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.
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.
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.
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