There is evidence that early colonists consumed some native foods, perhaps more from necessity than choice. But once European-style agriculture and horticulture became established there was a long hiatus, when the diversity of bush foods was largely ignored. Beginning in the early 1980s, Vic Cherikoff played an important role in reintroducing many of these foods to the restaurant industry and the public.
He was not the first to investigate the potential of native foods. In 1974, botanists Alan and Joan Cribb had published a book titled Wild Foods of Australia. It offered details from historical records and their own experiences and provided an overview of the edibility and tastiness of bush foods. In the late 1970s, horticulturalist Peter Hardwick began researching potential crops like the Davidson plum, riberries, bunya nuts and the plum pine (Illawarra plum). He went on to work for the New South Wales Department of Agriculture and, in 1988, started his own company, Wilderness Foods Ltd.
Cherikoff was a scientist working in the field of clinical pharmacology until, in 1982, he obtained a position in the Human Nutrition Unit of the University of Sydney to look into the nutritional value of Australian wild foods. That year, together with colleagues, he published a paper describing how the Kakadu Plum (Terminalia ferdinandiana) had more than 50 times as much Vitamin C as an orange. The paper described the fruit as looking and tasting like an English gooseberry.
Further papers followed including, in 1988, Australian Aboriginal bushfoods: their nutritive value. That paper:
Discusses the nutritional value of the native food plants of the arid and semiarid regions of Australia, the objective being to highlight the more “nutritionally desirable’ species. Results indicate that in general the important staples of the desert regions are nutritionally rich products. The evident nutritional value of the desert foods was one factor that enabled the desert Aboriginal people to master one of the harshest physical environments on earth.
His research, which involved tasting thousands of bush foods, suggested to Cherikoff that many had the potential for commercialisation. He started his first business, Bush Tucker Supply in 1987 and in 1989 published his first book: The bush food handbook: how to gather, grow, process & cook Australian wild foods. Cherikoff supplied native foods to the first restaurants to feature bush food – Jean-Paul Bruneteau‘s Rowntrees and, later, Riberries. In 1994, a second book, Uniquely Australian: the beginnings of an Australian bushfood cuisine was the first cookbook to combine traditional Aboriginal preparation techniques, Australian bush foods and contemporary cooking methods.
From 2004 to 2006, Cherikoff hosted a TV series, Dining Down Under. Along with two chefs, he introduced viewers to recipes featuring native ingredients including alpine pepper, bush tomato chutney, bunya nut, wild lime and wattleseed. The recipes are still available on the Dining Down Under website.
For more than four decades, Vic Cherikoff has been a significant figure in promoting Australian bush foods. He has worked closely with First Nations people and the second-in-command of his company is Indigenous. He writes:
As the author of books on wild foods, I hope that I have spread my enthusiasm for the plants and the foods to gardeners and professional growers, foragers and foodies, cooks and chefs. Through school and trade curricula which I have written, Australian cuisine is being taught to both qualified and apprentice chefs. I have personally trained over 600 chefs in my scientific approach to the incorporation of wild flavours into other, more conventional cuisines. I also hope that I have inspired many more.