In the TV series, The Bush Tucker Man, first screened in 1988, Army major Les Hiddins cruised around northern Australia discovering the kakadu plum and waxing lyrical about lemon myrtle, pepper leaf, wattleseed, bush tomatoes and quandongs. ‘Bush tucker’ became a talking point for the first time, but it was up to others to make these foods sound appealing to a wider public.
Hiddins presented bush tucker as a curiosity and gave the impression that, while you could survive on bush foods, they were not particularly good eating. The foods, especially the plants, that had sustained aboriginal people for millennia had been largely ignored by white people since the early colonial days. But in the early 1980s others began to take an interest in native ingredients.
Ironically, it was a Frenchman who opened the first truly Australian restaurant. Chef Jean-Paul Bruneteau opened his Hornsby (Sydney) restaurant, Rowntrees, in 1984. Among the dishes he served were witchetty grub soup, skate on warrigal greens, emu with orange sauce and rosella and quandong tart.
Perhaps Bruneteau’s most famous dish was the Rolled Wattleseed Pavlova which won him a gold medal for ‘The Most Original Cuisine’ at the Second International Cooking Festival held in Tokyo, Japan in 1988. He went on to open Riberries – Taste Australia in Darlinghurst in 1991, before returning to France where he opened two Australian-themed restaurants.
Bruneteau acquired many of his ingredients from Vic Cherikoff’s Bush Tucker Supply Proprietary Ltd (now known as Australian Functional Ingredients Pty Ltd). Cherikoff has been an important promoter and supplier of native ingredients since the early 1980s.
In more recent years, there has been a renewed interest in the culinary potential of Australian bush foods. In his 2016 book The Oldest Foods on Earth, John Newton chronicles the progression of bush tucker from a curiosity to a more prominent role in Australian cuisine.