A Naidoc Night Degustation Dinner

Tucked away under the arches of Sydney Harbour Bridge near the Burton Street tunnel at Kirribilli lies a funky little cafe, the BTB (By The Bridge).
I’d walked past it many times over the past year or so, but it wasn’t until I stopped one day to read the menu that I realised just how unusual it is.
Expecting to find the usual cafe fare of smashed avocado on sourdough and banana bread, I was surprised to see some unusual offerings: an emu mortadella sandwich with house ricotta, anise myrtle mustard & date relish; house crocodile chorizo sausage with white beans, spiced smoked tomato sauce, ham hock, warrigal chimmichurri (a take on cassoulet); and native chai, a mix of wattle seed, Geraldton wax, pepperberries and bush honey.

Emu mortadella sandwich with house ricotta, anise myrtle mustard, date relish

Familiar dishes, but with a native food twist.
Looking at the menu, I recalled Noma chef Rene Redzepi dazzling affluent Sydneysiders in early 2016 with an expensive native food menu at Barangaroo ($400-$500 p.p.) which was intended to cement Australia as a global destination for food and wine.
Well, that was Tourism Australia’s spin on it. How many upmarket restaurants, apart from Attica in Melbourne, are now doing anything with our native foods? And how many cafes apart from Lucky Kwong in Sydney and Mabu Mabu in Melbourne do you know using native food?
Have you ever tasted (or cooked with) bush food apart from maybe lemon myrtle, wattleseed or finger limes?

Pepperberry egg pasta with pecorino, toasted wattleseed & nasturtium

I wandered in and ordered the pepperberry egg pasta with pecorino, toasted wattleseed and nasturtium. It was pleasant though I would have liked more pepperberry and cheese through it.
Intrigued by the menu, I asked to speak to the manager.
Cameron Votano, one of the owners, was happy to talk to me.
“We’ve concentrated on looking at regular cafe food but putting a native spin on it,” he told me. “Our idea was to make it more accessible to a wider demographic, not just to people who can afford to go to high end restaurants.
“At the end of the day, margins in cafes are tight so we needed to think outside the box. There was a missing link in our cultural identity.”

Ardent BTB owners Adam Brcic and Cameron Votano

Opened five years ago, it’s been a gradual transition from regular cafe food to incorporating native ingredients in most of the dishes.
Together with chefs Dan Backhouse (ex et al, Potts Point)) and  Toby Cutler (ex Salvage, Artarmon), they’re an impassioned team.
“While one person might come up with an idea of how to use an ingredient, someone else will suggest a complementary flavour,” Dan told me.
“We taste the native ingredients and try to find a native flavour equivalent. For example, native thyme has a similar flavour to mint, so we’ll think of flavours that work well with mint and integrate the native flavours that way.”
Last week roast chook and potatoes became a lemon myrtle bush honey fried chicken dish with potato bacon hash and native spiced gravy.

Lemon myrtle bush honey fried chicken dish with potato bacon hash and native spiced gravy

“Every week gets busier,” says Cam. “People come from all over inspired by word of mouth.”
Cameron and his partner Adam Brcic had dreamt of opening a cafe or cultural hub venue since school days at Marian College in Kenthurst, but it took a few years for Cam to give up his biomedical research at UTS and Adam to bail out of the finance industry to begin to fulfil their dream.
“My dad was Italian and used to run cafes and fruit shops,” says Cam. “He didn’t want me to go into hospitality.”
The youngest of six kids, Cam was always interested in food and did a lot of the cooking at home. “Whatever would go a long way.”
American chef Dan Barber, renowned for his close-to-the land cooking and sustainable farming ethic along with Nordic chefs such as Rene Redzepi and Magnus Nilson have been strong influences.

Keen chefs Toby Cutler and Daniel Backhouse checking out the cookbooks

“We looked to other cultures to find ways of cooking local produce and found that venison has very similar characteristics to kangaroo.  That helped open our minds to the possibilities of making our own versions of traditional dishes,” said Cam.
“Our first special at BTB was a kangaroo parfait taken from a venison parfait recipe.”
Warrigal falafels, made with chickpeas, warrigal greens, onion, wattle seed, and wild thyme were another early offering.

Warrigal Falafels

They’ve since been recreated in homage to cultural custodian Winsome Matthews, a Palawa-Yoda Yoda-Wiradjuri-Gamilaroi woman, cook and former chair of the NSW Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committee, who has been collaborating with them for the past 2 1/2 years.
“It was the first dish Winsome ate at the cafe and what prompted her to spark up a conversation with me about food.”

Adan and Cameron with Winsome Matthews and Amy Opio

“A few months later she came back with her friend Amy Opio, who was already a regular customer.  During that time Adam and I had been talking about taking the deep dive into native Australian produce and how we could make that work with the cafe space. We worried that we were two white boys from the Hills district doing native food.
“We mentioned this to Winsome and Amy and their eyes lit up.  It became apparent we were going to have a great relationship shared over our love for Australian food.”
“How good and delicious is their food!” exclaimed Winsome when we met a few days later.
 “I believe in these guys.  They have open hearts,” she tells me. “They’re following their passion and desire to create innovative seasonal dishes using native ingredients.”

An eclectic mix: Honey glazed duck with warrigal kimchi pancakes (at back). Black garlic kangaroo carpaccio with Illawarra plums, beetroot & red shiso (front left)

Her role is to care for and protect them as they bring their plans to fruition.
“They need a custodian for success because it’s a jungle out there. I won’t tolerate people’s racism.”
She also believes native ingredients should be widely shared.
Winsome and Amy have collaborated with the BTB team to create a Naidoc Nights Native Degustation menu on July 6th. All proceeds from the event will be donated to Dr Tracy Westerman who is at the forefront of Indigenous youth suicide prevention.
The 5-course menu ($150pp) comprises:
Snack plate: kangaroo jerky, emu parfait with muntries jelly, mud crab & green ants
Fish course: macadamia miso marinated mulloway smoked on paperbark
Main course: wallaby shanks braised with pepperberrry, coastal rosemary, bush tomatoes and red wine with celeriac puree
Dessert: steamed pudding with geraldton wax caramel and bunya nut custard

Geraldton Wax Ice Cream with apple

If you’ve never tasted bush food, give the team at BTB a go.
They’re punching out Aussie food using native foods in a way which might surprise you.
As Dan told me, “A lot of native produce isn’t as scary as people think.”
You might also like to check out the First Nations Food Companion,  a celebration of the most accessible and popular Indigenous Australian ingredients and their uses in the everyday home kitchen, available early October 2022; or pay a visit to the inaugural Native Food Festival at Quorn, South Australia, August 5th-7th 2022, the theme of which comes from these words of Bruce Pascoe, native food expert, author and educator:
“Australia can come together across the table but you can’t eat our food if you can’t swallow our history.”

Disclaimer: this article was not sponsored by BTB nor any special favours given.