Having worked as a professional chef for more than two decades, Nornie Bero knows her way around a kitchen. But it was growing up on Mer Island in the Torres Strait that taught her the most enduring lessons about food: the value of living in harmony with the land, the versatility of native produce and the creativity inherent in cooking. Now the owner of the Mabu Mabu company and its renowned Melbourne restaurant Big Esso, Nornie continues to spread the word about the bounty of Indigenous ingredients that Australia has to offer – and how they benefit our palates, our pantries and our understanding of who we are.
CARODY CULVER: Your upbringing was central to your relationship with food. Can you tell me what it was like growing up in the Torres Strait with your dad and the role that you played as a kid in nurturing and preparing produce?
NORNIE BERO: I was raised in a strong traditional culture – my dad made sure that I knew where I was from, who I am, who we are. And living on a tropical island, food was like the lifeblood of the island – so Dad was strict in some ways about planting and growing and teaching me to cook for myself. He wanted me to be very independent. So for as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in food – I started pickling quite young instead of going to confirmation classes! You have to grow your food on the islands. You have to plant vegetables, fish the ocean and walk on the reef. And there wasn’t electricity – it was a different time, and it’s funny because I’m only forty-three but I grew up in a house that relied on a generator.
My dad was quite an entrepreneur when he was younger and changed half of our house into a tuckshop – he would make pumpkin buns and pumpkin damper for the locals and I would deliver it before school. It’s the first thing I ever made. We never came home for lunch because we could fend for ourselves: we’d pick mangoes or plums off the tree, or we’d roast a fish ourselves down on the beach that we’d caught on a tiny little line. And it’s a little more self-sufficient when you grow up and you can feed yourself – you come home for dinner, but you can always feed yourself. And you’re a part of the community, you’re a part of that process of planting things because that’s what’s going to give you your yield. When you want a vegetable, you have to dig it up to put it on the table. The ocean and the land give you what you need – you never take more than you know you can eat.
CC: You note in your book that you failed cooking at school. If your school cooking classes were anything like mine, they placed a lot of emphasis on following very traditional Western recipes – there was next to nothing about how to develop your understanding of flavours. What prompted you to leave the Torres Strait and pursue a culinary career?
NB: The worst thing I think I made in cooking class was a beef stroganoff. It didn’t turn out very well – but my uncle ate it all in a show of gratitude! Maybe because he’s a bottomless pit – but sure, it wasn’t my finest moment, I failed that class, and in some ways I wish that teacher was still alive today so I could show her what’s happened to me. I wasn’t very good at that Western sort of cooking when I was growing up – the only food I’d ever been around was traditional island food. So to learn Western cooking was very interesting to me – my first ever taste of it was when I came to mainland Australia to start high school. I’d spent all my years before reaching double digits on the island, and my dad was pretty good – he would try to make anything out of nothing because we were quite poor. We were financially poor, but I never went hungry – we always had food on the table.
I wanted more out of life than what Far North Queensland could give me. I was thrown into this new place for high school – billeted out with family members I’d never met before in my life in Cairns and then Townsville – and I had to stand on my own two feet because my dad was so sick by then he couldn’t really look after me. But you know, when you get billeted out you want more out of life than what you can see around you – it wasn’t a great environment to be successful. And no one’s asking you to be a doctor or a lawyer – they’re just hoping that you finish high school. And one of my aunts said to me, you either go to school or you go to work – and so I went to work at sixteen, first on farms and then in a pub, because I needed to look after myself and pay bills at a young age. I needed to go away to grow up and become who I wanted to be.
CC: You moved to Melbourne and started working in restaurants in the 1990s, and I imagine a lot has changed since then – not just in terms of racial and gender diversity but also in terms of cooking styles and approaches. What are some of the cuisine changes you’ve witnessed over the last couple of decades?
NB: In the ’90s, all these young kids were joining the industry and learning traditional elements of cooking. And to be honest I’m still nostalgic about that era – I think when you learn how to really stand on your own two feet and become creative, that stems from knowing the old-school ways of cooking. The ’90s was a different time, but it was a time where people were starting to do new things. They were starting to be more creative. They were starting to put a lot more things on the menu. We were starting to talk about, okay, what’s the diversity of Australian cuisine? While before we’d stuck to one cuisine – like Italian or Vietnamese or French – now we were saying, how can we integrate these cuisines? That’s when I started to hear about modern Australian cuisine.
CC: You’re passionate about showcasing native produce – how can a more developed understanding of this produce help us form deeper connections with our food and our natural environment?
NB: I think we should be proud of where we come from and be proud of what this country can offer us. We’re unique in our food culture here – we should be embracing it, and we should ask for native produce. This is the main thing that I tell everybody when I do classes – they’ll say, ‘Well, I never see it,’ and I say, ‘Go to your local grocers and ask for it.’ And it is becoming more common – if you go to Preston Market or Prahran Market or Melbourne Market, you can find small packets of native ingredients like karkalla and sea succulents and samphire and saltbush and warrigal greens.
We need to start eating stuff when it’s available and learn that we don’t have to have everything whenever we want it. I change my menu with the native seasons, not with the regular seasons. We live in the city here, and some of the vegetables for sale in supermarkets aren’t ripe yet, but we accept that. We just say, okay, let’s not have a ripe tomato this week. It’s about looking after ourselves as well and what our needs are. In the Torres Strait, we only eat what’s available in a season. It’s also about learning. We have emu on our menu at Mabu Mabu and we tell our customers that we don’t cook it well-done because that’s not how you eat it. And sometimes they say, ‘Well, I don’t want to eat rare meat,’ and we say, ‘Okay, then don’t have it because you’re going to waste it.’ Because if you have it well done you’re not going to like it and then it’s going to be our fault when really it’s your fault because you wanted it to be overcooked!
We are an amazing multicultural country, and we should be exploring and loving all the flavours that are available to us – I think that native ingredients should be top priority. We should be eating more of the food that comes from Australia. I always say that whatever state you’re from, there are foods that grow fantastically in that state – so grow them!
CC: Is there a single dish that most strongly conjures a sense of home for you?
NB: There’s a dish called semur chicken that’s in my book, and it’s something we cook for loved ones – if you meet someone and you cook them semur chicken, you’re going to be together forever. But it also showcases how multicultural the Torres Strait was before the rest of Australia: it has elements of the Japanese settling into the Torres Strait – they came in the nineteenth century for the bêche-de-mer and the pearling industry and introduced us to soy sauce and vermicelli, but we also cook that dish with our own wild tea grass, which is our version of lemongrass, and chillies that we grow because we’re so tropical. That dish means a lot to me because it shows us that we embrace all cultures, but we still hold strongly onto our own culture. And it reminds me of home.