INTERVIEW: From homeless heroin addict to Basque Culinary World Prize winner

How did a Scot raised on mince and tatties and with a teenage heroin addiction become a pioneering chef whose experimental use of native Australian ingredients earned him the prestigious Basque Culinary World Prize? Graham Keeley traveled to San Sebastian to find out.

INTERVIEW: From homeless heroin addict to Basque Culinary World Prize winner
Jock Zonfrillo was awarded the prestigious prize at a ceremony in San Sebastian last week. Photo:

Most chefs visit markets to find ingredients to cook but Jock Zonfrillo literally risks his own life.

The Scottish cook dives for scallops in waters infested by Great White sharks when he scours the seas in his adopted home in Australia.

“If you see a shark, you must dive to the bottom because sharks only attack from below so you are vulnerable when you are on the surface,” he said.

“About one out of every three times we go diving for scallops or sea snails we see sharks.” To prove his point, he shows me a video of a five-metre Great White which was angling to have him for lunch.

It is typical of a chef who was once described as the Mad Max of foraging or a man who makes Bear Grylls look like a Boy Scout.

Mr Zonfrillo, 42, who was born in Glasgow but whose Italian-Scottish family grew up in Ayr, was honoured with the Basque Culinary World Prize – regarded as the Oscar of cooking – at a ceremony in San Sebastian last week.

The award from this Spanish school for leading chefs is given to cooks who try to use gastronomy for social change. 

The €100,000 prize was for the work Mr Zonfrillo has done ten thousand miles from his native Scotland exploring the food of native Australians.

He spends weeks rooting out traditional ingredients like green ants – which have a zingy taste like lemon – freshwater lobster or mangrove seeds and turns them into delicious plates to serve up in his acclaimed restaurant.

Mr Zonfrillo credits cooking with saving his life after he developed a serious heroin habit by the age of 15.

By the age of 17, he replaced drugs with a new fix, working 12-hour days for Marco Pierre-White, the enfant terrible of celebrity chefs who won three Michelin stars with his London restaurant.

When he tired of the pursuit of perfection and “cutting one-centrimetre square tomatoes” in London, Mr Zonfrillo fled to Australia.

Curious to explore the potential of native Australian food, he set up Restaurant Orana in Adelaide.

The money from the Basque Culinary Prize will go to help the not-for-profit Orana Foundation which Mr Zonfrillo set up to preserve up to 15,000 edible native ingredients to save them from being lost forever.

“I just wanted to give acknowledgement to indigenous people of Australia through food. They seem to have got the rough end of the stick,” he said.

“I thought through the world of gastronomy where I am an expert I could perhaps ignite a bit of change around the perception of that world.”

With only eleven tables, a meal at Orana – native Australian for Welcome – does not come cheap at Aus$ 300 or €193. 

Mr Zonfrillo credits the time he spent as a child among the Italian side of his family for his love of gastronomy while the Scottish branch were raised mostly on mince and tatties.

“You would go round Italian side of the family and its loud and there are amazing smells. I will never forget the smell of fresh focaccio or panettone,” he remembers.

“There is more inspiring food on the Italian side of the family.”

Mr Zonfrillo, a father of three who has been married three times, says coming from an Italian Catholic family, he had no choice but to support Celtic Football Club.

After so many years in Australia, his accent is mostly Scottish with the occasional twang from Down Under.

Despite his time abroad, he still wears his roots with pride – literally.

On his right arm is a tattoo in Latin which reads Nemo me imune lacessit – the motto on Scotland's coat of arms which means No one crosses me unharmed. The message is clear.

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The surprising connection between Spanish sherry and the British and Irish

The southwest of Spain may be known as the sherry capital of the world, but it in fact has a surprising connection to England, Scotland and Ireland.

The surprising connection between Spanish sherry and the British and Irish

Spain’s sherry triangle sits in the southwest of the country in the province of Cádiz and lies between the cities and towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María.

It’s a Protected Designation of Origin (DOP) region, meaning that only the white fortified wine grown and made here can be called sherry.

Sherry is predominantly made from the white palamino grapes and the region’s chalky albariza soil full of limestone, it’s hot summers, mild winters and high humidity make it perfect to cultivate them.

Jerez de la Frontera is the capital of this wine region and its streets are lined with sherry tabancos fronted by old sherry barrels and locals sipping glasses of fino.

However, sherry wouldn’t be the celebrated sherry drink it is today in this part of Spain without the legacy set up by the British and the Irish some 250 years ago.

1865 drawing of sherry barrels stacked up inside the González and Byass winery, in Jerez de la Frontera “. Image: The Universal Museum/Public Domain

In Jerez, you’ll see signs hidden signs of the British everywhere, from the sherry posters, the names on the walls of the cellars, to the labels on the bottles and even the names of some of the types of sherry such as cream and pale cream.

Wine has been produced in the southwest of Spain since Roman times, but it wasn’t until later that sherry was produced. It was first imported to the UK in the 13th and 14th centuries and become known by the English name sherry, instead of the Spanish name – jerez.

Sherry sales saw growth in the UK after the marriage of Catherine of Aragon with King Henry VIII.

It is said that she often complained saying: “The King, my husband, keeps the best wines from the Canary Islands and Jerez for himself”.

Shakespeare’s Falstaff and his affection for Sherry “sack” also did much to spread the reputation of the drink. Painting´: Eduard von Grützner

From 1587 onwards, sherry became particularly popular in Great Britain, when Sir Francis Drake supplied taverns around the country with several thousand sherry casks he brought back when he captured the port of Cádiz.

Sir Frances Drake brought sherry back from Cádiz. Photo: Ann Longmore-Etheridge / Flickr

But it wasn’t until the 1700s that British merchants actually started investing in the sherry trade and opening up their own bodegas in Spain.

One of these was Scot James Duff, whose sherry business was developed by his nephew William Gordon and then taken over by their friend Thomas Osborne. Their business became the well-known sherry brand Duff-Gordon, which was later renamed, Osborne.

Osborne sherry has become famous around the world due its iconic logo of a Spanish bull, seen on bull-shaped billboards across Spain. Photo: Volker Schoen / Pixabay

Today, they are one of the biggest sherry producers in Spain and the Bodegas de Mora Osborne are one of the most famous in El Puerto de Santa María, which can be visited on a tour.

Another was William Garvey, a rich Irish farmer. It is said that he came to Cádiz to buy merino sheep, but instead ended up establishing himself as a wine merchant, first in Sanlúcar and later in Jerez. In 1824 his son Patrick took over the company and set up the Bodegas San Patricio. Today, these bodegas, located in Jerez de la Frontera are some of the biggest in the region.

The Tío Pepe wine factory in Cádiz. The famous sherry producers also have British links, as their holding company – González Byass – carries the name of Robert Blake Byass, a renowned English wine merchant. Photo: María Renée Batlle Castillo/Flickr

More and more British followed suit with Sir Alexander Williams and Arthur Humbert creating their own bodegas in 1877 and Spaniard Manuel María González partnering with Englishman Robert Blake Byass in 1835 to create one of the most well-known sherry bodegas today – González Byass.

Today, even though most of the sherry producers are Spanish, many can trace their family origins back to the British, from Sandeman and Harveys to Terry.

So next time you’re sipping a manzanilla or fino sherry in a tabanco in Jerez, you might want to raise a glass to the British and Irish ancestors who made it possible.