The Australian Culinary Olympics’ national youth team will fly the Aboriginal flag for the very first time this year, as two young Aboriginal girls join the team to compete in Germany.

Rishaye Shaw, 17, and Shaleeka Ozies, 18, are Nyikina women from Western Australia’s Kimberley region.

The girls participated in the Kinjarling Djinda Ngardak program offered by Prepare Produce Provide (PPP) last year – a week-long culinary camp in Albany that provided training and mentorship to cooking hopefuls.

They were then selected to represent Australia at the Culinary Olympics.

“This is an amazing opportunity for First Nations young people to be part of such a traditional event,” said Catherine MacDougall, Creative Director of PPP.

“We’ve got two amazing young people that are going to share their story and inspire people in their communities … and the wider community.”

“People are understanding Aboriginal youth have something special to say. They are viable and they are magic.”

With support from the Polly Farmer Foundation’s Follow the Dream program, Ozies has gone from living in the remote WA town of Derby to jetting off to Europe to compete in an internationally renowned cooking competition.

“It is all that background work that has put [Ozies] in the position of being remotely, not only eligible, but in the mind space of thinking she could even do something like this,” said Lisa Bennett, Ozies’ Follow the Dream mentor at Belmont City College.

Bennett said while a major focus of the program is on academia, a huge part of it is also health and wellbeing – building resilience and confidence.

“Since [Ozies has] been selected, my role has been … making sure that she feels happy, comfortable [and] safe going to Germany.”

Culture swap

As the girls gear up for a big week of cooking, they have mixed feelings.

Neither of the duo have ever left the country; Ozies is the first person in her family to have a passport.

“I feel excited and nervous, I also feel that this will be a great learning experience as well,” Shaw said.

“I think being there … will help us see what its really like to compete in a really competitive environment.”

Ozies shared the same excitement and nervousness.

“I think I’m more or less excited to go in just to be able to gain knowledge and learn different skill sets … from the chefs,” she said.

The National Youth Team and their mentors. Photo by Hannah Cross.

The oldest international culinary arts competition in the world, the Culinary Olympics will be held in Stuttgart, Germany from February 14-19.

“We’ll be assisting the team with anything that they need help with … and also observing [them],” Ozies said.

Before competing in Germany, however, the girls are heading to London to experience some culture and true fine dining.

Northam Senior High School’s hospitality teacher, Dee Hedland, and former National Culinary Olympics Captain and Caterlink’s Adrian Tobin, will take Shaw and Ozies to London for three days.

The group will visit the WA Agent General, Mike Deeks, at Australia House, the Camden Markets and dine at Gordon Ramsay’s famed Savoy Grill.

They’ll also be giving back to the community, cooking food for London’s homeless.

“[It’s] going to be a really good learning experience for us, because here in Australia we have that same sort of thing happening,” Shaw said.

“I think it’s really good to … give back to the people.”

Back to Country

While the international trip will have a profound impact on the girls alone, their wider communities will also see a change and what lies beyond the dusty Kimberley roads.

“It’ll impact me but it’ll also impact my community,” Ozies said.

“I can go back home and say to the kids … I’ve done this and I got to experience an opportunity of a lifetime … you may be able to do that [too] … experience things out of the Kimberley.”

“I think it’ll be good for me to give them a voice and give them the step into the door.”

Shaw agreed, and is keen to bring back new skills and knowledge.

Shaw’s mother, Rosita Shaw, is an important figure in the Nyikina community.

She is immensely proud of her daughter for grabbing onto the opportunities offered to her and said she looks forward to hearing about the trip when she returns.

“I’m so happy and proud that she’s going over, representing Australia and also the Kimberley region, especially our Nyikina Country,” Shaw said.

“She’s a really good, talented girl. When she wants to do something … she [goes] for the gold.”

Rishaye and Rosita Shaw. Photo by Hannah Cross.

For the Nyikina people, food is an important concept.

“Food is the main source for our people, especially out on Country in past and present,” Shaw said.

Shaw said there are different woods Nyikina mob use to cook different bush meats.

“We teach our children today … what wood to collect and how to light a fire and how to cook [food].”

Before the girls’ departure, a blessing was held at Gija Jumulu, the famed Boab tree in King’s Park.

For the Nyikina people, boabs – or lurrgarri­­ – are very culturally significant

“It’s important because you got a spirit that lives in the roots … called birr.

“There are two different mulujis, you get a good muluji and a you get a bad muluji. So, the good muluji is where our old people used to hit it with a stick and talk to it, whereas a bad muluji you can’t even approach … you can feel the spirit that lives in there, which we call the bulunga.

Bulunga will make you mad … if you don’t know the Country … you’ll never find your way back. He disguises himself.”

Also adding something new to the Culinary Olympics culture is 15-year-old Rory Charles.

Shaw’s nephew designed the artwork that will be on the informal shirts the team will be wearing in Stuttgart.

Rishaye Shaw, Rory Charles and Shaleeka Ozies wearing the shirts Charles designed. Photo by Hannah Cross.

Culinary world changes

Acceptance and awareness of Indigenous knowledge, culture and ingredients are also becoming more commonplace in the culinary world.

A chef by trade and Director of North Metropolitan TAFE Culinary Arts, Personal Services and Hospitality, Patrick O Brien has been involved with the Australian Culinary Olympics teams for the last 18 years.

“This will be my fourth Olympics. I’ve taken both senior and junior teams [before],” O Brien said.

“Talking to people from Prepare Produce Provide, they wanted to provide an experience to Indigenous students that was something different than just bringing them to a venue.

“It’s going to be an amazing experience for them.”

O Brien said Shaw and Ozies will work alongside the team, helping them pack and weigh ingredients, as well as having the opportunity to meet chefs from around the world.

“They’ll be … working with young members of the team to see what it’s all about.”

O Brien said Indigenous ingredients and flavours are becoming more commonplace in the culinary world as more chefs, Indigenous or non-Indigenous, begin to use them.

“We have things like karkalla, lemon balm … and all the different types of spices and herbs … right through our menu,” he said.

“People are starting to realise that these are new flavours – they’re actually old flavours – but they’re new flavours for a lot of people.”

Part of the global competition allows countries to explain their ingredients, the intended taste and the knowledge behind certain ingredients.

O Brien said this allows judges to understand the full intensity and purpose of an ingredient they might not have tried before.

“You’ve got judges from all over the world … they’re the tasting judges. So they don’t see the products … their palate may tell them this is a strange flavour.

“We have to ensure that we explain to the judges what they are and … how they react to the different things we’re doing.”

By Hannah Cross