Meet Chef Jock Zonfrillo, the most intriguing judge on the new panel of MasterChef Australia

He went from being a dish washer to working in Michelin-star kitchens in London, before leaving those stars behind to explore aboriginal ingredients in bush territory Down Under
Jock Zonfrillo
Jock Zonfrillo

The name Jock Zonfrillo might be relatively unknown to readers in India, as yet. But if you have ever been to Adelaide, you might have heard of him being referred to as the ‘Mad Max of Foraging’. A champion for indigenous ingredients in Australia, the Scottish-Italian chef has on occasion spoken of a rather simple-minded dream — “that one day, people would refer to native ingredients in Australia simply as Australian ingredients”. Of course, until recently, the maverick chef had no idea that he would soon have his own brush with stardom, as a host of one of the world’s most popular cooking shows. And not as a visiting guest, like in Season 11, but as one of the new trio of host judges, no less. 

To fill in the blanks, the other two judges joining Chef Zonfrillo are Andy Allen, who won the fourth season of the show back in 2012, and is currently head chef at the Three Blue Ducks’ Rosebery eatery, as well as popular food and travel writer, Melissa Leong. 

The new judges on MasterChef Australia Season 12: 
(L-R) Andy Allen, Melissa Leong and Jock Zonfrillo

Getting back to Chef Zonfrillo’s story, to say that his life has been something of a rollercoaster ride, would be an understatement. From working under Marco Pierre White to setting up the Orana Foundation, which catalogues and promotes the use of indigenous ingredients, the chef has come a long way from being a dishwasher at age 13. Next stop: MasterChef Australia. When word trickled in about his selection for the reality cooking show, the 43-year-old tweeted: “I am blown away to be asked to take on this role. I hope I can leave my imprint on such an extraordinary show.” We got to check in with Chef Zonfrillo to learn his thoughts about modern-day cooking, and on treading the fine line between different cultural traditions. Excerpts from the interview:

Let’s begin with your earliest memories of food while you were growing up — before there was a chef’s uniform or high-pressure kitchens...
I’m half-Italian, and I’m Scottish. In my childhood, I was aware of cultural differences from a really early age. My mum’s part of the family’s cooking was very Scottish — boiled potatoes, bread and Haggis, you know, very simple food.Whereas, with the other half of my family being Italian, there was every sort of bolognese, salami and pistachios coming out of the oven. Different aromas and smells... just like the Italian culture is more wild and exciting in a way, as compared to Scottish culture.

And so, my childhood memories really were just a discovery around very different cultures, with my family being from two different cultures. I think that set me up in a way, for when I came to Australia and even before that — just the awareness of cultural differences, it made me really interested in other cultures.

Tell us about your personal interest in native cooking. Is the culinary scape for contemporary cuisine with the use of indigenous ingredients still very niche in Australia, or is it a trend that you see growing?
I definitely think that it’s a trend that’s growing, but when I started 20 years ago, it was still very niche. Whereas now certainly, in the last few years, you can see indigenous ingredients on most menus anywhere in Australia, even in the pubs. I think the tide has definitely turned with the realisation that climate change is having a huge impact on growers and producers. The thing is, produce that grows naturally in Australia is un-obvious to investigate. But now, the tide has definitely turned, and people are not only acknowledging indigenous ingredients, but also the culture they come from. Also, the realisation that ‘this is something we ought to be doing’ rather than something that’s just interesting, is now a widespread idea.

And where do you see this trend heading, in say, the following decade?
I can already see that some of the superfoods are being selected for commercialisation. Commercial companies are working out better ways to harvest and propagate these ingredients, so they are cost-effective in bringing them to the market, and therefore, reach many people in terms of retail, in an affordable way. But the most important thing for me as a chef, or for the Orana Foundation, is to make sure that the intellectual property and knowledge of these ingredients is protected. As for beneficiaries, this goes back to the indigenous people, and their community.

Never say die, Zonfrillo

•  Jock was 11 when he started working in his first kitchen in Glasgow, washing dishes. One night, a chef had a motorcycle accident. The head chef asked Zonfrillo to pitch in on the vegetable station. He cut a deal: He’d say yes if there was a pay rise, and they promised that he’d never wash a dish again.
•  At 15, he was homeless, broke and desperate for a job.
• At 17, he was fired from a one-star Michelin restaurant in Chester, North-West England. What made it even worse, for an impressionable teen, was that he was told that he would never work in hospitality again.

What is the Orana Foundation working on, as we draw closer to the end of 2019?
Right now, we just moved the whole restaurant which was in Adelaide to Sydney, for one month, to do a residency. The purpose was to raise awareness for the Orana Foundation, to tell the story of indigenous culture, and what the ingredients are and what the preservation of that culture means — that’s the main thing we were working on for 2019. Looking ahead for the new year, there are more projects of the Orana Foundation that we are really excited about, and partnering with communities for, so that during the time of harvest, the community can work with surrounding neighbours and harvest these ingredients together. The Orana Foundation will facilitate the sale of these ingredients to different restaurants around the country, in order to tell the story of the culture and the communities that they come from. We held the first one in Kimberly, which is in Western Australia, and we’re looking to do more of them in the next 12 months. It’s a very exciting project, and there’s a lot of information about it online. We’re looking forward to doing more of that, spreading the message further, and introducing those ingredients to not only more chefs, but to more homes, and more typical home cooks. 

<em>Keeping focus with Chef Zonfrillo</em>
Keeping focus with Chef Zonfrillo

The man behind the chef

Three tips for aspiring chefs in pursuit of greatness.
Find the area of food that you connect with the most. The one for which you can honestly place your hand on your heart and say, ‘I love that’. Number two, I would say is to find your own boss. We work for great chefs and with amazing people over the years, but in the end, you have to find your own way of telling a chef’s story. And of course, the only way to truly achieve greatness is to work really hard, and keep doing more. 

Two ingredients you would run into a burning building for.
We make a white soy vinegar, some grassroots, and that forms a huge part of the cuisine that we have at Orana. We season a lot of the dishes with the white soy vinegar and the indigenous grassroots, so I think that would be one. And the second one would be a pandanus, it’s from the palm tree, from the tropical parts of Australia, and we make a vinegar from that. That forms the acidity in a lot of our dishes, so those would probably be the two things.

One bucket list-worthy chef dream that you haven’t accomplished yet.
My dream is for people to not refer to indigenous ingredients as native ingredients, but as Australian ingredients. That’s a dream, a dream that might one day come true. It seems that we still have a lot of work to do, but we’re working on it.

Find the area of food that you connect with the most. The one for which you can honestly place your hand on your heart and say, ‘I love that’. We work for great chefs and with amazing people over the years, but in the end, you have to find your own way of telling a chef’s story

- Jock Zonfrillo

What are your personal favourite indigenous ingredients to work with?
My favourite ingredients change a lot, as the seasons change. Also, it changes depending on the weather. You know, if it’s a sunny day, I feel like using different ingredients. I was doing a residency in Sydney when it was  spring, and we were using a miso (made of a native Australian nut rather than soybean) that I’d made back in January 2017. Because of how miso works when you ferment it, you usually make it in the summertime, when it’s warm and fermentation starts, and then it goes through autumn time to cool down. And in winter, the fermentation pretty much stops, and it develops that rich flavour, and then spring comes around again. So we did our fermentation process for over two years. Now in the spring, the product is coming alive again. We’re starting to use the miso in different ways, because it has come of age, in a way. It has this deep, intense flavour and complexity, it’s incredible. Right now, it’s one of my favourite ingredients.

We have to ask, what it was like to work under Marco Pierre White. Is he as intimidating in person as he seems to be on TV?
Marco is a really great mentor. He was fantastic, almost like a father figure at that time in my career, when I needed it the most. Being in a different country, I was away from my family and friends — and 
he was amazing, both as a mentor and as a friend at the time for me. As a figure, he is a little intimidating, but once you get to know him, he’s the warmest, most caring, kindest chef that I’ve worked for. He has the best interests of the staff at heart, and I have a huge amount of respect for him.

MasterChef Australia Season 11 airs on Star World every Monday and Thursday at 9 pm. Don’t miss the finale on December 11. Chef Zonfrillo will be one of the new judges in the show’s Season 12, slated for 2020. | @brightasunshine

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