Orana chef Jock Zonfrillo on kicking heroin, homelessness and Madonna's dog

'How can you ignore the oldest surviving culture on earth?': Chef Jock Zonfrillo of Restaurant Orana.
'How can you ignore the oldest surviving culture on earth?': Chef Jock Zonfrillo of Restaurant Orana. Photo: Jacqui Way

Jock Zonfrillo (50 per cent Scottish, 50 per cent Italian, 100 per cent walking expletive) is one of the country's most celebrated chefs.

He runs Restaurant Orana, the unapologetically progressive and divisive restaurant in an upstairs room in the centre of Adelaide. He champions native Australian ingredients, supporting Indigenous communities by creating a sustainable industry around food with the not-for-profit Orana Foundation. Last year he won two hats in the first national Good Food Guide. But it's been a long road and a fight hard won.

Zonfrillo and Patricia Marrfurra McTaggart, Nauiyu Community, Daly River.
Zonfrillo and Patricia Marrfurra McTaggart, Nauiyu Community, Daly River. Photo: Per-Anders Jorgensen

"If you asked my 20-year-old self, 'How do you think you'll feel about working with Aboriginal people at a not-for-profit foundation?' I would have f---in' laughed at you," says Zonfrillo, "and said 'give me another pill'."

Aged 11, Zonfrillo had already fallen in love with working in kitchens, washing pans part-time after school. By the time he was 15, he'd developed a solid addiction to heroin. And at 17, he found himself strung out, broke and standing in front of Marco Pierre White in London trying not to cry. He credits cooking with keeping him alive.

"I've always said, if it wasn't for food I would have died. If I hadn't found my career path, I would have just been another statistic. As well as being a thankless drug, the only thing that will stop you from doing heroin is something that's more compelling than heroin. And when you're an addict, there's very little that's more compelling than doing that drug. Luckily for me, I somehow fluked upon cooking."

I've always said, if it wasn't for food I would have died.

It wasn't hard to become a heroin addict in Scotland in the early '90s.

Pushers had kids hooked and their parents didn't have a clue. "My parents are amazing but they're a different generation," says Zonfrillo. "They were a middle-class family who just didn't have any contact with drugs. They didn't recognise that I was pasted some nights, coming home as a kid. But I don't for a second blame them at all."

Even while working for Marco Pierre White, the proto-rockstar chef with a reputation for running pressure-cooker kitchens and treating his customers to the same punishment as his chefs, Zonfrillo remained steadily high. He recalls turning up on the doorstep of The Restaurant Marco Pierre White at 17, having made his way on the overnight train from Scotland dodging ticket inspectors, his belongings stuffed in a plastic shopping bag. He'd just been fired, had no money, and a serious drug habit. But White saw something in him.

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To this day, he's not sure what. "He saw something of me in him or him in me. But I went there completely naked. Stripped of everything. I was both a drug addict and I had no expectations of my abilities as a cook. I was lost. I mean, really, completely, f---ed up."

He was hired that day but had no money, nowhere to sleep, and was too embarrassed to say anything. So for the first few months working at the restaurant, he sneaked into the staff change rooms after everyone had left for the evening to sleep under the towels.

"I just remember looking back and being completely vulnerable and humiliated by it. Because you're surrounded by guys that are peaking in their career – we got the three Michelin stars while I was there – amazing chefs. And I was the new guy that didn't even have somewhere to f---ing live. Leaving at the end of the night was very disheartening. I'd walk around Hyde Park and then come back in, because I didn't want anyone to know. And that probably bothered me more than anything else."

Charred kangaroo, gubinge, grasses and wild garlic at Orana.
Charred kangaroo, gubinge, grasses and wild garlic at Orana. Photo: Supplied

A member of staff eventually discovered him one morning, and reported him to management. Zonfrillo was terrified. "I thought, 'That's it.' I'd seen a lot of people get fired in my time at the restaurant for a lot less than that." But instead of sacking him, White loaned him enough money to get set up in a hostel.

"I was so young when I went [to work] there. I mean, there's no question that to a degree as much as Marco would in those days, he took me under his wing. It was about as good as it was going to get."

Zonfrillo's a chef with a knack for getting in and out of trouble with similar ease. At the hotel in Scotland where he worked as an apprentice, chefs would line up each morning for inspection: fingernails (clean and short), socks (black only), neckerchief (tight!). "It was like being in the army and I hated everything about it. If you put your knife down with the blade facing outwards, someone would come along and hit you."

Zonfrillo has been captivated by native Australian ingredients.
Zonfrillo has been captivated by native Australian ingredients. Photo: Colin Page

A misdemeanour book logged every strike, from wasted food to stained uniforms. By the time Zonfrillo had left, his name had been logged more than 100 times. This was despite a "four strikes and you're out" policy.

It's not hard, then, to imagine him kicking a world-famous Chihuahua across a pastry kitchen, mistaking it for a rat. "Admittedly, I was a drug addict at the time so anything is possible," he says. "It could have been a f---ing dinosaur behind me."

One Saturday morning, the young chef was working alone in the downstairs kitchen, making foie gras terrine – a labour- and space-intensive process of de-veining, roasting, drying and layering 36 lobes of fattened goose liver. Out of the corner of his eye he spied something small and dark skitter across the room.

Aged 11, Zonfrillo fell in love with working in kitchens.
Aged 11, Zonfrillo fell in love with working in kitchens. Photo: David Solm

"I'm halfway through the job and I can't stop, and you know, it's not unusual to see a big rat in London. I take a step back and I go, 'I'm gonna kick it if it goes past again. I'll swipe the f---er and show it to the boys.' I see it and I turn around to belt it, and of course I'd just clipped it in its back legs. It'd scooted off to the pastry section and then I gave chase."

Then he heard the screaming. "I come out, and there's this chick with a baseball cap and a bomber jacket and she's going nuts and I see it's a dog. She's swearing at me, and I apologise and go back to my terrine. I think nothing more of it. Later on that day, Marco's assistant comes downstairs to give me the heads up – he's ropeable. And I say 'Why?' and she says, 'Because you tried to kick Madonna's dog'."

Going native

It wasn't until a trip his second trip to Australia on the final day of 1999 (the first was in 1994, when he spent a year working for Dietmar Sawyere at 41 in Sydney) that Zonfrillo decided to kick the junk for good.

Magpie goose at Orana.
Magpie goose at Orana. Photo: Supplied

"I shot heroin at Heathrow Airport and that was my last. I had a story concocted in my head that I was super sick – I caught something off the plane from the air conditioning – and I stayed in bed for a couple of weeks. I just needed to stop. The thing about heroin is it's the most thankless drug. The only upside is a relief from the pain. And that's it. There is nothing else. The lifestyle that it brings is shit. The people that it attracts is shit. There's no party. It's just f---ing shit."

During that time, he found something much more compelling.

The recent arrival had become fascinated with native Australian ingredients. A chance meeting with a Circular Quay busker he knew only as Jimmy unleashed a four-hour conversation about bush food.

Jock Zonfrillo had found his driving force. "Marco said to me, 'At some point, you'll find your own voice as a cook. Your story. Your food. Your dishes. Your style. And one day you'll just think to yourself, 'I'm doing my own thing'. And when that happens, and you start creating dishes, stay vulnerable. Because the minute you're not vulnerable, you're not doing anything. If you're feeling vulnerable, then you're in a good place.' There are levels of comfort and vulnerability that I've learnt to live with, but it's a shit way to f---ing live.'

Since that life-changing conversation with the busker, he has thrown himself, full throttle, into the subject, learning everything he can about bush foods.

Back then, the library was woefully under-resourced with reference books ("there were two books to read"). But the more he learnt, the more frustrated he became. "I was thinking, everyone does cartwheels about the pyramids and the Sphinx and these guys [Indigenous Australians] have been around for 40,000 years longer than the Egyptians making bread and nobody gives a f---. How can you ignore the oldest surviving culture on earth?'

"I hear it all the time, 'Oh, Aboriginal people have survived in Australia for over 60,000 years. F---. Off. You survive in the jungle for three weeks. You don't don't survive for 60,000 years. They f---ing prospered and they were strong, fit, healthy people and you look at any of the first drawings and the first photographs of first settlers when they came. They were supreme athletes. And if that's not worth looking at given our predicament with food globally, if nobody's interested in that I don't want to be in the food industry at all."

It's taken a long time to get people interested in his work. He certainly never wanted to open his Adelaide restaurant, Orana.

"I couldn't get any help. But I'm stupid, right? I've had years of going out to communities and tasting things and feeling things I hadn't felt before. I couldn't explain what it was properly, so I couldn't get people to understand what I was trying to do with the foundation. Which meant I had to do the restaurant.

"I thought OK, all I know how to do is cook, and cook beautiful food. So if I make a restaurant around this, then getting the backing for the foundation should technically be easier because we can set someone in there and go 'this is what it looks like'."

Laying the foundation

The early days of the restaurant, which opened in late 2013, were hugely tough. "Once we started getting some level of success in the restaurant, people started being interested in the foundation. I don't regret it for a second, but opening that restaurant is easily the hardest thing I've had to do in my life."

The endgame for the chef has always been the foundation. That's the database – a collaboration between Orana, the University of Adelaide and the Royal Botanic Gardens logging each of the country's native Australian ingredients including nutritional information, seasonality, and cultural information where appropriate. "Once we've hit 1000 [ingredients] and assessed 1000 properly, it'll be open source," he says.

"Some of that will be hidden unless the person accessing the information is Indigenous. But everything will be available – from pH in the soil through to toxicity and medicinal and health benefits all the way through from how it's traditionally used and cooked and/or eaten raw to suggestions of what we would do at the restaurant."

Through the foundation, which last year won the Good Food Guide's Food for Good Award, there are also the food projects that Zonfrillo and his team have set up around the country. Ultimately the idea is to create an eating culture where the demand for, say, a kilogram of mangrove seeds is higher than a kilogram of broad beans. It will create an industry that leads to an independent, living wage for Aboriginal communities.

"In order for us to give back, we need to look at what we can do to create jobs for them – a legitimate business they can run on their own with some initial support in the beginning.

"We know the food projects we've started and built with the restaurant are ongoing. We've never started a project anywhere and it's not still active in some way. And the reason for that is because it's so closely connected with food."

Going out into communities for more than 16 years has shaped him both as a person and a cook. But he feels he's barely begun his research.

"There's so much that I'll never know because it's gone. And that's the hard bit about it. But I also know there are chefs that'll inevitably be much better cooks than I ever will be that will come along and take it to the next level. What I'm doing with the Orana Foundation will go on long after I'm not here. It'll never be finished in my lifetime – no way."

QUICKFIRE CORNER

Album to cook to: Toots and the Maytals. The guys give me shit in the kitchen – they like metal and rap.

After-midnight snack: The Italian side of me. There is always smallgoods in the fridge. Pancetta straight off the slicer, and bread. I'll go 300 grams of that, a big hunk of burrata, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. And then I'm the happiest cat in the world.

Kitchen weapon at work: I'm a knife addict. Any nice shiny knife for me, even if I'm not using it, I just like to hold them. Is that bad? I'm not a serial killer, I promise.

Formative cookbook or food moment: A conversation with Jimmy the busker, just playing the didgeridoo in Circular Quay. It was a four-hour conversation that undoubtedly changed my path as a chef and also a person.

Non-cooking ninja skill? I'm a pro at eating. I'll eat four or five times more than a normal person.

The national Good Food Guide 2018, in partnership with Citi and Vittoria, is available from newsagencies, bookstores and via thestore.com.au/goodfood, RRP $29.99.