10 Questions with Jock Zonfrillo

MasterChef judge Jock Zonfrillo’s journey has taken many turns, as he writes about in his new book. Here he discusses resilience, his passion for Indigenous culture and how food saved his life.

Picture of Jock Zonfrillo

Jock Zonfrillo: “Thinking about myself, my wife and my kids around the table together, that is what I always dreamed of when I was young.”

In the early 1990s at just 17 years old, you were broke and homeless – what made you knock on the door of one of London’s top restaurants and ask for a job?

If I get told that I can’t do something it just makes me want to do it even more, so after I’d got sacked from a one-Michelin star place in Chester (north-west England) I thought to myself, ‘They told me I would never work in a Michelin-starred place again’ so the stubborn Jock decided that not only would I work in a Michelin-starred restaurant again but it would be better than theirs. I went from one star to three stars. Marco (global celebrity chef Marco Pierre White) was the talk of the town, so I jumped on a train, knocked on his door and asked for a job.

 

When Marco Pierre White called your previous boss for a reference you were in tears – why?

I think it was a very emotional experience. Marco was a big figure in our industry so it was a big moment just to meet him. I was already hyper-anxious and in awe of this guy I was sitting in front of in his office and the interview wasn’t going well. He asked where I’d worked last, and he asked me what my mother thought of me getting sacked, which made me really emotional – I think I’ve embarrassed my mum so many times over my life. It wasn’t until he picked up the phone and rang my old chef that I thought to myself ‘There’s a fair chance I’m not getting this job now’ because the reference from this guy is not going to be good.

 

Marco Pierre White gave you a job and found you somewhere to live when you were discovered sleeping in the hotel change rooms – why do you think he believed in you?

I think there was something in me that reminded him of himself. I think at the end of the day it’s difficult when you’re a young lad, I clearly had some issues, I presented myself honestly, I didn’t lie about anything. Obviously there was something that he saw in me that was enough for him to give me a chance. He got me in the kitchen, I trialled for a day and got the job at the end of the day.

 

What made you travel to Australia and how did you become interested in Indigenous culture?

Working in London for a lot of us was just dark, grey, miserable, a rat race, working 18 hours a day constantly, lucky if you got a day off in the week, and I think it just gets on top of you. Tourism Australia was doing a fantastic job in the ’90s of bombarding London with images of beautiful beaches, and beautiful people. When I started looking at Australia and realising that the Indigenous people were the oldest surviving culture in the world I thought ‘That’s amazing, imagine the cuisine, the kind of flavours, the ingredients’, all this stuff that I had never seen before.

 

When you first arrived in Australia and started cooking with Indigenous flavours you were delivered a blow with a disastrous review and you gave up cooking for a few years. What made you get back into it?

We were using some Indigenous ingredients in the kitchen (at a Sydney restaurant) and got a pretty scathing review. I realised I knew nothing about not only the ingredients but where they came from and the people and culture they came from. I went down to Circular Quay, introduced myself to an Indigenous guy - his name was Jimmy – and asked if I could sit down and ask him some questions about where he came from and what kind of food he ate growing up and who cooked. That conversation turned into a four-hour sit-down where he was telling me about amazing ingredients and the flavour of those ingredients, the connection that his culture has to the land and how they use signals from nature as a sign of when to eat things. Stuff like that just blew my brain! I thought ‘how can there not be a cuisine here?’ That really got me thinking.

 

Once you found your voice as a cook you went on to win the highest accolades in Australia at your restaurant Orana in Adelaide, earning three chef’s hats, Restaurant of the Year and more. How did you find the strength to get back up after so many knocks?

I don’t think I really wanted to do a restaurant but I knew I had to in order for people to wake up to the fact that these ingredients were not only delicious but they were world-class and super important. [I wanted people to] change their view or start a conversation around Indigenous culture, bring acknowledgment to the culture and therefore start the ball rolling to some sort of change.

 

How can we encourage more Australians to cook with Indigenous flavours in their everyday meals?

Getting Australians to cook with these Indigenous flavours day-to-day is as simple as trying to work out a supply chain. As soon as there is enough supply these ingredients should be in supermarkets. I would love the supply chains to be Indigenous-owned businesses where they are producing or wild-harvesting a quantity of ingredients that can come into the marketplace to be sold fresh, raw or put into pre-made ingredients.

 

Why is it important for Australians to learn and understand more about Indigenous ingredients?

I think Australian Indigenous people are the most important culture in the world – they are the oldest surviving culture in the world, they have a connection to the land that is unlike any other culture that I’ve seen. We are on a continent which has such huge challenges in terms of water, yet there is amazing food all through the desert, so it’s what makes Australia unique.

 

How important is MasterChef to the Australian food culture?

I think MasterChef has done a lot over its time in Australia. It has definitely taught some people how to cook better, how to use ingredients a certain way, how to make foolproof recipes that have worked their way into people’s families. To bring people together at a table and share food together is such an important part of any culture anywhere in the world. It’s also a show that features ingredients, chefs, people, and how many people who’ve been in the show have gone on to have an amazing career in food? How many ingredients find their way on to MasterChef and then all of a sudden they’re a trend? It’s a great way for Australia to meet the up-and-coming new chefs of Australia. So it’s incredibly important in terms of food and culture.

 

What drives you now?

Food was always the driver for me. It was the anchor all the way through my life and I’m so thankful to have found it because if I didn’t find food I think I would be behind bars or in a pine box six foot under. Drugs would have been far more compelling than anything else in my life.

To this day food is an obsession that drives me day to day. Along with my family. I’ve got four beautiful kids who fill my heart with joy. My eldest is 20, the youngest is 9 months; they bring so much joy to my life and I love spending time with the kids, whether it’s rolling around on the carpet being stupid and making Lego or going out to restaurants with my eldest daughter and having amazing conversations with her about life and her career and her dreams. That family environment for me is a huge driving force. Thinking about myself, my wife and my kids around the table together, that is what I always dreamed of when I was young. Looking at Nonno corralling his kids and the grandkids around the table, I wanted to be that guy and I still do today.

Jock Zonfrillo’s book Last Shot is available from Booktopia.