Interview: Chef Paul Iskov, Champion of Native Australian Ingredients
We met Paul Iskov at the Margaret River Gourmet Escape, a major international food and wine experience in Western Australia. He is unusual in that he forages for his food and ingredients with the aborigines and hosts all his meals in pop-up format. He’s one of the most unusual chefs we have met, so we will let him introduce himself to you.
The Daily Meal: How did you get into cooking? What were your earliest influences?
Chef Paul Iskov: To be honest, my introduction to cooking wasn’t a romantic one and I wasn’t destined for the kitchen from a young age, it was more of an accident that I ended up loving cooking. Around the age of 20 I was offered a job as an apprentice chef in a little restaurant in Albany. It was a simple family run place doing steaks, burgers, coffee and cake. I took the job as it allowed me to surf every day and work evenings. I loved the job and the people I worked with but I wasn’t all that interested in cooking. It was about 4 or 5 years later when I finished my apprenticeship and started working at a new place in Perth called Restaurant Amuse with Hadleigh and Carolynne Troy. Chef had worked in some amazing restaurants around the world and that was the first thing that caught my attention. I went in for a trial and was blown away with the creative dishes being creating. I was offered a job and that is where my love of cooking began. It felt like I learnt everything from scratch and was trained in a classical French style. As the restaurant evolved so did the food and I was free to bring new ideas and ingredients into the mix, I became obsessed with cooking and spent the next 4 years (on & off) working at Restaurant Amuse.
How did you get into working with the aborigines and using their food, recipes and spices? Do you supplement the aboriginal food with conventional spices and methods?
I think using native ingredients in the majority of the places I had worked help create my interest in these Australian ingredients. When we started Fervor the aim was to use mostly native ingredients. Things like, dairy, oil and flour are stilled used in our menus, but you won’t find beef, pork, chicken, tomato, carrot, lettuce. It’s not that I am against using introduced ingredients it is just that we have really like to challenge ourselves, and because we only feed a very small number of people each week it is easier for us to use a range of these ingredients. There are over 5000 edible native ingredients in Australia and currently there are less than 20 that are well known and used in home cooking.
How do you get your supplies? Do you get them before every meal that you cook? Tell me about foraging.
Because we are a roaming restaurant we use different ingredients at each location we visit. Earlier this year we covered nearly 10,000 kilometers in 2 months doing 17 pop-ups in different locations. We take dried, fermented, cured and salted ingredients with us, also things like sauces, flavored oils, sorbets and ice creams. We try to get to the dinner location a day or 2 in advance so we can find ingredients and connect with the aborigines and talk about ingredients.
In regards to foraging we have a license and then gain permits from land owners so we are allowed to forage small amounts of certain species. We like to go out foraging with the aborigines as they know all the local foods, whats in season and where to find them. Being able to forage allows us to hand selected our ingredients and have them as fresh as possible. We like to collect herbs, grasses and grains from as close to the dinner location as possible.
Why limit yourself to working with aboriginal people?
We work with both indigenous and non-indigenous people. I think it is important to acknowledge the traditional owners and make sure they benefit from collection, wild harvesting and sharing information about native ingredients. It is great to see more aboriginal owned and run companies pop-up up all over Australia and there are a lot of companies that have both indigenous and non-indigenous people working together.
What are your plans and hopes for the future?
Our plans for the future are to travel more, connect with more remote communities, learn about new ingredients and the land we live on. We hope to encourage more people to start cooking with native ingredients and inspire the next generation of cooks. We also hope to open a permanent place, that we can learn, teach, share and prepare delicious Australian food from.
What does the Margaret River Gourmet Escape mean to you?
I think Gourmet Escape is a great event that showcases the region and brings great international chefs to this beautiful part of the world. Even if I wasn’t doing events at Gourmet Escape I would be coming along to experience all the fantastic produce the southwest (of Australia) has to offer.