What has 11 tables, 18 courses and countless flavours you’ve never tasted before? The answer is Orana, 2018 restaurant of the year. And it’s redefining Australian cuisine.
By Simon Webster
When Jock Zonfrillo experiments with ingredients such as green ants and mangrove seeds, the results are extraordinary. His radical dishes are helping to create a new identity for Australian cuisine – and his Adelaide restaurant, Orana, has just been named the 2018 Gourmet Traveller Restaurant of the Year.
The accolade is a triumph for the owner-chef, who has a vision that goes well beyond fine dining. It’s also a coup for the city of Adelaide, as it’s been almost 20 years since a restaurant outside Sydney or Melbourne last won the award.
An essence of Australia
At Orana, it’s not just food that goes onto a plate. It’s a taste of Australia. Owner-chef Jock Zonfrillo travels to some of the most remote corners of the Australian continent to find ingredients for his imaginative dishes. He talks to men and women in Aboriginal communities and learns about traditional bush foods, and how these foods fit into Indigenous culture. Then he brings these ingredients back into the kitchen and starts finding ways to turn them into something extraordinary for his customers at Orana.
“We do a set tasting menu,” Zonfrillo says. “We take people through about 18 courses or tastes. During that time you eat a lot of plants – fruits, seeds and nuts – and a moderate amount of protein. It’s very focused, very thoughtful and at all times it’s very Australian. We want people to leave having had an essence of Australia.”
Ever tried kangaroo tendon and Tasmanian mountain pepper? What about Coorong mullet, lemon iron bark, Geraldton wax, native honey and green ants?
“We have 50 to 60 native ingredients on a menu at any one time,” Zonfrillo says. “They can be anything from Moreton Bay fig shoots to mangrove seeds. Proteins could be marron (an Australian lobster) and kangaroo, of course.”
You might also find yourself eating green ants (an Aboriginal delicacy with a surprising citrusy zing). And perhaps native grass seeds. There will almost certainly be fruits and nuts you’ve never heard of. But fear not, Orana didn’t win restaurant of the year for nothing. The flavours are incredible and the response to them is just about universal. “People try these things they’ve never seen, smelled or tasted before,” Zonfrillo says, “and their only comment is: ‘that’s delicious’.”
Don't forget the fun
Orana means “welcome” in some Aboriginal languages, and Zonfrillo wants his customers to feel at home in the restaurant’s intimate space. “We’ve got 11 tables,” he says. “It’s a very relaxed, informal environment, and very customer-focused. We want people to have a great time. We don’t want them to be nervous or not sure of what they’re eating. We want to give them an experience that is unusual and unexpected, but most importantly, we want our diners to have fun.”
For an even more relaxed atmosphere (that’s also easier on the budget), diners can call in downstairs at Bistro Blackwood. Currently undergoing refurbishment and due to reopen on 20 September, the venue combines playful interpretations of bistro classics with some of the ingredients and techniques used at the more upmarket Orana. “It’s a different level of dining,” Zonfrillo says. “It’s bistro-style. You can have one course, or two courses, whatever you like.”
The big picture
Zonfrillo is doing more than just playing around with new ingredients. He wants to help redefine Australian cuisine. “We’ve got some of the best restaurants and chefs in the world in Australia, there’s no question,” he says. “But Australia also has thousands of ingredients that could be the next superfood, they just haven’t been fully investigated. Now chefs are starting to use these ingredients, that’s what’s exciting for me.”
Even more importantly, Zonfrillo has set up the Orana Foundation, which aims to give back to Australia’s Indigenous communities. The foundation’s goals include helping Aboriginal communities overcome disadvantage by turning their native foods into businesses. It is also helping to establish a native foods database in a major research project in conjunction with institutions including the University of Adelaide.
Zonfrillo feels a strong connection with Aboriginal Australia. “We’re talking about the oldest surviving culture on Earth. We’re talking about a culture that has been eating well off the land – not just surviving – since 50,000 years before the Egyptians built the pyramids. If that’s not worth investigating, I’m not sure what is.”
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