Palawa Pride with Luke and Sam Bourke
Luke and Sam Bourke continue to carve out impressive careers as culinary figures in their own right, and as advocates for a new generation of Indigenous chefs.
It’s 1pm Thursday at Rockpool Bar and Grill in Sydney and Luke Bourke is on the meat section, tongs in hand. There are a dozen steaks sizzling on the grill and 50 more resting in trays on a shelf above. Charcoal glows hot and dockets lined up on the bench flap softly in a heat haze. Luke, 28, is cool and calm, pulling an eye fillet closer, pressing it to test for doneness, then deftly flipping it to align the char marks.
“You get into a rhythm, everyone in a groove,” he tells me later. “I’ve been working here for nine-and-a-half years. I know how hot the fire is, I can feel how the kitchen is coping with the day. It’s second nature.”
Fifteen minutes’ east in Double Bay, Luke’s twin brother Sam is also in a kitchen, the dough room at Baker Bleu, coming to the end of a shift that started before dawn. He rakes his fingers through a tub of starter, a mix of flour and water with natural leavening. “I’m looking for structure,” he says. “It needs to be shiny and strong.” He’s happy with what he sees, his touch revealing dynamic bubbles.
This mixture will be bulked into 115 kilograms of starter for the following day’s bake. “It’s a big responsibility,” says Sam, heaving a bag of flour into an enormous mixer. If the starter isn’t prepared properly, tomorrow’s bread will fail. “You’ve got to concentrate.”
Luke and Sam Bourke's kangaroo tartare with native thyme and macadamias.
Luke Bourke grills meat in Rockpool Bar & Grill Sydney.
NATURAL BORN TALENTS
While the Bourke twins work in leading Sydney food businesses, they carry with them more than 60,000 years of food heritage. As Aboriginal men with ancestors among Tasmania’s Palawa people, they are Indigenous food advocates with huge ambitions for the place of native ingredients in modern Australia.
“We have such beautiful produce here,” says Luke. “Finger lime is pretty much our own luxury caviar, and we love using saltbush which is so versatile: you can have it fresh, fried or blanched. Davidson plum has a huge amount of Vitamin C: not only is it tasty, it’s good for you.”
We have such beautiful produce here. Finger lime is pretty much our own luxury caviar caviar, and we love using saltbush which is so versatile: you can have it fresh, fried or blanched.
The brothers have been associated with the National Indigenous Culinary Institute (NICI) for a decade, initially as part of training and work placement programs, now as event chefs, ambassadors and leaders of the next generation of Indigenous apprentices.
“We are proud to use ingredients like kangaroo, crocodile and emu,” says Sam. “Those animals belong here, so using them shows a connection to local land and waters. Through what we do, we hope people look at an emu differently: not just as a bird but a good, wild meat, and they might consider eating it rather than a cow from a farm.”
Framing native foods in a contemporary context is a focus. “We create dishes that people can bring into their home cooking or dinner parties,” says Luke. “With crocodile, we thought about a veal cotoletta Samuel used to make. Why don’t we do that with crocodile? People can get a feel of what’s in our backyard.”
The brothers’ close connection means it’s not easy to disentangle who came up with what idea. “We’re identical twins and we’ve always been stuck at the hip,” says Luke. “He’ll come up with an idea, I’ll finish it, we don’t talk much, we just know what we’re thinking."
Identical twins Luke and Sam Bourke cooking side by side.
Luke and Sam Bourke's crocodile cotoletta with smoked cherry tomatoes and burnt lemon.
Nathan Lovett, CEO of the NICI, has been integral to the Bourke brothers’ development as chefs. “They have an extremely high level of understanding and capability of incorporating native foods into modern culinary practices,” he says.
“Their ability to enhance an existing menu item or create new ones where the native food is central to the dish, rather than just a garnish, increases the exposure of traditional native foods, which in turn increases demand for these foods to be on menus, included in food production and available at local markets.”
He’s impressed with them as people too. “Luke and Sam are two of the most dedicated, hard working individuals I have ever had the pleasure of mentoring,” says Lovett. “Considering I’ve worked with professional sports teams, that’s saying a lot. These guys are constantly putting others first, not just the NICI but their restaurants and those who have given them opportunities in their careers.”
Luke and Sam are two of the most dedicated, hard working individuals I have ever had the pleasure of mentoring.
Luke and Sam Bourke grew up in Western Sydney without a strong daily connection to their Aboriginal heritage. “Our family wasn’t so open about it, it was frowned upon,” says Luke. “Our older brother pushed our whole family to accept it, say this is who we are. Slowly we started educating ourselves on our culture, our food, our heritage. Now we’re trying to showcase everything that Aboriginal people can do.”
Luke and Sam Bourke's charcoal-roasted Eastern rock lobster with native butter.
Luke and Sam Bourke had their fine dining start with Neil Perry back in 2014.
Neil Perry has been a key mentor, giving the brothers their fine dining start at Rockpool Bar and Grill in 2014. Luke has continued at Rockpool while Sam followed Perry to Double Bay, doing stints at seafood-focused Margaret, walk-in bar Next Door and Baker Bleu, which is part-owned by the veteran chef and restaurateur.
“I’m incredibly proud of the kids,” says Neil. “They were very young when they started, they stuck at it and importantly they got good at it.” He walks through the Baker Bleu kitchen, tapping a porchetta which is slated for a lunchtime roast pork roll. The crackling responds with a satisfying ‘thonk’.
Perry believes having Indigenous chefs in top kitchens is crucial. “It’s helping define who we are as Australians,” he says. “They are involved in an industry they can be passionate about, cook with native ingredients that are important to their culture and express it in an Australian cuisine that is part of everyone’s future. They are cooking at a pivotal moment – food is so important to our identity as a nation.”
Back at Rockpool, the hubbub has subsided. “Thursday lunch is pretty much the new Friday – we get those end of the week catch-ups,” says Luke. He’s been here close to a decade but service is still a thrill. “Being on an open grill, everyone gets to see that and people take photos in awe,” he says. “We had a boy come up for a chat the other night. He said, ‘I’m Max, it’s my birthday, thank you chef Luke, you do an amazing job.’ It’s very heartwarming.”