When Jock Zonfrillo’s Adelaide restaurant, Orana, was named the country’s best restaurant in the Australian Gourmet Traveller Restaurant awards on Wednesday night, the Scottish-born chef fought back tears as he accepted the accolade.
It was an extraordinary achievement for the 40-year-old Glasgow-born chef who champions native Australian ingredients after receiving his first lesson in bush tucker from an Aboriginal man playing the didgeridoo in Sydney’s Circular Quay.
But a quarter century ago, things could have turned out very differently for the Zonfrillo if he hadn’t plucked up the courage to ask the legendary British chef Marco Pierre White for a job.
White, currently host of Hell’s Kitchen Australia on Seven, was at the height of his fearsome culinary powers in the early 1990s. He’d opened The Restaurant Marco Pierre White in London’s Hyde Park Hotel, seeking a third Michelin star. He achieved that goal in 1995 becoming the first British-born chef awarded three Michelin stars and at age 33, the youngest ever too.
But in the UK winter of 1993, Zonfrillo’s career was on a very different path, as he recounted to the Adelaide Advertiser earlier this year.
“I was 17, angry, lost, with a drug addiction and less than five quid in my pocket,” he says of that time.
He’d just been sacked from a last job “for failing to run the kitchen in an orderly manner”, while the executive chef played golf and the head and sous chefs were drunk.
“As I left, I was assured that the executive chef would make sure I never worked in any Michelin-starred restaurants ever again,” Zonfrillo recalls.
But that was enough to fire up his Scottish–Italian and so he caught the train to London, dodging the ticket inspector because he didn’t have a ticket, to ask “the greatest chef of that time” for a job.
Here’s what happened next:
I knocked firmly on the door. It opened and this massive, huge carcass of a man filled the doorway, not fat, just … huge. Suddenly, the huge carcass spoke. “What do you want?’ it asked, cigarette hanging from his mouth. “A j-job,” I stuttered. I’ve never stuttered in my life. Like I said, I had the fear. He looked me up and down and said “You better come in then”.
He took me to a 1.5m by 2.5m cupboard, which was the office; on reflection, it is ridiculous to think that restaurant had an office so small but then ours at Orana is exactly the same size. The giant seated himself, filling most of the room, and motioned for me to sit down. “I’m Marco,” he said as he pushed his hand forward. Shit … this is actually happening, I thought as I shook his hand. “I’m Jock, it’s a p-pleasure to meet you” was all I could stutter out. “No,” he said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you”.
Marco has that way. The way that manages to make you feel either instantly intimidated or instantly at ease with only a few words, or sometimes just a look.
Zonfrillo was close to tears explaining that he’d been sacked from his last job.
White rang his former boss, who at first told the legendary chef to “f… off” and hung up when White said who he was.
He called again, and had better luck, but was told Zonfrillo was “an obnoxious kid who couldn’t cook his way out of a wet paper bag” adding that he had a problem with drugs and was always late.
White hung up, Zonfrillo had lost all hope.
“I was embarrassed, broken and there was nowhere to hide, not from myself or clearly him,” he said.
But White asked when he could come in for a trial in the kitchen. Zonfrillo did it that day and worked at The Restaurant for the next year.
“That brief first encounter was the most emotional and intense 30 minutes of my life,” Zonfrillo said.
But he was a broke teenage cook in London, who couldn’t afford a place to stay for for the first three months, he slept on the floor in the changing rooms at the restaurant. It meant he was always first in the kitchen – for fear of being caught and eventually he was discovered and found himself in White’s small office once again thinking he faced the sack again.
“Instead, he arranged a youth hostel for me to stay in and lent me money that was to be paid back out of my wages. That sums up Marco — generous beyond measure,” Zonfrillo said.
The young Scot went on to work for him in various kitchens in the 90s – he once kicked Madonna’s chihuahua “because I thought it was a rat” – before White handed back his Michelin stars and retired from professional kitchens in 1999.
“He was the greatest boss I ever had,” Zonfrillo says.
You can read the full story of the incredible role White had in shaping his career on The Advertiser’s website here.
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