Mark Olive, Australia’s first indigenous celebrity chef, thinks it’s time he got back on the road. It’s been a decade since the chef with the big grin and personality to match, made his ground-breaking The Outback Cafe television series, taking bush ingredients such as lemon myrtle, bush tomatoes and river mint, as well as the Aussie landscape, to viewers around the world.
Now he plans to get back in front of the camera and capture all that’s new on the Australian outback food scene from the Northern Territory to Tasmania. He is also planning a new cookbook.
Olive readily admits he’s sick of all the high drama of the new-breed reality television food shows and yearns for a return to grassroots cooking and the land.
“What they are doing is casting for a TV show that is about the emotion…,” he says. “I find it sad that TV has gone that way, but not only that, we are showcasing people cooking food on TV who aren’t qualified.”
When Olive first made The Outback Cafe in 2006 it made him a television star in a time before today’s ever-growing ranks of TV celebrity chefs. He still gets regular emails about his trademark fusion of outback flavours and contemporary cuisine from curious foodies overseas, where the series continues to air.
“Germany is mad about what I do,” he says. “Italy too, which is strange. I think the Germans love it because they love that sense of adventure, you know, Australia and the space and what it’s all about.
“I get letters from the Netherlands and England…They want to know what kangaroo tastes like, where they can get it. Things like that. They are curious about the herbs. If they can get them. What do they smell and taste like.”
Olive, a Bundjalung man whose family originated in the Northern Rivers region in New South Wales, was born in Wollongong in 1962. He first became fascinated with cooking as a child of nine when he used to watch his late mother and his aunties preparing meals. “I’d watch them mixing stuff and put it in the oven and it would cook,” he says. “I thought that was like magic.”
When he was 16 Olive started an apprenticeship and later, with his chef qualifications under his belt, took himself to film school. He got his nickname The Black Olive while doing pilot cooking shows as a film student in the 90s. “One of my contemporaries said ‘you could be called the Black Olive’ and it’s stuck ever since,” he recalls.
“‘You’re Koori, you’re black so you’re the Black Olive’.”
Olive’s first mainstream television gig was in 2005 doing a regular cooking segment on the ABC’s Message Stick show, cooking everything from emu pie to Lemon Myrtle pasta.
Back then, Olive says, there weren’t that many celebrity chefs about. “My heroes were Bernard King and Margaret Fulton,” he says. “That’s what I grew up with. Today it is saturation city. Everyone’s a TV chef. I mean, I find that really funny.”
During a career that has spanned three decades, Olive has run his own restaurant in Sydney and also a catering company in Melbourne, where he lived for almost 20 years. In 2010 he cooked for US television star Oprah’s guests when she and her blockbuster television show made their first trip Down Under, and was also featured on her website.
And he is an ambassador for Tourism Australia through a Friends of Australia program.
While lemon myrtle, bush tomatoes and river mint rate among some of his favourite indigenous ingredients, there are many more.
“The thing about lemon myrtle, it’s got a lovely scent, but it’s not as harsh as lemon,” he says. “The sea parsley, which grows well in Western Australia right along to Albany, has a lovely celery and parsley flavour to it.
“Wallaby. Possum. Possum is a lovely meat. I love cooking possum. It’s just like rabbit. You’ve got the desert raisin, a lovely aromatic tomato. There’s a lot there and a lot to work with.”
But Olive says Australia could do more with its native ingredients. He points out that a lot of our lemon myrtle and bush tomatoes are exported to Asia where they are used for aromatic scents in products such as soaps and shampoos. He finds it annoying that indigenous food is often only showcased when “NAIDOC is on or Invasion Day or Sorry Day”.
“Our fruits and herbs and meats are seen as boutique food,” he says. “We need to break down those barriers. It’s overlooked.
“We’ve embraced every other culture in our society in Australia except our own. Everybody has curry powder or Asian spice in their cupboard but I don’t think many of them have lemon myrtle or wattle seed.”
Olive says there’s also still some resistance to eating native meats.
“When I got my restaurant up in ’96 it was way too early,” he says. “People were too scared to eat kangaroo and emu because it was our coat of arms. I think people freaked out too.
“But like I say to people when I do my overseas stuff for Tourism Australia, for Aboriginal people we never named it our coat of arms. We look at it as our native cuisine.
“The fact is it is an amazing meat and we should be using it. It’s extremely high in iron, extremely high in protein, yet we overlook it.
“I think it is the way we look at it too. We don’t go to the butchers and ask for sheep, pig or cow, we ask for the cut. So you ask for pork, beef or lamb. What people are doing is disassociating themselves from what they are buying. They are not thinking about the actual animal.
“But when you go in and ask for kangaroo, emu, crocodile, camel or goat they immediately associate the animal in their head and that’s where they start baulking at buying this produce.”
In November, Olive moved back to Wollongong from Melbourne to be closer to his 87 year old father. Setting up an indigenous tourism venture in the area and continuing to help train future chefs in working with indigenous ingredients is high on his list of things to do.
Olive isn’t sure yet whether his new series will be made for television or for the new frontier, Youtube. He sees social media as the way of the future. “TV is a good vehicle,” he says. “But I think to do something different Youtube may be the way to go.”
“It’s been an amazing career,” he says looking back. “But I think it’s the next generation of kids that are going to take the baton from where I left off. I’m from that generation years ago where I was showcasing it and getting it on everyone’s consciousness but it’s the new round of chefs who will continue to take it forward.”
BAKED WATTLESEED CHEESECAKE
1 packet sweet biscuits
150g melted butter
250g ricotta cheese
150g cottage cheese
2 tsp lemon or lime rind
1 tbsp semolina
2 tbsps buttermilk
3 eggs (separated)
¾ cup caster sugar
2 tbsps wattleseed
- Pre-heat oven to 180⁰ C.
- Crush biscuits in a large bowl. Slowly incorporate the butter and mix to combine.
- Press into the base of a lightly greased 24 centimetre spring form tin, chill until firm.
- To make the filling, beach the cheeses, rind, semolina, buttermilk, egg yolks and wattleseed with an electric mixer.
- In a separate bowl, beach the egg whites, slowly adding the sugar until it forms soft peaks.
- Fold the egg whites into the cheese mixture to combine. Pour mixture over biscuit base and bake in oven for 1 hour.