Time Out Talks: The Politics of Bushfood Now

We recently assembled a panel of Indigenous thinkers, fine-dining luminaries and community leaders to discuss the cultural significance of the trend for native ingredients. In doing so, we sold out the National Art School’s Cell Block Theatre, trended on Twitter and even began to change the way we – and others – do business

White settlers have never had a healthy relationship with Australia’s flora and fauna. Much like relations with First Nations Australians, it’s been chequered at best. Some foods that Indigenous Australians introduced settlers to, like macadamia nuts, they took up with gusto. They propagated and sold them with little regard for the people who taught them about the products in the first place.

Other native ingredients, they simply ignored. Since then, bush foods have gone in and out of fashion. When products based on Australian native plants – and tribal knowledge – have become popular in the past, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians typically weren’t the beneficiaries.

Right now, in fine dining around the world, foraging and the use of hyperlocal ingredients is hugely popular. In Australia, this means there’s an unprecedented interest in native ingredients. And this time, we have a chance to get it right.

For our second Time Out Talk, we assembled a panel of Indigenous Australian food experts, and culinary stars with very different backgrounds, to tackle this complex and evolving topic. Bruce Pascoe, author of the award-winning history book Dark Emu, was joined onstage by the Royal Botanic Garden’s head of Indigenous education Jody Orcher, bourgeoning chef (and Noma-stagiaire) Jade Santo, Time Out Sydney’s Restaurants Editor Freya Herring, and Firedoor’s chef Lennox Hastie, in a discussion moderated by NITV channel manager Tanya Orman.

The sold-out, hour-long panel prompted conversation that reached far outside the room it was held in. #TimeOutTalks trended on Twitter, with people around Australia chiming in to ask questions, and add their own perspectives to the topic.

“You can’t eat our food if you can’t swallow our history. You can’t have these products without our culture. And these products will be in supermarkets within three years. I hope Aboriginal people are going to make money out of this… but it will depend on you.”

Bruce Pascoe

One of the biggest takeaways from the conversation was the importance of encouraging Indigenous ownership, and Indigenous self-determination when it comes to the commercialisation of bush foods. Sharon Winsor of Indigiearth catered the event, serving up bush tomatoes, kangaroo burgers and wattle seed cake. She told us, “Unfortunately some big buyers go into communities and don’t pay fair prices or don’t pay at all. If you’re going to use native ingredients, ask suppliers if they’re Indigenous. Ask what their Indigenous involvements are, and what they put back into communities. A lot of them are unfortunately bullshitting their way through it.”

Jade Santo said, “Where we were with Indigenous art in the 1980s, we could end up with bush foods.”

The idea of cultural theft, and communities left uncompensated, was extremely upsetting to Tim Philips, the owner of cocktail bar Bulletin Place and restaurant Dead Ringer. Philips recently started serving cocktails that used native ingredients, and seeing the Time Out Talk prompted him to investigate his suppliers. “The actual morals behind it were quite a shock to me,” he says. Before the talk he assumed that anything calling itself ‘native’ must have had some kind of Indigenous involvement, but it turned out his original supplier did not. “I’m the sort of guy that gets incredibly upset when you walk past the tourist shops and you see the didgeridoos and boomerangs being sold that are made in China, and there’s absolutely nothing going back to Indigenous communities. I think that the only people that should be able to make profit from their culture are the people that are born in that culture.”

Philips switched suppliers immediately. Not only was it simple to find an Indigenous-owned supplier – “the difference in price was so little that it wasn’t even a consideration.”

His suggestion for other restauranteurs and bartenders wanting to engage with native produce? “You just need to educate yourself.”

Inspiring this kind of reassessment and change is exactly what Time Out hoped to do with our second talk. But, there’s more work to be done. Since the talk, Time Out has incorporated the championing of ethical, self-determined Indigenous Australian enterprises into our editorial charter. It’s a mission we’ll continue to explore in every aspect of our business. As is often the case, the first step was a conversation.