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.
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