Having grown up fishing and foraging for her supper in the Torres Strait, self-described ‘island girl’ Nornie Bero, wants everyone to enjoy native foods as much as she does. By Kathy Graham
In just a few short years, chef Nornie Bero has built her name and reputation: from the Mabu Mabu stall selling her homemade sauces, jams and curry pastes at the South Melbourne Market, to her bricks and mortar Yarraville cafe. Her business also boasts a booming online shop and catering arm. Unfazed by Melbourne’s succession of COVID lockdowns, Bero is now about to open her 130-seat restaurant in Federation Square where again the emphasis will be showcasing local, native and seasonal ingredients. Here she talks about her lifelong love of native foods, surviving COVID and her goal to make indigenous ingredients an Aussie household staple.
You were born on Mer Island in the Torres Strait. When you were growing up, what was the food culture of the Torres Strait Islands?
Kids like me, we grew up walking on the beach and if you were hungry, you’d catch yourself a fish and roast it down on the beach. You didn’t go home for snacks, you found them yourself outdoors.
I think the only things that we ever really got from the barges that would come in were essentials like flour, rice and powdered milk. Everything else you’d either catch or grow so it was always sustainable living because the ocean or the land gave you your food.
Did you want to be a chef from a young age?
I didn’t think that I was going to be a chef until I was older and went to mainland Australia. But I always was around food. As soon as I could see over the stove top, I was helping my dad in the kitchen and making dampers and pumpkin buns and stuff. My dad was a bit of a foodie and because he didn’t have much money, he would just be creative and make all kinds of things out of nothing.
After almost 20 years in the industry working for others, what motivated you to go into business yourself?
In all those restaurants that I worked at, I already made my own condiments and hot sauces and I was packaging goods and making them for other people. So I was like, “Well, why don’t I just do it for myself?”
I wanted to really showcase my own traditional background. I’d worked for many different restaurants and then I went to work for the Merri Cafe at CERES [Community Environment Park] where I learned so much about the industry and the world of organic food. I was like, “Why are we shipping food all the way from somewhere just because it’s organic and why are we not using our own produce here in Australia?”
I grew up with all this island food and eating all these amazing berries and everything that comes from Australia, from yams right up to herbs and spices, and I thought, “Why are we not using these ingredients?”
I also wanted to get away from an industry where you had to have a bit of money in your pocket to afford it.
How did diners react to your dishes in those early days?
A lot of people didn’t know where the Torres Strait was, so it was always an education, and it still is. I knew it was going to be like that, I didn’t expect people to just walk in and go, “I’ll just have this.”
What have some of the challenges been in bringing native food to the general public?
Most of it is supply. You have to work seasonally and understand that you are teaching a whole generation of people, especially in cities, who are so used to getting whatever they want whenever they want.
We’re like, “No, come back next year when it’s in season and then you can have it again.” You have to be honest with your customers, and say, “At the moment, the Strawberry Gums, they had a bit of a mite so it’s only a small crop, but in a month’s time there’ll be more.”
How has COVID affected you?
I had just opened Yarraville when COVID hit. During the lockdown, the way that I saved my business from failing was I did damper workshops via Zoom, which was what my dad taught me. When he needed money to run the generators for us to have lights on in the house, he would make pumpkin dampers and buns for the locals. He turned half the house into a tuck shop. During lockdown I basically turned the Yarraville cafe into my dad’s tuck shop, so that we could survive the lockdown, so now Yarraville is called the Tuckshop.
Now, you’re expanding into Federation Square with the new restaurant, Big Esso, opening in July. What will be on the menu at Big Esso?
Our kangaroo tail is our biggest seller [at Tuckshop]. So it’s one of the things we will take to Fed Square.
I guess it is one of those things that I want to teach people: that you don’t just have to eat the nice little kangaroo fillet that you get at the shop. That’s always been my main purpose—making sure people eat everything, not just the pretty parts of ingredients, especially of meat and fish.
There will also be damper which is very popular. We do it three different ways: with pumpkin, wattle seed, and salt-bush, and I cook it very traditionally, as I grew up, in banana leaves.
You’re making my mouth water? What’s your favourite dish?
I’m a big crocodile fan, but I love emu as well. I’m a true-blue island girl too, so I sit on that seafood side and every island girl loves eating damper!
Do you think there’s less ignorance now of native ingredients than previously?
I think, they’re coming into the limelight, but I want them in the limelight in everyday kitchens. I just think that we need to make them a natural part of our life and our culture, because these products are naturally grown here and we should be celebrating them, not putting a big price tag on them.