Jock Zonfrillo at the Academic Tables

As food movements gain momentum, the role of chefs is also becoming more important in engaging and educating the public about the need to abandon industrially-produced food and appreciate territorial values. From the new Nordic movement led by René Redzepi to Ferran Adria’s molecular gastronomy, chefs are no longer just cooks behind the wall; they are ideologists who influence public opinion and our perception of food. Jock Zonfrillo, also known as the nomad chef, brings light to the rich Aboriginal food culture that was previously seen as insignificant to Australian gastronomy. Now an expert in the field, he promotes the Aboriginal way of life, a philosophy that views people as an integrated element within the nature around them.

Jock Zonfrillo was a guest chef at the University of Gastronomic Sciences’ Academic Tables, where  inspiring chefs from all around the globe come to share their cooking throughout the academic year. Setting a great example for tomorrow’s gastronomists, Jock has constructed a valuable movement that needs to be highlighted: promoting an ancient food culture that conserves a rich landscape of biodiversity.

Despite being among the oldest surviving cultures in the world, the eating habits of the native Aborigines in Australia have often been neglected and perceived as unimportant by modern food enthusiasts. Prior to the efforts of Zonfrillo, what passed for “Australian cuisine” was simply European dishes spiced up with a few classic native ingredients. Zonfrillo observed how little heed was paid to the native food culture, with its 50,000 years of history. He began investigating through field research, since there was a lack of recorded information on Aboriginal customs other than their hunting and insect eating. Not having met any Aboriginal people before, he started a conversation with street musicians to get an idea of their cooking traditions.

He made deeper connections, and discovered how, far from being primitive, Aboriginal food customs exhibited sophisticated interconnections between food and the land. He learnt that Aboriginals spoke of six seasons, not four. How the best time to hunt sea mullet is when the tea tree starts to blossom, and that stingrays had the fattiest livers when the lilies blossomed. At the time, Zonfrillo was only using 60 ingredients in his cooking, yet he found out that there were actually more than 20,000 local food products.

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The impact of this experience led Zonfrillo to create the Orana foundation, which seeks to document the unique relationship the native communities have with nature. The Aboriginal philosophy “heal and be healed by the land” and “always give back more than you take” influenced him to construct a cuisine that respects native culture and preserve its unique techniques and wisdom.

Sixteen years into his research, Zonfrillo is now a recognized expert on Australia’s finest food, along with his head chef Shannon Fleming and restaurant manager Greta Wohlstadt. Although he has gained a profound understanding of the Australian culture, he says he still doesn’t have all the answers. There the road ahead is still long, and must be taken one step at a time.

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