– 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.

The Sunday Times - - CONTENTS - 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.

FOOD DRAWS US ALL TO­GETHER. 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. PAUL ISKOV

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

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