Mark Oliver – aka the Black Olive - is a bit of a celebrity. A celebrity chef to be precise. One that’s passionate about sprouting the benefits of tasty and nutritional indigenous bush foods.
I meet Mark Oliver in a busy Shellharbour café. He arrived early and was tucking into his breakfast when I arrive. Food is average, service slow, coffee is ok. Mental note to self not to meet a chef in a café again unless it’s REALLY good.
Luckily nothing can dampen Mark Oliver’s mood when it comes to talking food, particularly his passions – indigenous food and bush food; and talk about food we did, for hours actually.
Food became home for Mark early on, as he firstly watched, then began cooking with his mother and aunty. “I loved cooking at home,” Mark tells me “I would make donuts for the neighbours.”
Mark did his apprenticeship, then starting working in restaurants in Sydney all the while experimenting with indigenous herbs and spices. In 1996 he opened The Midden restaurant in Sydney, serving traditional Aboriginal cuisine, however it was closed within 18 months. The reality: while Australian people have willingly accepted just about every culture’s food (think Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Italian, Mexican and others) they are still very resistant to exploring our indigenous foods. Something Mark has since been working to change.
Wanting a distraction from food, Mark studied film, TV and acting, moved to Melbourne and landed some regular spots on the ABC program Message Stick. His own cooking show The Outback Café followed, along with a cook book by the same name. All the while demonstrating, educating, advocating Indigenous ingredients, recipes and cooking; eventually landing ambassador status for Tourism Australia and Indigenous food.
It’s been frustrating at times for Mark. “We have this amazing food and produce that we don’t embrace here. Australia has embraced every other culture’s food except what we have in our own backyard. Let’s face it, everyone has a curry or a Chinese 5 spice in their cupboard; but where is the lemon myrtle or the wattle seed.”
Mark also blames the coat of arms for a lot of our resistance – the kangaroo and the emu being seen as a symbol of our national identity; and no one wants to eat our national identity. He points out however that for Indigenous people these animals aren’t revered as such, except as a nutritious food source.
“How we ask for our meat is also a problem, we don’t go to the butchers and ask for a piece of cow or sheep or pig.”
So it’s not surprising people feel awkward asking for kangaroo or emu or crocodile. But this is something that is slowly changing. With our export market growing, and demand increasing in the US, Canada, Europe and Japan, it is only a matter of time before Australia follows the trend. On a positive note, more and more of our top chefs are turning to native herbs and spices, and even meat cuts, to complement their own unique style of cooking.
After 20 years away, Mark Oliver has recently returned to his hometown of Wollongong. While spending time with his 87-year-old father is high on the list of priorities, he is also close to getting another TV series off the ground and has ideas for another eatery, perhaps a gallery, more bush food promotion and to continue his work talking nutrition with Indigenous youth.
As Mark points out it’s not just about substituting herbs or spices in a recipe; you have to know how to use them as well. With lemon myrtle, for example, it’s a beautiful addition to shortbread, or a cheesecake, but the trick to extract the maximum flavour is to steep it in hot water first, and then melt it into the butter.
“This is our national cuisine, not a prawn on the barbie or a can of Fosters. We just have to grow up and be realistic about the food chain. We have to eat, so why not eat quality, unique foods indigenous to the country.”
Keep your eyes open, I’m sure the South Coast will see a lot more of Mark Oliver and his bush food cuisine.