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

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:
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.

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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