Bush tucker and regional provenance star in The Flackyard
WHEN Nik Flack did his apprenticeship at Mackay's Shamrock Hotel, the chef there told him he could play it safe and stay at home, or take his skills around the world.
He's done both, cheffing in top kitchens including the three-hatted Vue de Monde in the Rialto, where he cut his teeth in fine dining, to famed Kimberley and Timor Sea cruiser True North, which saw the chef connecting with indigenous wild harvesters and fishing for mud crabs and barramundi, building the ship's store of fresh produce.
It's also where he met partner Emily Goss, and with their first child on the way, the couple moved to Perth, where Nik had the chance to refine his skills working in indigenous cuisine at Wildflower at The Treasury, presenting a menu following the six Noongar seasons, developed in consultation with a Noongar Elder, and connected to regional farming and foraging.
"That's where I fell in love with bush tucker, and that respect for the country and the land. That was where I got this feeling: what is Australia's cuisine? What are we? We are so multicultural, but no one can tell you what Australia's cuisine is. I think it's starting to come into play, the bush tucker thing is going ahead in leaps and bounds," Nik said
Nik opened The Flackyard, at Pinnacle in Mackay's Pioneer Valley last week, following on from a community event for Valley residents, and a Smoking Ceremony and Welcome to Country given by Yuwibara Elder George Tonga. Flackyard is built on a burning interest in a growing culture that brings together indigenous ingredients with the locally grown, slashing food miles and celebrating regional produce.
"Our philosophy with The Flackyard is to try and create what, in our eyes, is Australia's cuisine using native, indigenous flavours," he said
It's a trend that could offer growers opportunities to diversify farm income streams, meeting a developing niche market both here and in Asia for uniquely Australian ingredients. Growing produce that has evolved in the heat of Australia's arid grasslands, or the cool of its forests makes sense, especially given intensifications in climate.
A commitment to reducing food miles and increasing freshness and quality, sourcing more traditional ingredients from growers as close to the restaurant as possible, delivers opportunities for growers to make a farmgate price.
Getting ingredients to the kitchen as freshly as possible has meant sourcing finger limes and Bunya nut grown in the nearby Eungella rainforest, with honey, berries, lemon myrtle, fish and beef all sourced from local producers. Nik has had to go a little further afield for some ingredients, like Atherton nut and Davidson plum sourced from the Atherton Tablelands.
He said he was committed to supporting not just local producers but wild harvesters.
"So often, the wild harvest community, or the farmer gets nothing. There's an opportunity to support them with this philosophy," he said.
One grower with whom Nik has worked closely is Jock Hansen of Eungella Rainforest Finger Limes, including Jock's help in restoring the restaurant's languishing garden beds.
"To be brutally honest, we couldn't even get a shovel half a centimetre into the dirt: it was neglected, it was sad. Jock has been beyond amazing, he's been out here probably 14 or more times, putting in half a day here and a day there. He brought organic matter, and just gave the garden what it needed. Love, and water and some good microbes," Nik said.
After a few months' work, the garden is now flourishing, producing heirloom variety vegetables and herbs. It will keep developing as the region moves into its productive winter growing season. Nik is enjoying sharing the connection between growing and eating with his family and with diners.
"In this day and age, people want to know where their food is coming from. There's nothing better than walking 3m from you deck and picking flowers, vegetables and herbs. Yesterday I made a parsley and sage chlorophyll - you extract the chlorophyll out of the herbs, and season that through the turkey mousse, stuff that inside the breast, boudin it up and then cook it.
"It's stunning. You carve this piece of turkey, it's perfectly cooked on the outside, this soft green mousse on the inside from fresh herbs from the garden. You just don't get better than that!"
Jock Hansen established his rainforest finger lime orchard in Mackay's hinterland almost five years ago. It's 300 trees and increasing, with two varieties. He said the trees were now mature enough to produce quality fruit.
"Nik uses finger lime in a lot of dishes, and our fruit is a superior hybrid, it's seedless, it's got a nice taste and colour. Ours have pink flesh, and the redder they are, the more sweet," Jock said.
He said the fruit grew best in a forest setting, making good use of quality microbial soil. With a shorter shelf life, fruit should be picked and eaten quickly. A quality specimen had the citrus pearls under pressure under the peel, spilling out readily when cut.
"Nik and I are on the same page: the fresher the better, you want that pop in the mouth. So I can pick daily and be on the table in the evening."
He said the pink flesh offered a good balance of bitter and sweet suited to sweet and savoury dishes and favoured by chefs. He said many bush foods were high in vitamins and antioxidants, and it was exciting to have a chef of Nik's skill showcasing the produce and finely calibrating the flavours.
"It will be good to have the fruit done some justice by someone who can get that beautiful balance of native protein and plants," he said.
Jock said his business was in the process of diversifying into other bush foods and medicines, including gumbi gumbi, quandong and dianella, and would continue to expand the range to meet demand.