Why Orana is Australia's Restaurant of the Year

Kangaroo Island queen scallops with roasted kelp and seablite

Kangaroo Island queen scallops with roasted kelp and seablite

Jock Zonfrillo's Orana is shaping a new Australian cuisine, bringing together native ingredients and introduced foods with confidence and originality.

A question has gnawed at Jock Zonfrillo for the past decade: what is Australian cuisine? Trying to answer it, the Scottish-born chef, who has called Australia home since 2000, foraged for inspiration where too few chefs had looked. He visited scores of Aboriginal communities, from the Kimberley in Western Australia to Nauiyu at Daly River in the Northern Territory, to ask elders about harvesting, cooking techniques and eating traditions, and to taste.

Zonfrillo decided a cuisine that spoke of Australia today must not only celebrate native ingredients and Indigenous peoples' mastery of them, but include introduced foods, such as lamb and beef, that also shape the Australian appetite.

Jock Zonfrillo

Research and relearning were essential to unpicking the question, but putting the pieces together and coming up with an answer took time, too. Zonfrillo's intimate Adelaide restaurant, Orana, opened in 2013, and in the years since, the answer has emerged most clearly in dishes where native ingredients find a happy meeting place with familiar fare: fermented Davidson's plum on Spencer Gulf prawn; lemon ironbark, Geraldton wax, native honey and green ants with Coorong mullet. It's Australian food as we've never eaten before - confident, assured and original.

It moves a bold step beyond Zonfrillo's training at The Restaurant Marco Pierre White in London, his time at Forty One in Sydney, and at Penfolds Magill Estate Restaurant in Adelaide, where the genesis of his ideas for a new Australian cuisine began to take shape.

Orana's dining room

When Penfolds baulked at the radical departure he had planned for Magill, Zonfrillo understood that his leap forward had to happen in his own restaurant. Fortunately for Adelaide, he remained in the city, building Orana with staff, friends, and without outside financial backing. It was a high-stakes gamble, but his belief in the project was unwavering.

"I knew what I wanted, but it had to be absolutely tied to a belief system, and it wouldn't work if it was compromised," says Zonfrillo. "It was all about timing to push this idea through, and I decided to take the leap."

After four years, there's relaxation on the plate, but the sense of adventure and excitement is more powerful than ever. Wow-factor comes via superb balance and harmony, with ingredients that dazzle in the mouth - the heat of Dorrigo pepper, the sensations of fermented pandanus, gubinge (aka Kakadu plum) and the spearmint tinge of ox-eye dandelion leaf. These are not mere garnishes; they're intrinsic to each dish.

There's no hint of pretentiousness in Orana's busy dégustation of about 18 dishes. Each is delicious and thrilling: sea urchin with a kangaroo ferment; pipis in a rich broth of their own juices with fermented beach succulents; flathead cooked in a firepit with eucalyptus; kohlrabi piqued with Dorrigo pepper, quandong and lemon myrtle. For dessert, a signature that has been on Orana's menu since day one: set buffalo milk in a pool of wild strawberry juice and eucalyptus oil.

Set buffalo milk with strawberry and eucalyptus

Seeking inspiration and knowledge through interacting with Aboriginal communities is central to Zonfrillo's mission, but he's determined to make it a two-way street. His Orana Foundation is conducting research with the University of Adelaide (thanks to a $1.25 million South Australian government grant) to build a native-food database, run flavour trials, and assess the viability of commercial production. The foundation aims to bring recognition to traditional food cultures, and ensure that Indigenous communities are benefiting from any future commercial enterprises.

Professor Andrew Lowe, Director of Food Innovation at the University of Adelaide, will drive the research. He believes it's a crucial extension of what is presented at Orana. "It's a special, emotional experience to get a sense of Australia by eating," he says. "Orana is blazing a trail that can push these native ingredients into the mainstream."

Zonfrillo concurs. "The restaurant is just a billboard that promotes this food," he says. "Developing the foundation is the crucial next step in capturing and preserving Indigenous food knowledge and to sharing that with everyone. I aim to give back more than I take."

Orana, Upstairs, 285 Rundle St, Adelaide, SA, (08) 8232 3444, restaurantorana.com


The Gourmet Traveller podcast

Each fortnight we round up the most interesting characters from the food world for your listening pleasure. We chat to chefs, cooks, authors, bar tenders and baristas - anyone who has something new and interesting to say about the way we like to eat and drink.

Listen
Recipe collections

Looking for fresh dinner ideas? Not sure how to make the most out of seasonal produce? Or do you need to plan the perfect party menu? Our recipe collections have you covered.

See more

You might also like...

Australian chefs to follow on Instagram in 2013

There are a lot of food shots on Instagram: the good, the ba...

Where our chefs want to eat

We asked Australia's leading chefs to name the restaurants t...

Hot 100 2015 - Restaurant news

The world is getting hotter and we’re not talking about glob...

What the hell is Gelinaz anyway, and why is it shuffling?

On the eve of the second outing of one of the world’s strang...

Nahm named best restaurant in Asia

The 2014 50 Best Restaurants in Asia were unveiled this week...

Restaurants cooking with seaweed

With its complexity in flavour and texture, seaweed is the c...

On the pass

Tell us about Tomahawk’s menu, Ali...

S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2015

A mighty fine plate of beef short ribs with roast celery vin...

Dan Barber talks sustainable food

Farm-to-table is a neat catchcry but, argues Dan Barber, one...

Alessandro Pavoni, Ormeggio, Sydney

You’ve just released your first cookbook, a tribute to Lomba...

The 2016 GT Restaurant Guide Top 100

Here's the list of our 2016 Restaurant Guide Top 100. How ma...

First look: 108 at Noma, Copenhagen

Rene Redzepi may be headed to Sydney next month, but he's ba...

Dear Sainte Eloise to open in Potts Point

Sydney’s new wine bar is going back to basics.

Party-starting playlists

Music is a key ingredient that can turn your party from good...

Grant Achatz interview

Pat Nourse talks to the chef of Chicago’s Alinea ahead of hi...