Somewhere between the “f–kedy-sh*tbag” spume of kitchen-aggressive vernacular was the answer to the question I’d posed. But I can’t remember the question. Jock had shifted to another story, another tale of outback adventure in the harsh and rugged bush.
It’s no accident that Discovery Channel and Quest TV chose Jock to front their Aussie adventure series Nomad Chef. He’s a man of contradictions, as well as salty language.
With Jock, nothing quite fits. Born in Scotland to an Italian barber and a Scot hairdresser, he took an apprenticeship at Ayrshire’s Turnberry golf course before moving to London, and the white heat kitchens of Marco Pierre White, undergoing long-shifts of heavy bollocking and Michelin appetizers. Then there was a stint at Noma in Copenhagen in 2012, with the ant-muncher and seaweed pilferer supremo René Redzepi, before relocating to Australia in 2000.
Now settled in Adelaide, this Aussie chapter only mystifies Jock’s character further
His first name is strikingly Scottish, like the preamble to some tartan-bashing joke; while the surname is Neapolitan. There is a gleaming and rather obvious juxtaposition of cross-national influence and heritage. Now settled in Adelaide, this Aussie chapter only mystifies Jock’s character further.
I first met him at an outback barbecue in the Adelaide Hills. He’d thrown a barbie for the staff of his restaurant Orana (the name means “welcome” in Aborigine dialect), and being in a foreign town, friendless, invited myself and food writer James Steen.
In a hilltop woodland above the city, surrounded by dozing koalas in the trees, we all chipped-in, slathering, marinating, and descaling. There was snapper and trout and tommy ruff; and shrimps thrown on the barbie, for the benefit of the visiting Brits. The curled pink crustaceans bubbled and blackened and crisped so the shells fell easily to reveal the fleshy centre, which we picked clean with our fingers.
He lived, foraged, and cooked with the Naga tribes in the Indo-Burmese hills and hand-caught an electric eel with fisherman from the Wai Wai
Jock is supremely confident, happy to discuss his training, travels, and adventures in cross-global kitchens. None of the aforementioned is different from most travelling whippersnapper chefs, but it’s his desire to work with the land and Australian scrub that I, and seemingly so much of the international press he’s received, find so impressive. “I want to preserve all of this amazing food, and in doing so, learn about the land and the people. I’m trying very hard to create an Australian cuisine,” Jock tells me.
For the TV series he lived, foraged, and cooked with the Naga tribes in the Indo-Burmese hills and hand-caught an electric eel with fisherman from the Wai Wai in the Amazon. He’s eaten bat in Vanuatu and raw cow stomach in Ethiopia. In a six-month filming period, he experienced community living and eating in China, Japan, Philippines, Belize, Peru, Spain, the Faroe Islands, Ethiopia, and Australia.
Upon returning to Oz, that desire to forage, harvest, and learn from the indigenous communities took heed. In some cases, Jock literally moved-in with natives and the Aborigine population of which he so admires.
“When you visit these communities, you start to learn about the country. Once you’ve learnt and understood, then you can respect and appreciate. If you’re to give the Aborigine people the ultimate thing, then it’s giving them acknowledgement of their culture, their traditions, their people, and their history,” he said.
These frugal survivors and possum catchers; eaters of crocodile, bat, and mangrove worms; inhabitants of some of the most brutal and harsh living conditions in the world, are what inspires the menu at Orana.
The only dining option is the kitchen-driven dégustation menu that costs $155 (£72*) or $295 (£137*) with matched wines from South Australia (I recall the occasional French, too); and there’s a juice pairing option for AA Giil priced at $225/£105*.
All of the plates created by Jock and his team are influenced by his collective travels, in particular the evocation of Australia; as is the restaurant interior, with Australian timber furniture and striking murals by the Italian street artist Never 2501.
In a meal that lasts well over three-hours, and includes around 20 different dishes, I ate ingredients as varied as scallops from Kangaroo Island; smoked beef intercostal with grass mousse, pearl & dorrigo peppers, salty iceplant and quandong, native cherries called gubinge, buffalo curd & green ants, and crocodile with fermented mangrove seed & black ants.
Never before have I eaten a meal with so many new and strange ingredients, and that includes memorial meals in Patagonia, rural Asia, and the Gambian jungle. Nothing is bland or ordinary here. Everything is unfamiliar. Squid with aniseed myrtle and emerald finger limes, followed by a creamy dessert of set buttermilk with strawberry and eucalyptus, are among the most delicious and exciting things I ate Down Under.
The questions the meal aroused were many: What the f—k is gubinge? Can you eat eucalyptus? Ants? F—king ants… on a plate? But the staff, captained by the Jeremy Piven doppelganger Aaron Fenwick, guide and direct you. All are highly knowledgeable and part of the experience, at one with Jock’s vision.
What Jock has achieved is still in its infancy. No one understands the Australian cuisine, if, indeed, one even exists, but he’s going further than most in search for its identity. At Orana, there is an overwhelming sense of effort and design, with ingredients meticulously researched and tried-and-tested several times over. And it’s not strained or forcefully trying to be different either. You won’t find this food next door or on the high street. It’s not in Melbourne or Sydney, or London for that matter. It’s not anywhere that Jock isn’t. C
Orana, 285 Rundle St, Adelaide, South Australia
+08 8232 3444; restaurantorana.com