Remembering Jock Zonfrillo, a culinary champion

In a few short years, a gifted Scotsman transformed Adelaide fine dining and his championing of Indigenous ingredients leaves a lasting legacy, writes friend and restaurant reviewer Paul Wood.

May 05, 2023, updated May 08, 2023
Photo: Jacqui Way

Photo: Jacqui Way

When news of Jock Zonfrillio’s death arrived on Monday, it really hit a nerve. I couldn’t work out exactly what hit harder. Was it that he was only five years older than me? Was it the feeling of utter dread for his beautiful partner Lauren and his family? Was it that for someone who arrived relatively unknown in South Australia, he had (almost single-handedly) led a culinary renaissance that changed our edible landscape?

Whatever the rationalisation, the feeling was profound. But then, so was his impact.

There are few people in Australia’s white history who can claim the mantle of being a true ambassador for Indigenous ingredients. Zonfrillo worked to discover and classify 60,000 years of native Australian cuisine, investigating their provenance, uses, applications and traditional preparation and cooking techniques with the support of Indigenous communities, scientists, food technologists, and chefs.

All with one purpose: to establish a national culinary identity. At last count the database had reached 1500. I reckon the Bush Tucker Man Les Hiddens might have introduced us to 200.

Zonfrillo was instrumental in reigniting this conversation about discovery, and it will be part of his legacy that many (including those he took along on his journeys through all corners if the continent and in his restaurants) are continuing.

And it wasn’t just Australia’s native landscape that he explored: through his series the Nomad Chef, Zonfrillo went global. He discovered and then championed the unique and the unusual. I was one of the guests invited to join Zonfrillo to dine at Orana after he had traversed the globe, seeking out the weird, the wonderful and often confronting ingredients and delicacies from each country.

He told us to eat green ants in sorbet, and we loved it. He encouraged me to try the delicately prepared sperm sac from a fish (a traditional dish discovered in the depths of Japanese food heritage) and I hated it. But that’s the other thing – Zonfrillo was polarising. He asked questions. He challenged truths. He never shied away from argument, debate, or discussion. He was forever teaching, always reaching, and always learning.

He’d curse and swear (as most chefs do) but he was generous, With his time, with his knowledge and with his palate. That man had taste, and not just in his selection of suits. Working with him to develop a native range of cheeses for Kris Lloyd Artisan and Woodside Cheese Wrights was one of my foodie career highlights. His ability to detect flavour and texture nuances in ingredients was second to none. Anthill (a goats chevre with green ants and lemon myrtle) was awarded a super gold medal, coming 11th out of 3021 cheeses at the World Cheese Awards. Blackwood (a goats chevre with blackwood ash, saltbush and native petals, served with native honey) was awarded gold in 2019.

In writing and reviewing his restaurants, firstly, Street ADL in 2013, I spoke about his culinary coup, heading down the hill from Magill Estate, away from corporatised restaurant restraints to begin his journey into native cuisine and flavours on his own terms. I barely knew the man then, but I would come to.

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In May of 2014 I dined at his flagship Orana for the first time and wrote this for the Adelaide Review: “And so we will soldier on with this culinary public relations challenge to reignite Adelaide as the go-to destination one re-initiated tourist at a time, with the help of a local Scotsman at the helm, no less.”

And then, re-seated in the former Street ADL space that had transformed into Bistro Blackwood, we finally had a glimpse into his own food heritage with a menu now influenced more by his own Italian-Scottish background, and I wrote: “It may have taken five years, but with Bistro Blackwood, Zonfrillo finally has a casual diner that not only complements it’s more famous sister upstairs but stars as a standalone it its own right.”

In between those reviews, I spent many hours, dinners, events and meetings discussing food and indigenous ingredients and really got to understand his passion for preserving and protecting history and culture through food. It was always passionate, and always inspired.

In 2015 I sat in the dining room at Noma in Denmark, which had just been voted the best restaurant in the world by the World’s 50 Best for its fourth year running. Jock had set up the (almost impossible) reservation with his mate Rene Redzepi, and on his referral I was given the rockstar treatment. It was magical. Ethereal. A true culinary journey through ancient and modern flavours and cuisines, and at the end of the meal I sat there and thought: “I’ve done this before: At Orana”.

Jock Zonfrillo with Paul Wood at the 2017 Tasting Australia launch.

I’m not blowing smoke (Zonfrillo hated that). I’m reflecting on the talent, ambition, passion and drive that kept this man pushing through, despite all the challenges the world and circumstances threw his way.

When his son Alfie arrived two months prematurely in 2018, I remember sitting at the Bistro Blackwood counter with Jock and wife Lauren, between their harrowing visits to the NICU ward at the Women’s and Children’s hospital, where Alfie had to spend his earliest days developing. I’d often seen Zonfrillo tired, but this was a new kind of exhaustion. For Lauren, too. Though despite sallow faces and sleep deprivation, and all the trauma that came with uncertainty for their child, there we sat as Jock prepared mortadella sandwiches, and I tried anything to distract them.

Of course, conversation went back to food. Then to his past, and on to their future as a family. Two months later I saw those little bunya nut shaped eyes peeking out beneath his swaddle, held tight in his mum’s arms. Alfie was here, proving he had his dad’s audacity, and later, cheeky personality.

Later came Isla, and then Zonfrillo’s adventure east, but not before leaving his mark on Adelaide. He changed how we eat and how we dine. He changed minds and thoughts and set off a trajectory that still rolls through new venues and eating experiences here today.

That future may have been cut short, but his legacy has not. His passion will live in his children, and those he mentored and inspired along the way. And it will continue for me. One unique ingredient at a time.

Paul Wood is InReview‘s restaurant critic.

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