT: Yes. We were addicted to food and we went to restaurants too – I certainly did at lunchtime – but we all tried to impress each other and learn from each other by cooking and quite difficult things. There were lots of books around then that gave you instructions on how to bone a bird and how to make smoked salmon. Your peers weren’t critically judgemental, they’d make suggestions how you could improve it so I suppose my life was Musica Viva concerts and cooking and going to the theatre and films during the day. Although we were allocated films, if there was a particularly good film we’d re-run it in the lunch time so we could all watch it. So I got to see all kinds of films which are no longer imported to Australia.

[back from Europe] By this stage I’d met Ian [chemical engineer McCullough] who then worked in corporate planning for Esso he thought opening a restaurant was an interesting idea and set it up with a business plan. I thought I won’t have to pay a chef because I can do it myself and if we buy a building we won’t have to pay rent and you just hire staff and of course I’d never really thought about how important is the matter of a whole team working together – if you’re serving fantastic food and the room’s dreary and your staff is bad people aren’t going to come back. Look we were both bright enough to learn quickly from our mistakes, friends were very supportive, people like Damien Pignolet and Gay Bilson when I started out were extremely supportive.

Early in the piece Anders Ousback came to the restaurant. I’d known Leo through a mutual friend and Anders gave all kinds of practical advice very directly – ‘don’t do that1 the colour of the room is appalling1’ George Freeman was a customer we said to him could you do a colour scheme for us, we haven’t got any money and we want it next week sort of thing and he said sure.

We opened in 1982 having bought that building near Taylor’s Square. S that’d essentially how it happened. In my day you didn’t need vast amounts of money. We didn’t know about leasing you just paid as quickly as you could. Of course 38 years ago or whatever I had a little more physical energy than I do now. A lot of restaurateurs came to the restaurant and were really nice to us. I’m forever grateful to Peter and Greg Doyle were really kind, really decent people. It wasn’t celebrity chef stuff in those days.

In some ways I think John Alexander was responsible for individuals and what they could offer people for a good time. I’m not saying that’s bad he just wanted to fill newspapers. I was more shy in those days, now I don’t care. Just sort of articles in the paper, and Leo. It was all promo. Most of the time I was so bloody tired. In those days we used to go the Flemington Markets twice a week at 5am. After a year of that I could barely walk I was so exhausted.

Q: Two questions. It seems to me that an Australian chef has to make a couple of decisions – first of all what am I going to cook? You can do that by falling back on your heritage as did Damien or you can decide to be a contemporary Australian cook or you can choose a nationality. Did you think of that at the time?

AT: Look that was the food that I’d suddenly been transported by. Given my time again I’d probably be able to say its contemporary Australian with a largely Italian influence. That’s because I don’t make reduced stock sauces.

Certainly these days I’d never go in for these exotic combination with hours of labour and turning little bits of watermelon into rice capsules which explode. I’m a real food person based on taking the best ingredients your budget allows not fiddling with it too much and serving it. In some ways it now seems – and it happened to me too – you need to have a higher income to pay for your staff and all the other thing s and you make more labour intensive food and it sort of goes to justify the extra cost so that people can’t say I can buy a grilled chop and serve it at home and it cost me $4 how come they’re charging $25. You’ve got to have so many staff in the kitchen. We started out with Ian and me and a dishwasher and what was called a cold larder person – we’d serve 35 to 50 people and you did it all yourself. And the waiting staff all helped. There was a sense of family a small group of people all learning to each others chores.

Q: For somebody who’d cook for the most 5/6/7 friends how did you transform yourself into a professional cook?

AT: With great difficulty. Some customers would undoubtedly say yes, waiting for ever for our bloody food. Ian actually went and got a job in a pub restaurant to see what it was like so Ian was more methodical – after all he’d worked in a laboratory and he knew a lot of it was to do with organisation I mean I remember him saying to me at one stage you’ve got to learn to cook ore than ne pan at a time! I did quite quickly learnt to do that. You’re under enormous pressure and you learn to cope or you don’t. So now, for me to cook dinner for ten people is easy. It’s largely to do with organisation and short uts and what can be pre-cooked and having a good sense that you have to be perfectly prepared and know where every thing was. After 4 years we then started employing other people to cook with us then after 5 and a bit years I was in that car accident and that took me out all together. Ian still cooked although he largely became an over seer, standing in the kitchen making sure that people did what they were supposed to do being a caller I suppose.

Q: The last question – how did your parents feel about you being s chef?

AT: They were delighted – they were surprised. They were entirely ignorant about restaurants ­ they’d been to the local Chinese and when I was a student Mum and I would go to smart restaurants. But they had no idea of what the financial situation was they jus thought that Ian was a money person he could manage this. I’d been bought up to think that if you couldn’t use your brain you used your hand – and now when I look at many of the so-called chefs I can see that they have very good skills with their hands and they’re bright too. There’s still a vast number of so-called chefs who just churn out shit and crap and who actually don’t want to be creative geniuses they just want to follow set things and do it as well as thy can and if they’re sick somebody else replaces the because its all fairly standard formula. I think my parents knew I was trying to do something different from that. Like al parents they believed if I said I could do it I could. I was 35 or something, if it didn’t work I’d do something else. I was full of optimism then. When I ,look at people now who need to have $2million to just have an acceptable fitout and all of the other stuff that goes with it and they can lose their life savings and their house and everything it seems to me a huge risk which would always be hanging over you unless you have people with money who want to back you.

Q: It must be a wonderful thing to create a restaurants you’ve done and have it running like an efficient machine?

AT: Yeah I’d only really come to think of it in more recent years – we sold in 1996 – over 15 years since we left the industry. It was Jani Kyritsis who said to me you made a really beautiful restaurant. I just hadn’t thought of it. I suppose now I’m older I think well, I did. And many of the people I met then have become close friends and I’ve known them for 30 years or something. We were united in our love of the dining experience which is theatre in a way. In me twenties when I wanted to open a restaurant I just wanted to cook and it was difficult to learn that it was more than me cooking what I wanted to cook that you actually had to justify somebody wanting to eat what you cooked and taking pleasure in spending money on it. I hadn’t really thought of that. Occasionally people say you could open a restaurant again – apart from being too old I still think there’s a great opportunity and place for a small establishment in a suburb where the rents are lower and you just cook one or two dishes for the night and people come along and have their dinner and can buy a glass of wine for a few dollars maybe spend 30 spend an hour there and go home. I’m horrified now when I go out and it’s a hundred dollars a head for two courses with an ordinary glass of wine. I mean how many people earn that much money?

 

 

Endnote 

[1] This is incorrect. Point died in 1955, Evans did not begin to work for Komon until 1965.

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Appendix 1

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.[1]

(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.[2]

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[3] 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.

(What next?)

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.

 

 

 Endnotes 

[1] 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

[2] ‘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

[3] Many names of well-known people have been changed