Native ingredients a recipe for success
Almost three years ago, acclaimed Danish Chef, Rene Redzepi, was invited to talk on food philosophy at the Opera House for the Sydney International Food Festival. His restaurant, Noma, several times named World’s Best Restaurant, was at the forefront of the foraging movement and Redzepi encouraged Australian chefs to look at using more of the native ingredients that were right under their eyes. “It was a little bit hard to swallow,” says Chef Raymond Kersh, who, with sister Jennice, has been championing the use of native Australian ingredients for more than 30 years.
Jennice and Raymond Kersh introduced indigenous ingredients to the public through their restaurant, Edna’s Table, a Sydney institution in the ’80s, where they served dishes comprising kangaroo, emu, macadamia nuts, warrigal greens, lemon myrtle and rosella buds.
Despite proving a popular destination for many personalities from the media, movie and political scenes, the restaurant closed in 2005, partly due to Jennice’s health problems. Ray says: “It was the right thing to do: 25 years is a long time when you work 80 hours a week. I was very happy we’d done it, we made lots of wonderful friends, know a lot of beautiful people … It had run its course, you can’t keep working forever.”
Whilst more and more chefs have shown interest in native ingredients lately and introduced them into their menus, Ray and Jennice think they don’t push it far enough. “What the chefs are doing now is tipping their toes in the ocean at the beach, whereas [Ray] and I got in and did an ocean swim,” Jennice says.
Growing up in Pyrmont, a very poor area at the time (“no one wanted to go there, we loved it, it was so colourful”), Ray and Jennice were exposed from a young age to many types of cuisine. Their parents were a major influence. Jennice explains: “[Dad] was a hopeless father, a drunk and a gambler, but he was also a very intelligent man. My mother (“Edna”) in particular, she was amazing. There was something in both of them that allowed us this openness of thought, and that can come into how you’re dealing with food … it’s a whole philosophy.”
Jennice recounts how her father, a wharfie, had fish traps and smoked his own fish. As well as cooking Russian-Polish dishes according to his grandmother’s recipes, he would often talk to the chefs from Japanese and Russian ships and try to make their recipes at home, or replicate dishes from the Chinese restaurant, where they would go twice a year when he won at the races: “If he didn’t have that ingredient he would try to find something with a similar texture or a similar flavour. He just had that wonderful palate.”
Sometimes it pays off, sometimes you lose everything – it takes a bit of guts to open something.
Ray certainly took his adventurous palate from his father, but Jennice explains that being dyslexic also played a role: “Even though it’s made [Ray’s] life difficult, it has made him a much more creative and adventurous chef, the fact that he doesn’t read something, he tastes things. He’s just a creative person. He made clothes by hand when he was 15, and very haute couture, beautiful and stylish. He never compromises at what he does. It’s the same with cooking, he didn’t just cook lovely flavours, but also how he puts it on the plate. He did his own food styling.” Jennice says: “He’s very, very modest. He’s the worst person to talk about himself.”
These days Jennice and Ray still cater for small functions with “Edna’s At Your Table”, and Raymond works three days a week at Tapeo Bakery in Redfern, bringing native flavours in the form of gluten-free pastries.
Ray thinks it will still take time for the public to embrace indigenous ingredients: “People are creatures of habit, they grow up eating one thing, liking that thing … People don’t change so much. It is bizarre, they’ve embraced Thai, Indonesian, Italian, Chinese, they embraced it all, but not Indigenous …” He still has hope though: “It will eventually get there, I don’t think I’m gonna see it, but I think it will, eventually. It just depends on how many young Aboriginal boys start using the ingredients, how many are going into hospitality – the more going into hospitality, the more chances there are of it happening.”
Ray says he has a lot of respect for chefs who take a gamble: “Sometimes it pays off, sometimes you lose everything – it takes a bit of guts to open something.” He encourages young people’s initiatives, such as Corey Grech’s organisation, Kool Purple Kookas, which teaches young Aboriginal kids to cook simple and healthy dishes inspired by bush tucker: “Corey has my full admiration, I think what he’s doing is very special, and he cares, he really cares.”
If they had any advice for young chefs wanting to offer indigenous food, what would it be? Jennice says that it’s important to have a good balance of indigenous and non-indigenous foods: “If we were going to start it again, we would do a tapas-style menu, because the commitment with what you’re ordering isn’t so great, so if I just have a small dish and I don’t like it, it’s not the end of the world,” she says.
Ray agrees: “I think that’d be the way to go. Maybe in another 50 years, when people are a little more educated with what’s there, then mainstream restaurants could start doing it. To which Jennice responds: “No, 50? Really? No …15 years!” Ray laughs: “That’s what sisters do, they ask you a question and they give you the answer!”