When Nornie Bero picks up the phone it's the day after the start of Reconciliation Week, and a day before Victoria will go into a seven-day lockdown. The chef-owner of Melbourne's Mabu Mabu is dropping off a carload of cakes – originally destined for the now-cancelled workplace Reconciliation Week catering jobs – to an Indigenous childcare centre. "I have cake for days. The kids are going to be very happy."
Over the years the self-described "Island girl" has steadily built her name and reputation: from the Mabu Mabu stall selling sauces and curry pastes at the South Melbourne Market, to her bricks-and-mortar Yarraville café of the same name in 2019.
Now she's readying for the opening of Big Esso, a 130-seat Torres Strait Islander bar and kitchen in Melbourne's Federation Square, her biggest and most ambitious project yet. And while owning a restaurant might be the end goal for many industry folk, for Bero it's only a recently formed aspiration. "If you'd asked me three years ago, 'Do you want to open a restaurant?' I would have said, 'No way. That sounds like a headache.'"
But the adrenaline of being an entrepreneur, in an industry traditionally dominated by white men, is what drives her to succeed. "I thrive on the pressure [...] and having two venues is huge, especially for anyone from my background. If you talked to the kid me, I never would have thought I would be in this position."
As is Bero's modus operandi, the focus is on food and community. She's planning the announcement of Big Esso – Island slang for "the biggest thank you" – on her social media channels on Mabo Day, 3 June (like Bero, Eddie Mabo was a Meriam person from the Torres Strait Islands); while the restaurant's debut is planned for 5 July, the second day of NAIDOC Week.
Like Mabu Mabu, she intends for Big Esso to be predominantly staffed by women, especially in management roles, while the space will feature works by Lisa Waup, a Melbourne-based Gunditjmara and Torres Strait Islander artist, and Aretha Brown, a Gumbaynggirr activist and artist.
"I love my culture and was very lucky to be raised in it, and I want that to be the centre of everything I do," says Bero. "I want to make sure our communities are represented. It's about building a hub. [...] I don't do this for myself, but for the village I've created."
It's the flavours of the sea you'll find on the menu: namas, a dish of coconut-cured kingfish with lemon myrtle ("[Growing up] we used to grate and squeeze our own coconut milk, so I want to bring that back."), king prawns with green tomato hot sauce, chilli blue swimmer crabs with a hot pepperberry sauce and https://www.gourmettraveller.com.au/news/food-news/kakadu-plum-19149the crunch of karkalla and Neptune's beard seaweed.
Plus, she's on a mission to make yams sexy again. "They're beautiful and there's so many varieties here in Australia," says Bero. They'll be chargrilled to simulate the flavours of kup-murri, the traditional Torres Strait Island underground oven. Other appearances on the tuber train: spiced cassavas, perhaps, as well as sop-sop, a coconut-based stew with root vegetables, pumpkins and bananas.
Importantly for Bero, dishes will be priced around the $20 mark. "Whether you're a student or a banker, this is something I want everyone to enjoy. There's no classicism with how I think of food and places."
With previous projects she opened stealthily, quietly, under-the-radar, in the way women in the industry are conditioned to do. This time with Big Esso, she's ready to make some Big Noise. "We've worked for every cent, and every cent goes back into the business to make sure we grow," says Bero. "[So] this time we're going to have a big opening with all the people who've supported us over the years."
Big Esso is slated to open July at Federation Square, Melbourne, Vic