Scottish-Australian chef Jock Zonfrillo was last night awarded the Basque Culinary World Prize in San Sebastián, Spain. The prize recognises those “transforming society through gastronomy”. It’s not just a symbolic accolade – Zonfrillo was given €100,000 ($157,000 Australian) to further his work.
Zonfrillo isn’t so widely known as chefs such as Ben Shewry, Dan Hunter and Peter Gilmore, but his contributions to Australian food carry similar weight. His non-profit Orana Foundation (an offshoot of his world-class restaurant in Adelaide) is dedicated to researching, documenting, commercialising and promoting native Australian foods. Zonfrillo and his team work closely with Indigenous communities, providing training and opportunities in the industry. The end game is closing the social and economic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
On a more personal level, Zonfrillo (who emigrated from Scotland in 2000) is enthralled with these ancient culinary traditions, which are almost unknown in and outside of Australia. “When I travel the world and I talk about Indigenous culture – more than 60,000 years of culture – people are gobsmacked and the question is, ‘How do people not know about this?’” he tells Broadsheet.
He’s not just referring to untapped native flora such as finger lime, Davidson’s plum and samphire, but a whole system of caring for the land. Every Indigenous family or clan inherits a totem of a particular plant or animal and is responsible for its survival, caring for the land it lives on and the food it eats. “That’s why they’re the oldest surviving culture in the world,” Zonfrillo says. “It’s not by chance or mistake.”
Zonfrillo will invest 100 per cent of the prize money into Indigenous communities. Some of the money will be used to develop software to catalogue 10,000 to 15,000 edible natives. More will go into constructing a processing and packing shed for the Nyul Nyul community in Kimberley, Western Australia, so it can strengthen its foothold in the native food market. The remainder will go towards a mobile shellfish processing plant, so an Indigenous-owned organisation can fish for and snap-freeze cherabin, giant freshwater prawns living wild in the Kimberley, and ship them to Australian capital cities.
Zonfrillo was selected for the prize by a panel of high-powered chefs and food personalities, including food writer Ruth Reichl, food historian Bee Wilson, interior designer Ilse Crawford and chefs Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca and Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana. The prize, now in its third year, is funded by the Basque government and the Basque Culinary Center, an academic institution.
“I’m so extraordinarily proud to have been chosen as the winner of the 2018 Basque Culinary World Prize. To have a jury of peers who I respect so much makes this acknowledgement even more meaningful,” Zonfrillo said in a statement. “Indigenous communities in Australia are the true cooks and ‘food inventors’ and have thrived on these lands for over 60,000 years. This international recognition symbolises just how important it is to gastronomy that we preserve their sophisticated cooking techniques and foods, and gives courage to us at The Orana Foundation to keep fighting on their behalf.”