On a drenching-wet WA afternoon, so miserable that even the ducks seem dejected, Brian Cole, the chef de cuisine of Hearth at the Ritz-Carlton in Perth has a look on his face that's lighting up the room. He's seated at a large round table filled with local, foraged ingredients: strawberry gum, three kinds of neon-bright desert lime, sandalwood nuts, emu plums, muntries and more.
At the head of the table, Swan Valley bushfood expert Aunty Dale Tilbrook is explaining the origins of each of the ingredients, and urging Brian and everyone else to get stuck in. "Try it, don't wait, just eat whatever you like," she urges, and we bite into sunshine-sweet sunrise limes and muntries that taste of fresh apple. "Crush that leaf in your fingers," she adds, passing around a stem of crunchy-dried cinnamon myrtle. "It isn't really like cinnamon to me, more like mixed baking spices." We each rub the leaves. She's right, it smells like someone's been cooking gingerbread or Christmas cake.
Chefs get a certain look to them when they're inspired and Cole's face has that look now. And it's almost certainly a look he's expressed fairly regularly ever since he began working with Aunty Dale and, more directly, Paul 'Yoda' Iskov from roaming restaurant Fervor, on a one-off menu collaboration at Hearth which will take place over two nights in July.
The plan is that Cole's devotion to local produce cooked using classic French techniques, and Iskov's commitment to foraging and promoting native Australian ingredients will come together to create something unique, very Australian, and delicious.
"Working with Yoda means our concept, which is already WA-focused, is going to be much more connected to Indigenous culture thanks to what I learn from him," Cole says later. "I'm really looking forward to it."
Iskov – known to everyone as Yoda – has been working closely with traditional owners throughout WA and the NT since around 2013 when he launched his first Fervor pop-up. Partnerships with Custodians are at the heart of what Fervor does. "One of the most important things we did in the early days when we travelled was to spend a day on Country before an event," he says. "Whether it was harvesting honey ants with ladies in the Goldfields, or getting mud crabs with Clinton in the Pilbara or harvesting boabs with Robert in the Kimberley, being able to learn from the traditional custodians, and then playing around with what we found in the kitchen, was so important." Aunty Dale, he says, is one of his greatest mentors, the first person he calls when he needs information about an ingredient or the stories behind them.
Our group says goodbye to Aunty Dale (most of us packing a few jars of her Red Centre lime marmalade), and the next day our group meets at Hearth to taste a dry run of the Hearth x Fervor collaboration. The dining space is filled with touches that connect it to the land: chunky, sunset-coloured sandstone from the Pilbara are used as table centrepieces, and vases of dried banksia and gumnuts overflow from vases.
Cole and Iskov present each dish in the five-course menu, starting with a duo of snacks including a thin-shelled tart filled with WA marron, and the yolk of an egg from one of Aunty Dale's emus cured in saltbush. Next, softly springy slices of ocean-grown abalone, braised in soy, mirin and pepperberry leaf and charred by flame get a minerally marine lift from lightly-charred samphire and seablite. The star of the dish is cellophane-thin rounds of youlk, a tuber prized by Noongar people and found in the Great Southern region of the state. It has the freshness and subtlety of daikon radish. "You dig down a foot to harvest the tubers but you only take one half of them," explains Iskov. The rest is left to regenerate.
A Wagin duck dish follows, dotted with sweet and sour emu plums, and a dessert made from coffee-soaked wattleseed sponge and boab ice-cream. It's all paired with wines from small-scale Swan Valley winery Chouette, including winemaker Tom Daniel's orchard-fruit-fresh Pique-Nique pét-nat and his deep, molasses-rich Grand Muscat.
Cole and Iskov arrive at the table as the last dishes are cleared, to applause. The menu we've eaten tonight isn't an exact replica of what will be served in July – that's likely to be dictated by the availability of ingredients on the day – but it's a solid indication that the Hearth and Fervor partnership is a smooth one. "It's not every day I get to use these ingredients but it was fantastic," Cole says. "It's really exciting."