What does it mean, exactly, to eat Australian? Does it involve Vegemite-slathered toast? So-called fairy bread, thickly smeared with butter and heavy with rainbow sprinkles? Charred kangaroo steak? At the modern Australian restaurant Wildflower in Perth, executive chef Jed Gerrard is seeking to redefine the nation’s cuisine to better reflect an aspect largely ignored by Australians and the world at large: the country’s Aboriginal roots.
It’s a tall order in the land down under, where Aboriginal histories have been largely swept under the rug in favor of the continent’s European narrative. But Perth, one of the most isolated major cities on the globe, may be a city uniquely situated to forge a new path forward. At a distance of more than 1,300 miles from Adelaide—the nearest city of at least 100,000 souls—Perth remains an enigma even to many Australians. Despite a recent population boom that’s translated to more restaurant goers and more open-minded palates, the city’s culinary scene is still in its infancy. In the absence of firmly rooted Perth restaurant traditions, why not try something new?
Wildflower—a light-filled glass box perched atop COMO the Treasury, an impressively restored 19th-century treasury building—is a love letter to the local ingredients that defined Gerrard’s childhood in Balingup, a small country town south of Perth. They are also the foods of southwestern Australia’s native Nyoongar people. Although not himself of Aboriginal descent, Gerrard is reverent of the local people’s historic connection to the land, and the menu at Wildflower is in large part dictated by the Nyoongar calendar, a six-season cycle mindful of plant and animal fertility patterns and land and animal preservation.
“We got to meet with a lot of Aboriginal elders [when devising the menu],” Gerrard animatedly told me last year in a broad Australian drawl. The six seasons, the elders told Gerrand, “represent the weather here better than the traditional European four seasons.”
The logic certainly held when I visited. Nyoongar conditions were perfect for creamy butter-poached marron, a local crayfish species with generous tail meat sweeter than a Maine lobster. Gerrard served it alongside a tableau of local ingredients, including sea lettuce; acidic finger lime “caviar”; a tart gel made with lemon myrtle, a flowering plant in the same family as eucalyptus; and a dangerously rich, golden emulsion of eggs and brown butter. The plate was finished off with a flourish of salt mingled with a crushed mixture of seaweed and a dried shrub called saltbush. A hard truth: If you don’t swoon at first bite, there may be something wrong with your taste buds.
Gerrard’s path to Wildflower was hardly a linear one. Even a decade ago, Perth wasn’t worth the mettle of serious chefs, although it’s since blossomed into a city receptive to US$35 entrées and five-course tasting menus. Certainly, Gerrard’s childhood in Balingup didn’t make him want to linger: In the late 1980s and early ’90s, his family belonged to a 200-person commune populated by “pretty hardcore hippies,” Gerrard said. By his teen years, commune life felt stifling, and he ached to leave. Still, Gerrard credits his time in the sprawling commune garden with forming the foundation of his culinary ethos.
“It was unique to where I grew up in the southwest [of Australia],” he mused. “It’s a community that loves the land. They’re big for organic, slow food. Even as children it was normal for us to go into the forest and pick mushrooms or boysenberries.” Common, too, was scampering down to a nearby river, unaccompanied, to snatch fresh marron from the rolling waters. There, he and friends would chew on saltbush, a shrub that tastes like a cross between spinach and parsley, and breathe in the crisp scent of flowering peppermint trees along the Swan River. “The whole river would smell like peppermint,” Gerrard recalled. “It’s just the most magnificent smell.”
In his late teens, Gerrard went to live with his father’s family in New Zealand. His paternal grandparents ran a heritage boutique hotel, today called the Railway Hotel, and gave Gerrard a key to his own room and free run of the place.
“It was kind of like a big adventure,” he recalled fondly. “I used to go down to the restaurant kitchen and annoy the chef. I’d make him cook things for me.” Then there were the raucous society parties thrown by his grandparents, fun-loving people whose existence was a far cry from life on the sedate Balingup commune. “I thought it was glamorous. My grandparents were always dressed immaculately, and they used to have extravagant over-the-top dinner parties with friends,” he said, adding that the experience planted in him a predilection for fine dining and spectacle. “It was like going from one extreme to the other.”
“That opened my eyes to the amazing produce in the world, the farm-to-table thing,” he said. Further travels in Brazil, Chile, France, the Netherlands, Italy, and Finland cemented his culinary worldview. “I’d be trying things I’d only read about. I went foraging for mushrooms in the French Alps. I worked in a one-star Michelin restaurant in Lenzerheide [in Switzerland]. I found amazing small-batch producers.” He bounced around for a time in New Zealand, but home beckoned. “I left Western Australia not interested in coming back,” Gerrard admitted. “Through my teens I was sick of this hippie shit. [But] Perth is reviving the culture over here. That’s the reason I came back.”
Not that it’s been a cakewalk. Gerrard believes Wildflower is one of the “very few proper” restaurants in Western Australia attempting modernist, high-end cuisine with local ingredients. “I don’t know why more chefs aren’t doing it,” he said with a sigh. Being a vanguard has its practical drawbacks: It’s fallen on Gerrard to figure out sourcing for the restaurant’s more obscure ingredients. They include banksia, a wildflower that, despite looking like a “red toilet brush,” boasts a pleasant floral flavor somewhere between eucalyptus and rose petals. It serves as the base for a sweet mousse Gerrard serves just before dessert. There’s also wild fennel—“we juice the fronds with apples to make ‘snow,’ which goes on top of Shark Bay scallops”—and wild fennel pollen, which delivers a “very intense anise flavor.” Local truffles, honey, and mushrooms are magicked into a mousse that bolsters wild kangaroo cured sugar, the spicy native pepper berry, and salt from nearby Deborah Lake.
Gerrard has also had to rejigger his kitchen to accommodate Nyoongar cooking techniques rarely seen in a fine dining establishment. “We cook a lot of our ingredients in a wood-fired grill with native jarrah”—a hardwood related to eucalyptus—“that you can’t find anywhere [else] in the world.” In a nod to Nyoongar tradition, the restaurant’s kangaroo entrée is cooked in smoldering ashes. “They’d make a pit and cover it with ashes, but in our version, the loin is smoked with the embers [in a smoker]. We serve it with charcoal crisps, [which are made with] charcoal from the grill blended with flour, local olive oil, and salt.”
Gerrard hopes that other Perth chefs will follow the path he’s blazed. The city is on the verge of becoming a major culinary destination, he said, and more than deserves the designation.
“I left Western Australia because I wanted to open my eyes and see what was out there,” he said. “Now I appreciate where I come from a lot more. I see how much WA has to offer.”
© 2017 AFAR Media