Sometimes, to see your surrounds clearly, you need an outsider looking in. The greatest champions for Australia’s native flavours – a relationship at times vexed for the country’s inhabitants – have often been curious immigrants. Think New Zealander Ben Shewry at World’s 50 best lister Attica in Melbourne, and more recently Danish chef Rene Redzepi from Noma.
Now a Scottish chef, Jock Zonfrillo, who learnt his craft from the legendary Marco Pierre White, runs Australia’s best dining spot with Adelaide’s Orana named restaurant of the year in the Australian Gourmet Traveller restaurant awards.
It’s the first time in 20 years the guide has handed the top spot to a restaurant outside Sydney or Melbourne.
“Right now Jock Zonfrillo’s mission to put Australian native ingredients centre-plate has reached a new phase, somehow at once more relaxed but more powerful than ever,” the guide says of Orana.
The win for Adelaide comes more than three decades after chef Andrew Fielke opened the legendary Red Ochre Grill and first introduced the city to indigenous flavours such as wattle seed, lemon myrtle and quandongs.
The influence of Australian native ingredients on Zonfrillo’s cooking is the result of a chance encounter with an Aboriginal man when the chef was visiting Sydney. The man was playing the didgeridoo for tourists at Circular Quay and told the chef how to cook mangrove jack with more flavour by breaking its spine before it’s roasted over wood.
The Orana menu features dishes such potato damper on lemon myrtle, octopus with dry-aged beef, finger lime and warrigal greens, prawn and Davidson plum, and kangaroo tendon with native peppers.
Guide editor Pat Nourse said as well as the restaurant, Zonfrillo started the not-for-profit Orana Foundation, which has $1.25 million in grant funding from the South Australian government and works in collaboration with the University of Adelaide to study and explore traditional ingredients and food cultures in a way that benefits Indigenous communities.
Zonfrillo calls his small, 31-seat restaurant in Rundle Street “just a billboard that promotes the food.”
“Developing the foundation is the crucial next step in preserving Indigenous food knowledge and to sharing that with everyone. I aim to give back more than I take,” he said.
In other awards handed out at the launch of the annual national restaurant guide, which is free with this month’s Gourmet Traveller, the peer-voted chef of the year is Mat Lindsay of Ester in Sydney’s Chippendale .
Sydney featured strongly in the top gongs with 28-year-old seafood chef Josh Niland of Saint Peter named best new talent, while Merivale restaurant Fred’s in Paddington was New Restaurant of the Year and its wine guru, Caitlyn Rees, was declared sommelier of the year.
While Sydney and Brisbane bars struggle under repressive government regulations, the nation’s best watering hole is in Canberra – Bar Rochford in the Melbourne building.
Victoria scooped the other key awards with Aaron Turner’s Geelong restaurant, Igni, named regional restaurant of the year, Kisumé in Melbourne’s hot spot Flinders Lane, won wine list of the year and Café Di Stasio’s resident hospitality legend Craig Young was declared maître d’ of the year.
OzHarvest founder Ronni Kahn received the Outstanding Contribution to Hospitality award for her work with chefs to reduce food waste and help serve 60 million meals to people in need as a result.
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