The kitchen of Mark Olive’s youth was a hectic one. His earliest memories are of being surrounded by aunties, elders and his beloved mother. Food was everywhere, as was happiness. Mark recalls, “We would graze all day until we were ready to explode. The smells were incredible, it was always about sharing with family.” He goes on, “Aboriginal families sit around, talk, tell stories just waiting for their next feed. I couldn’t get enough of it.” This sense of connection, excitement, generosity and passion was the spark that lit the flame to a career in food.
Mark is Australia’s most celebrated and renowned Indigenous chef, most recently seen on SBS’s The Chef’s Line. He is a Bundjalung man, from a group of clans that traditionally inhabited land between Grafton, New South Wales in the south and Beaudesert, Queensland in the north. Before white man came, this area was considered the best spot for fishing and hunting on the continent. He feels a connection to this part of the country, “I am a proud Bundjalung man, this gives me a clear sense of place. I feel a comfort, an appreciation of being and a deep belonging. This is, and gives me, my connection to country.” His reverie continues, “Indigenous people always go home.” Having cooked around the world, Mark has returned to the town of his birth, Wollongong on the NSW South Coast. “I have come home, that sense of home is important, it is connection.” As we go to print, he has just opened a pop-up restaurant in Wollongong for the summer, employing Indigenous chefs.
Health and harmony
Mark reminiscences about visiting Bundjalung country as a young boy and his early experience and experimentation with locally grown wattle seed. He illuminates its importance in the Indigenous diet, “Wattle seed is gluten free, highly nutritious and a great source of protein and fibre. It tastes all at once like chocolate, coffee and hazelnut. It can also be a substitute for vanilla. In this bone-dry continent, wattle seed flourishes and even in drought, the plants keep producing. They enjoy hot, stressful conditions.” Indigenous ingredients offer more than just a taste of country, producing them works in harmony with our surroundings.
Mark calls his food contemporary native cuisine. He feels the semantics are all important. No mention of the word bush or tucker. He muses, “How do we convince Betty from Bankstown to choose kangaroo and emu over beef and lamb?”
Mark is convinced it’s all in a name. “The resistance is how we look at the meat protein we eat. The most popular meats in Australia are cow, sheep and pig, yet they are called beef, lamb and pork. This disassociation with the animal contributes to their popularity.”
Mark explains that the Indigenous community consumes kangaroo and emu with no ‘coat of arms’ hang up, “To my community, these meats are viable and respected. The problem is, when the name appears on a menu, the image of the animal pops into your head. An amazing protein that we should be eating, that has adapted to this harsh country, that is high in iron and protein.” It really vexes Mark, and he poses the question, “If supply is there, but demand remains relatively low, perhaps we should change the name?”
As a chef, the native flora and spices excite Mark; the diversity and versatility offer an abundance of application across a menu, smells and tastes that provide punctuation and personality. “I absolutely love river mint which tastes of both spearmint and peppermint.” He also touts the trilogy of lemon myrtle, wattle seed and bush tomato as easy to informally incorporate into domestic dishes.
In fact, he has ensured his dishes for these pages taste great, but are not ambitious.
“It is about simplicity, respect and flavour,” he says. “So much of the (over)use of native ingredients has, in the past, been a pastiche.” He adds, chuckling, “not every Indigenous person can play the didgeridoo.”
Having spent years travelling the length and breadth of the country sharing his passion, his evangelical enthusiasm remains undiminished. For Mark it is about much more than nourishment, rather he sees the food as a conduit. “These ingredients speak of culture and this education offers the prospect for Indigenous children to improve their nutrition, face challenges within their community and potentially give a sense of aspiration and optimism.” He sees this positivity manifest, “I feel encouraged when I see change happening. It’s not me, it is the kids listening and finding something within themselves that resonates.”
Mark is a natural communicator, his lengthy and successful career in the media projects his larger than life personality into our homes. “I want to lead by example, I love meeting characters, it drives and excites me. I also get to showcase a part of my food, my passions and myself. At the end of the day, it is through this medium that I reach people.”
Mark is wary of non-Indigenous chefs’ symbolic efforts to jump on the culinary zeitgeist. “It is important to work with communities and not rip them off, tell the story and give a sense of place. These shouldn’t be viewed as boutique ingredients only to be used at the vanguard.” He goes on, “I see them as accessible to all. A slice of quandong on something with a swirl of dry ice is tokenism.”
There is a sense of destiny when Mark talks of his work. He speaks zealously about a more inclusive society, a better world that connects on a human rather than a technological level. But he is mindful of the irony, as much of his communication to community is via technology. He uses his ‘celebrity’ altruistically to infuse children in remote communities with stories of culture, totem and respect and connecting through the language of native food.