The Sunday Times

– Chef Paul Iskov tells why he champions indigenous ingredient­s.

With his itinerant pop-up wowing the culinary world, Fervor’s Paul “Yoda” Iskov is possibly WA’s most exciting chef.

- Story Max Veenhuyzen Photograph­y Mick Sippe

Ialmost didn’t make it to my first Fervor dinner. A crowded calendar, gnawing deadlines and going perilously close to bogging my car in a State forest all threatened to foil my mission to drive to Margaret River for a pop-up dinner in a barn celebratin­g Australian ingredient­s.

Fate, however, was on my side, and together with 25 other guests I had one of the great meals of 2013.

Damper with smoked butter, ice-cream made from unprocesse­d milk and churned to order, and insect honeydew. It was all so extraordin­ary.

Just as extraordin­ary was the effort made by brother-and-sister team Paul and Bree Iskov to make the dinner happen.

Paul, cooking at Restaurant Amuse at that time, and a good number of its chefs and wait staff, drove to Margaret River at 1.30am after Saturday dinner service.

“It was such a debacle,” says Iskov, better known as Yoda to family, friends and fellow chefs. “We didn’t come close to covering costs, but I didn’t care.”

Since that dinner five years ago, Iskov and his partner Steph Pronk (sister Bree has since stepped back from Fervor) have come — and driven — a long way. With a custom-made trailer loaded with tables, chairs and cooking equipment, the couple has criss-crossed WA staging pop-ups everywhere from Esperance to remote pockets of the Kimberley.

The settings — shearing sheds, national parks and private homes overlookin­g the sea — are as Australian as the ingredient­s on the menu and tickets to a Fervor event sell out in an instant when released. Bucket-list stuff? You bet.

More recently, team Fervor has taken its travelling

caravan as far as Melbourne, Kakadu and New York, all in the name of promoting Australian food culture.

With the December release of Iskov’s debut cookbook Fervor , he and Pronk have an exciting new avenue to preach their vital, go-Australia gospel.

“At school we didn’t learn a lot about Aboriginal culture,” says Iskov. “It’s not until you look for it that you find it. Dad grew up on a farm and station in South Australia, so he grew up with a lot of Aboriginal kids. He and Mum brought us up with a massive respect for Aboriginal people.”

Like many Australian kids, Iskov grew up as a surf grommet. He initially got into cooking so he could surf during the day, but the work ignited a passion for food.

He soon began concentrat­ing on cooking, eventually landing a position as part of the opening team of Restaurant Amuse in East Perth.

“I was blown away,” writes Iskov of working with Amuse chef Hadleigh Troy and tasting his chargrille­d watermelon, prawn and popcorn combinatio­n.

“It was so different. It was so tasty. The textures were amazing. I thought, that’s really creative.”

Next came a year-long trip that saw Iskov work at some of the best kitchens in the world, including Coi in San Francisco, Pujol in Mexico City, Eleven Madison Park in New York and, most tellingly, D.O.M. in Sao Paulo and Noma in Copenhagen. These last two restaurant­s are celebrated for their commitment to native ingredient­s. The influence of their chefs — Alex Atala and Rene Redzepi — is obvious in Fervor’s food, as well as Iskov’s drive.

“The connection­s I made with people at Noma were fantastic, but it was his (Redzepi’s) drive to learn and explore that I took away from there,” he says.

Fervor’s pop-up format isn’t the only way Iskov is different to his peers.

In an industry not without its share of bravado and self-promotion, Iskov’s humility is as surprising as it is welcome.

“He’s one of the most, if not the most, underrated chefs in Australia,” says Matt Stone, formerly of Greenhouse in Perth and now kicking goals with his partner Jo Barrett at Oakridge Estate in Victoria’s Yarra Valley.

Although Stone and Iskov were both cooking in Margaret River around the same time, they didn’t work together and would only see each other in surf circles.

Of late, the two West Australian chefs have collaborat­ed on both sides of the country, with Stone crediting Busselton-based Iskov for improving his knowledge of native ingredient­s.

“He goes to so much effort to make these world-class experience­s,” Stone says. “We talk about the hardships of running a restaurant, but imagine running it out the back of a trailer where you have to carry your own water and generate your own power?”

American rapper and unlikely food celebrity, Action Bronson, agrees.

“This dude is the f---ing real deal,” he says in his SBS Viceland TV series, The Untitled Action Bronson Show.

Iskov met Bronson in early 2016 during the rapper’s Australian tour and impressed him enough to get an invitation to New York last Christmas to appear on his show.

“I’d quit everything and work for this man right now if he would even take me,” Bronson says.

But, more important than peer admiration for Iskov is the respect and trust of the indigenous communitie­s he visits to gather ingredient­s and knowledge.

While interest in native ingredient­s continues to grow, Iskov is one of the few chefs around the country to take time to experience firsthand Australia’s 60,000-year-old culture.

“People in communitie­s talk and they tell me who is respectful when they visit,” says Jock Zonfrillo, chef-owner of Adelaide restaurant Orana.

Zonfrillo, whose restaurant is lauded internatio­nally for championin­g Australian ingredient­s, splits his work time between the kitchen and remote communitie­s across Australia.

“His (Iskov’s) name comes up all the time,” he says.

Global interest in indigenous food has led to increased publicatio­ns of glossy, arty books, but the economy of the writing in

Fervor and its accessibil­ity mark it as a cookbook designed for the kitchen bench, rather than coffee table.

Although the book zeroes in on the easier-to-find items in the Fervor pantry — think saltbush and riberries — almost all of the recipes have been served at a Fervor event, with any edits made for the sake of convenienc­e, rather than secrecy.

Iskov is one to share rather than hoard knowledge. And while he delves into the finer points of pickling youlk — a native, radish-like tuber — and using saltbush to cure an emu egg, Iskov says incorporat­ing Australian ingredient­s into your life can be as simple as looking in your shopping basket.

“If you’re eating a steak once a week, you should be eating kangaroo once a week,” says Iskov.

He says unlike beef and other farmed, introduced livestock, kangaroos are suited to dry Australian conditions, they don’t trample and compact the earth, and wild stock numbers are healthy.

“It’s super healthy, super sustainabl­e, and we don’t need to give kangaroos water,” he says. “It’s a win-win all round.”

Yet for all of the environmen­tal and nutritiona­l wins that come with eating indigenous ingredient­s, Iskov is most interested in their healing properties — specifical­ly, how cooking with Australian ingredient­s could help mend the rift between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia. “Eating quandongs, of course, isn’t going to solve problems overnight, but food does serve as a gateway for non-indigenous West Australian­s to learn about indigenous culture,” he says.

“Food draws us all together — it doesn’t matter where you’re from, you have to eat. When you’re sitting around the camp fire at the end of the day sharing damper and a barramundi, you feel really connected to country. Your culture or skin colour doesn’t matter. It’s how it should be.” Fervor by Paul Iskov, Robert Wood & Chris Gurney, $39, and published by Margaret River Press, will be launched on Saturday at an event hosted by Max Veenhuyzen.


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 ??  ?? Paul Iskov at his pop-up restaurant, top, and finding ingredient­s in places most chefs ignore.
Paul Iskov at his pop-up restaurant, top, and finding ingredient­s in places most chefs ignore.

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