The First Nations twins cooking at Sydney's best restaurants

Sam (right) and Luke Bourke enrolled in the National Indigenous Culinary Institute (NICI), a training and employment ...
Sam (right) and Luke Bourke enrolled in the National Indigenous Culinary Institute (NICI), a training and employment program which linked them to apprenticeships at Rockpool. Photo: Brook Mitchell

Salt and pepper calamari has been called one of Australia's national dishes, but Aboriginal twin brothers Sam and Luke Bourke think there's a much more Australian way to make it.

"We cook it with saltbush and finger lime," says Luke, who is a junior sous chef at Rockpool Bar and Grill in the Sydney CBD. "We're always looking at menu items and thinking about ways we can use more Indigenous ingredients."

When Neil Perry's new Double Bay restaurant, Margaret, opens after lockdown, sous chef Sam will be making lemon meringue pie with lemon myrtle, and garnishing raw tuna with Davidson plum, river mint and Geraldton wax.

Sam (left) and Luke Bourke, collect produce at Stix Catering in Marrickville.
Sam (left) and Luke Bourke, collect produce at Stix Catering in Marrickville. Photo: Brook Mitchell

"We have so much amazing produce in Australia that can be brought into our cooking everyday," says Sam. "It connects you to heritage and culture and it's more sustainable too."

The Bourke brothers, 25, grew up in Western Sydney. "Cooking was a big part of our family's life and something we were interested in since we were little," says Luke. "People told us the cheffing industry was hard but we were keen to be in the kitchen."

Their older sister Teagan is also a chef. "She worked in local bistros and we used to jump in and help her on the weekend," says Luke.

Neil Perry at Margaret in Double Bay. "[The brothers] are great talents and terrific teachers," says the acclaimed chef.
Neil Perry at Margaret in Double Bay. "[The brothers] are great talents and terrific teachers," says the acclaimed chef. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

Connecting with their Aboriginality hasn't been straightforward. "We didn't have much access to Indigenous ingredients or heritage," says Luke. "For the most part, our mum and dad and grandparents didn't want to be seen as Aboriginal but we definitely wanted to. It was a big culture change from trying to hide it. The last we have tracked it down, we're Palawa men, from one of the Tasmanian tribes."

The twins enrolled in the National Indigenous Culinary Institute (NICI), a training and employment program, which linked them up with apprenticeships at Rockpool.

"The goal of our program is to create opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to be successful in great restaurants," says NICI chief executive Nathan Lovett.

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"Sam and Luke have been working for eight years now and they are remarkable for their skills, dedication and work ethic. They take a lot of pride in what they do."

They brothers are also mentoring the next generation of Aboriginal chefs. "They're in leadership positions," says Lovett. "There are other Aboriginal people in their restaurants so they are creating a pipeline of chefs coming behind them."

Both men did a stint at Noma Australia, a 2016 restaurant residency at Barangaroo by Danish chef Rene Redzepi with a focus on Indigenous ingredients.

"We saw native ingredients from around Australia, which was an eye-opener," says Luke. "It was a bit shocking that it was someone coming into Australia and telling us about our Indigenous food though. We noticed little things, like [Redzepi] wanted 1000 bunya nuts but could only have 10 because Aboriginal people only let you take as much as you need. He didn't understand the culture."

Digging deeper into First Nations' traditions is a big part of the Bourke brothers' continued association with the NICI. "We try every day to better ourselves and learn as much as we can about the oldest culture in the world," says Luke. "We want to pass it on to Indigenous and non-Indigenous people."

Neil Perry employed both men at Rockpool and continues to work with Sam at Margaret.

"They're great talents and terrific teachers in the kitchen," says Perry. "It's super important for us to have Indigenous people in our restaurant. We feel strongly about having reconciliation and the cultural history of the country top of mind for everyone who works for us. Australia is unique in having 60,000 years of culture – it sets us apart from the rest of the world."

That applies to culinary culture too. "The ingredients that are here give our cuisines a unique spin," says Perry. "Whether it's wattleseed-stuffed dates or saltbush over squid, we embrace them."