Getting to know Indigenous plant use and cooking

Christ the King School Year 4 students learn more about how native Australian plants can be used in everyday cooking.

Year 4 students at Christ the King School recently sat down with National Indigenous Culinary Institute(NICI)  CEO, Nathan Lovett to learn more about how native Australian plants can be used in everyday cooking.

Mr Lovett, a proud Yuin man from the New South Wales South Coast, stepped into the CEO role at NICI in March 2020. NICI is a national leader in connecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander aspiring chefs with some of Australia’s most prestigious fine dining restaurants, including Rockpool Bar and Grill, Bistro Guillaume, Catalina and Aria.

It’s an industry that has a severe under-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. NICI is therefore proactive in its recruitment, creating pathways for any First Nations man or woman who wants to get the qualifications and continue working.

“We also work with long-term unemployed, youth and anyone doing industry or career change,” Mr Lovett says. 

Before joining NICI, Mr Lovett worked across education, mentoring and employment programs through community and sports administration, government and the finance and banking industry.

He says he is deeply passionate about food and its connection to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, and he enjoys seeing the incredible skills of the chefs at NICI first-hand.


Using native food to connect culture and create community

“Seeing our people [NICI chefs] creating exceptional cuisine really motivates me to be better in the kitchen at home,” Mr Lovett says.
“I love spending time on the weekends trying new cooking technique, preparing new meals and experimenting with different ingredients.”

Mr Lovett says one of his favourite native Australian bush foods to cook with is Old Man Saltbush, because it’s so easy to cook with.

“Old Man Saltbush is incredibly versatile. It gives a unique taste to anything you use it with,” he says. “When I’m baking vegetables, for example, I give them a good sprinkle of saltbush, which completely changes the taste. It’s amazing with roast pumpkin.”

He says one of the many benefits of NICI is that the fine dining industry connects with, and develops a greater understanding of, native Australian foods and the businesses that sell them.

“Ingredients such as lemon myrtle, native thyme, cinnamon myrtle and lemon aspen are all Australian natives,” Mr Lovett says. 

They are supplied to restaurants in Sydney, and the chefs in those restaurants develop an understanding of all the ingredients that go into a dish on their menu and how they work together.

“This is especially important if they need to make substitutions,” Mr Lovett says. “It’s important to consider the flavour and texture of an ingredient and how it can work with the dish.”

He highlights that some native foods present danger if consumed.

“Timing and an understanding of nature can let you know when things are okay to eat,” Mr Lovett says.

Native food is part of the Indigenous story

It’s not just flavour or nutrition that provides a benefit to the food either. Mr Lovett says the cultural background, the storytelling and the uses of the native ingredients are all important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“For example, we might use the bark or the leaves as well as the fruit and the flowers. 

The demand for native food in Australia continues to grow, according to Mr Lovett. He says it is therefore important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be involved in the bush food industry.

“My great grandmother was part of the Hidden Generation*, so it wasn’t until after she died that I started learning about my family, our tribe and our culture,” Mr Lovett says.

“Learning this has been really strong and powerful, in terms of my connection to my Aboriginality.”

The native foods are part of his story. 

Indigenous people need a stronger voice, and they need to find their leadership, especially in the native food industry. This is where the programs offered at NICI are beneficial.  

“Not only are we helping people work in hospitality, but we are supporting native food businesses across Australia,’ Mr Lovett says.

*Hidden Generations is a term used to describe a group of Indigenous peoples are responded to colonial forces in Australia by reducing their visibility.​