It’s a crisp Monday night in July, and the Western Foyers of the Sydney Opera House are unusually packed. Opening celebrations are underway at Midden, the newly minted restaurant by celebrity chef Mark Olive, a Bundjalung man who’s spent more than 40 years educating Australians about native bush foods across umpteen television appearances, live events and a best-selling cookbook.
Standing before a mob of roughly 400 people – including his 94-year-old father – Olive can’t believe his eyes. Or his bloody luck. “If you said to me that an Indigenous bloke from Dapto would one day open a restaurant at the Sydney Opera House, I would’ve said that’s mission impossible.”
He thanks Aboriginal elders past, present and emerging, and acknowledges the Gadigal people for gifting him “a message stick to the world”, one he’s carrying with Doltone House Hospitality Group, who’s partnered with Olive to bring the vision to life.
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And it’s a remarkable achievement. Native ingredients have become synonymous with the fine-dining world (the Opera House’s other restaurant Bennelong and Melbourne’s Attica are prime examples), but Midden exists to showcase ingredients like lemon myrtle, saltbush, wallaby and crocodile at an affordable price point in one of the world’s most iconic settings.
Ahead of the Opera House’s 50th Anniversary in October, Broadsheet spoke to Mark Olive about the road to Midden and what he views as our national cuisine.
How did Midden come about?
Last year the Opera House came to me and asked if I’d like to be part of a group to get [former Opera House diner] Portside changed and showcase all of these Indigenous foods. So the Opera House took myself and Doltone House on, and it was just such a shock. Pretty quickly it was all systems go and now we’re right at the forefront of it.
Can you explain the significance of the restaurant’s name?
Thirty years ago, in the mid-’90s, I had a restaurant on Pitt Street called The Midden, which was way ahead of its time. After running that I ended up writing the [SBS TV series The Outback Cafe], which went ballistic for me. But The Midden, that’s where it all started.
So when the Opera House asked me to name the restaurant, it was a no-brainer. But not only that, Bennelong Point was originally called Tubowgule [“two-ba-gallee”] by the Gadigal people. When that whole area was dug out [to build the Opera House], there were shell middens all around there. So it has that significance. The Gadigal people used to eat and have a yarn all around that area.
Are you acting as more of a creative director or are you on the tools?
I’ll be on the tools every now and then. Not all the time because I do have a business on the South Coast and I’m involved in the community down there. But I’ll be up there a few days a week. People will get to see me, but I’m mainly the ambassador for the restaurant. [Executive chef Damien Worthington oversees the restaurant day-to-day.]
Tell us about the partnership with the Indigenous Culinary Institute.
After 40-plus years in this career, it’s time to step back and let the young ones come through. And hence this is going to be a place for Indigenous kids to get on the tools in an iconic building. Hooking up with the Indigenous Culinary Institute, I’m able to find young Indigenous talent and give them that training and the confidence to go through a place and feel really proud about it.
What dishes are you most excited about?
Of course, you put wallaby on the menu and people will freak out. But for me it’s got to be the wallaby shank. I also love the chicken stuffed with warrigal greens and pine nuts, which has this lovely jus with quandong sauce. My wattleseed pavlova has always been an icon. We’ll change it up seasonally, but this is just to give people an idea.
And it’s going to be a bit of a challenge for some, but you know what? We’ve embraced every cuisine in this country except our own. And this is going to give people the opportunity to try something uniquely Australian. This is our national cuisine and that’s how I see it.
Tell us about the produce you’re using.
There are farms all over the place, but a lot of corporates own them, because they’re putting these herbs and spices into face creams and shampoos. That’s shortened the supply for other commercial needs, but the chain is out there. I work with Indigenous and non-Indigenous suppliers including Indigo-Grow in La Perouse. They have a team of Indigenous horticulturalists doing some really good stuff. But the supply chain is limited and you have to source from all around the country.
At this point in your career, how does it feel to have a signature restaurant at one of the world’s most iconic venues?
Believe me, I’m still pinching myself … I’m really excited about the opportunities for tourism, but also what it means for everyone else. With 50 years coming up, I think the Opera House has taken a big step. It’s a huge challenge, but I think the time is right. Because the next generation is going to make a difference and start talking about this, and break down all of these myths about Indigenous food. It’s just on par with every other cuisine in the world.
Midden by Mark Olive
Western Broadwalk, Sydney Opera House
(02) 9250 7220
Mon-Sun: 11.30am–2.30pm and 5.30pm–8.30pm
Native High Tea
Wed, Sat & Sun: 10am–11.30am and 2pm–4.30pm