Even before Noma Australia opened its doors in January to some of Australia's most dedicated foodies, the hype surrounding it was second to none.
The 10-week pop-up sold out in seconds and boasted a waiting list of 27,000 people, numbers restaurant owners could only dream of. But despite its hype and short residency, the team at Noma have shone a light on the potential for Australian native ingredients and a food culture that's taken too long to be realised.
Chef and foraging expert Elijah Holland was the man responsible for exposing owner Rene Redzepi to the full potential of Australian native ingredients and this week I was lucky enough to get an insight into his work at Noma and more importantly, the message he's trying to deliver.
Can you tell me a bit about you and your history with food?
I started cooking when I was 13 and have been a chef for over 11 years now. Growing up I was exposed to my family's interest in permaculture and horticulture which I learnt a lot from. I've worked at Barrenjoey House, Aria, Jonah's Restaurant and was head chef of The Powder Keg in Potts Point, which I sourced about 40 per cent of the produce for. Last year I started my own foraging business which supplies around 20-25 restaurants with local produce and for the last couple of months I've been working at Sydney's Noma pop-up restaurant at Barangaroo.
Tell me about your role at the Noma pop-up and what it involved?
I was the head forager for Noma Australia so I was in charge of organising the whole foraging team and all the logistics involved with it. I was also hired as the chef de partie so I was working in the kitchen as well which was awesome.
What was the inspiration behind the menu there?
The menu was focused on highlighting produce from the local area which in this case was Barangaroo and its surrounds. All produce sourced was local and in season at the time of being plated. At one stage we were using these mirabelle plums I picked down near the Snowy Mountains which we used for about six weeks until they went out of season and then we changed it up.
Are there any crazy stories from your time at Noma (that you can share)?
Ha! There are a few but there was one day when we were down past Canberra and I had a car full of interns and 60-70kgs of wild plums and my car decided to die. It was 9pm and we were four hours away from Noma and had to wait for a truck to come - we ended up getting back to the restaurant at 2am!
Crazy! Were there any other challenges in trying to source local produce for the amount of people that dined at Noma?
I've always foraged a lot and because I supply quite a few restaurants, I knew the amount of food I had to get from the wild and knew it was feasible for Noma. While the restaurant was here, I slowed down the amount of produce I supplied to other restaurants so I wouldn't run out of anything.
Would it be sustainable if many other restaurants foraged for their produce on a daily basis?
Definitely, it just depends on how you go about it. I would never go and just rip things out - I take a little bit and put a little bit back. If everyone is mindful of the environment and don’t take everything from one spot, it's fine. When you clip the plants, you're actually promoting growth so it will grow faster than if you hadn't clipped it.
What is your favourite Australian ingredient to find and cook with?
Something I discovered last year which is actually very hard to get and expensive to buy is lemon aspen. You can get it frozen from different parts of Australia but I've found roughly 60 trees around Sydney. It's an incredible product - it really shows off what Australia's food can be like.
A big part of the Sydney Noma experience was showcasing what the country has to offer - why do you think it's taken so long for people to recognise the potential of Australian ingredients?
Australia has such a unique and different food source. Although native products are unique to Australia, half of them are forgotten about because other European vegetables have been commercialised and taken over as our main vegetable source. A lot of our native food grows wild and without much care and the nutritional benefits are 10 times greater than any other vegetables we can eat. If we had tapped into these foods years ago we would have a much more defined food culture by now.
Very true! So where do you see Australia’s food culture heading now?
There's a big focus on healthy, nutritional eating at the moment but my hope is for people to become more aware of what’s around them. We have such an abundant landscape with this superior food source at our finger tips that is unknown to most. Hopefully in the coming years, kids are taught about native foods from an early age, information will be more readily available as well as native ingredients being more available and affordable in stores.