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National Indigenous Culinary Institute provides pathways to fine dining employment

Rachael Knowles -

The National Indigenous Culinary Institute (NICI) is a national leader in connecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander aspiring chefs with some of Australia's most prestigious fine dining restaurants.

Established in 2012, NICI works with a range of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The organisation is dedicated to training highly professional chefs through their program which was designed by famous chefs Neil Perry, Guillaume Brahimi, Michael McMahon, Jill Dupleix, Terry Durack and Barry McDonald.

A proud Yuin man and CEO at NICI, Nathan Lovett stepped into the role in March 2020 after a long-time connection and love for NICI.

"The organisation is one that I really like, from earlier dealings," Lovett said.

"It is a really niche program; we focus on apprenticeships in fine dining restaurants.

"Fine dining restaurants and fine dining eating is very elite; it is a very elite space to work. The kitchens are intense, everything is perfection and that's what it has to be to be recognised as that kind of restaurant in that industry. You have to be the best of the best ... so we need to be the best to get them there."

Based in Melbourne and Sydney, with hopes to extend into Brisbane and other major cities, NICI works with world-class fine dining restaurants including Rockpool Bar and Grill, Bistro Guillaume, Catalina and Aria.

"To be a restaurant partner with our organisation, you have to guarantee ongoing employment for the apprentice," Lovett said.

"You have the support; you have that ongoing guaranteeâ€"it is not that tokenistic approach to employment."

The fine dining industry has a severe underrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. To remedy this, NICI is proactive in their recruitment, creating pathways for any First Nations man or woman to get qualified and working.

"We also work with long-term unemployed, youth, anyone doing industry or career change, we have pathways that match these."

Twin brothers, Luke and Sam Bourke are two of the many successful graduates of NICI.

Connecting with NICI through their high school, the pair enrolled and completed the program. Sam now works as a junior Sous Chef at Rosetta and Luke works as a Chef de Partie at Rockpoolâ€"both in Sydney.

"I really wanted to have that expectation to push myself to that higher goal so I could show other people in the course, or any kids that are doing the course what they can achieve in NICI. And even becoming a chef to show Aboriginal people what we can achieve," Sam said.

"It is like a family; we still have that connection and if something comes up, they reach out.

"We got assisted with rent to move into the city [from Penrith] ... doing programs to get more knowledge and skills around food like caviar courses, and they host heaps of functions where we work with different people."

"They have connection with all people through the food industry, they have everything you need on hand, they have a counsellor, and all in the company are really supportive."

The Bourke brothers were part of the NICI trip to Ireland in September 2019. The organisation was invited to headline the Taste of West Cork Festival and host events with the Australian embassy for two weeks.

The brothers, two of the four chefs asked to headline, worked under impressive conditions to design and create a menu for the international events.

"It was challenging and also rewarding at the same time, particularly being able to showcase Australian native food in another country," Sam said.

"It was challenging planning it here and going there and having different expectations of what was there and what was available. But it all worked out. Luke and myself have done a lot of functions with work ... we understand that things change all the time and you just have to adapt."

Both brothers are incredibly grateful for the support and journey they've had with NICI, from high school in Penrith, NSW to serving up incredible food in Sydney's finest restaurants.

"It doesn't really matter where you come from, western Sydney or rural NSW, NICI is very accommodating," Sam said.

"One of the guys in the program is from rural Bourke ... he is going through the program and loves it. For people like him, to come to the city is a huge step and having that support is amazing. Even for us, when we moved out of home to make things easier to go to work, they checked in on us, they were really there for us."

Lovett spoke of his pride for graduates such as the brothers.

"To see these kids, from all these programs, and see them being successful and setting standards in their industry is incredible. And that is what these boys have done, they've created a pathway for others to follow, and are following," he said.

"[When] you see them become an industry leaderâ€"that's the best part. You see them grow into that, into who they are."

By Rachael Knowles

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