Hailing from Mer Island in the Torres Strait off the tip of Australia, chef Nornie Bero wants to open the world’s eyes to her indigenous cuisine – broadening both our palettes and understanding of her culture as she does it.
Long a beacon of culinary creativity, Australia has plenty of forms when it comes to championing its internationally renowned chefs, growers and producers. Less visible on the world stage, however, is the region’s rich, indigenous food culture. One woman striving to change that is Nornie Bero, a chef from the Torres Strait, a collection of islands strung between the northernmost tip of Australia’s Cape York Peninsula and Papua New Guinea. Trained in restaurants across Europe and Australia, she honed her skills across a range of different cuisines. Now, she’s determined to focus on cooking closer to home with her deli and catering company Mabu Mabu – a phrase meaning ‘help yourself’ for Torres Strait Islanders. “I started my career running restaurants in Melbourne, and I was always surprised that we had to import products from Italy! Why can’t we just use products made here in Australia?” she asks. Here she tells us how she plans to do just that.
For Nornie, highlighting native ingredients does a lot more than explore local cuisines, it gives a representation of a different way of life. “When you grow up with nothing, you find out that you’re quite rich when it comes to food. This is especially true for us in the Torres Straits because there is an abundance of food out of the ocean and from the trees. We would scratch our own coconuts, use lots of chillies, lemongrass, mangos, wild passion fruit, things that just grew in our backyard, in our dishes.” Translating this take on food sourcing to her restaurant, she sees an opportunity to continue to support her heritage and the ecosystems behind it. “Mabu Mabu mainly gets its supplies from organic farms in Melbourne. As there are a lot of amazing initiatives right now which helps farmers put indigenous growth into their beds, we expect that by next season we’ll have a great abundance of indigenous produce here!”
Mabu Mabu takes that produce and turns it into mouth-watering dishes that reflect Nornie’s heritage – think coconut & finger lime Kingfish, lemon pepper calamari on a bed of pea tabbouleh and Bush spice pork sausage rolls. “There was a phase where restaurants in Australia were putting indigenous ingredients into their food, but it’s more like a one-off thing. I just want to make it more in your face, so we’re not just seen as this speciality store that is popping up and will soon go away,” she explains of her thinking. In the future, she wants to expand her reach, taking her own range of bottled goods such as sauces, curry pastes, jams and chutneys, to a wider market. “I suppose exporting is probably down the track. It would be great if we could share our products around the world and really properly showcase bush ingredients, but you have to start small to make it big.”
A firm believer in giving back to her community, Nornie is also looking at helping others find a way into her world. “I’ve always wanted to start my own culinary school for the disadvantaged and refugees. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a bit of mentoring in my career, so I’d like to give back a little and get more people of my culture into this industry. The culinary school will be centred around that idea that anyone can be a chef, and it would be great for kids to know that they have a support system that will get them through the door.” With her vision and determination, Nornie would clearly be an excellent mentor for them to have on the side.