Hidden in the tangle of bush outside my childhood home was a wild blackberry plant. I still remember the delight of wandering through that bushland as a child, picking and eating plump, juicy blackberries straight off the tree. It seemed too good to be true – that you could find food growing wild and it was free and delicious.
I didn’t know there was a name for what I was doing, and what humans have instinctively done for millennia: foraging. Renowned Sunshine Coast chef and famous forager Nick Blake recalls the same childhood joy at receiving the fruits of nature’s bounty right where it was growing, rather than from a supermarket shelf.
“I grew up in Fiji from the age of four and I used to go into the jungle with my mates, catch prawns and crabs, forage for chokos and tapioca down in the valley. Now my daughter, who’s almost three, loves it too,’’ he says.
“I’ve taken her down the back garden and said ‘try this hairy watercress’. She chews it, thinks about it then spits it out and says, ‘I don’t like it Daddy’. Then she plucks something off the hedge and I say ‘don’t do that’ and my wife says ‘see what you started’. When I go off in the morning, she says ‘Daddy go forage?’”
As the owner of Wild Forage Australia, Mr Blake spends two 13-hour days a week foraging around the Sunshine Coast for native ingredients with which to supply restaurants in Brisbane, Byron Bay and here on the Coast. Depending on the season and the location – coast or hinterland – he might pick ice plant, warrigal greens, sea spinach, sea celery, lemon myrtle, stinging nettle, watercress, rambling dock or spicy mustard leaf.
He knows what to pick and what to steer clear of, having started his career with a degree in environmental management in New Zealand, before becoming a chef. He’s currently head chef at Mooloolaba’s Rice Boi, and has worked his way up from an apprenticeship at The Boat Shed in Cotton Tree, followed by Rickys in Noosa and a job as head chef at Wasabi, also in Noosa.
But it was the time he spent working with acclaimed chef René Redzepi of Noma – voted best restaurant in the world four times in the World’s 50 Best list – when Mr Blake really hit his stride. When the famous Copenhagen-based restaurant planned to open in Sydney, Mr Blake was chosen from thousands of applicants to work there.
“I went to Sydney for three months and worked crazy hours,” he says. “I learnt everything about foraging.
“When I worked at Noma, René said when you feel like you’re tired keep working, that’s when the magic happens.
“He’s one of the biggest mentors I’ve had; he really inspired me to get up and do something different. The whole idea of Wild Forage Australia started when I came back from Noma and I wanted to give back to the community. There’s a whole array of different cuisines up here.
I wanted to do something authentic – you see food from Malaysia et cetera but we’re not really trying the seaweed from the beach in with the spanner crab and pairing it. It’s a very Noma way of thinking – just looking into the landscape and celebrating what we have here.
“Foraging has been around for a while but it used to be seen as eccentric,” he adds. “René really changed things up and the foraged thing seems to be holding strong. It anchors your food in time and place and seasonality.
“Chefs are now taking the time and energy to go out there. I think we have a bit more respect for the ingredient. You put a lot of passion into it because you want to get that wow factor out of it. Chefs are going the extra mile now and customers expect a more engaged experience.”
Mr Blake acknowledges families are time-poor and the idea of foraging for food may appeal more to restaurant chefs than busy mums and dads, but he encourages people to give it a go.
“I think it’s a great knowledge or skill set to pass onto kids,” he says. “It’s an essential skill but we’ve forgotten about it. Convenience has made us lazy. You can get anything you want from the supermarket.
But more and more people are becoming interested in foraged food and what’s available in the wild. I’ve had families visiting from South Africa ask if I can take them and their kids foraging.”
He does have a word of warning: “Never pick what you don’t know and never taste what you can’t identify.”
Having put more than 5000 hours into foraging, he knows his stuff and has been brought on board as a curator of ingredients for visiting chefs taking part in the upcoming four-day food festival, The Curated Plate, which runs from August 5 to 18.
“I will help chefs source things specific to the Sunshine Coast and give them a bit more of an understanding of the flavour of things I forage, which they will tie in with some of their dishes.”
Mr Blake will join Clayton Wells of two-hatted restaurant Automata and Monique Fiso of New Zealand’s Hiakai for a forage-focused dining experience called A Regional Evolution at Mooloolaba on Saturday, August 10. This is one of many events happening across the Sunshine Coast as part of The Curated Plate’s inaugural year.
For more information and tickets, visit thecuratedplate.com.au/sunshine-coast. Proudly supported by My Weekly Preview.
Take a wander around Cotton Tree’s Black Swan Park during The Curated Plate Culinary Festival and you’ll be treated to amazing tastes and smells as part of the Food Fair. Masterclasses, chef talks and cooking demonstrations will create a vibrant atmosphere, with local and national eateries offering delicious food over three days. The Spirit House cooking school will run masterclasses, Your Mates Brewing Co will have beer tastings and Sunshine Coast Coffee Roasters will show you how to make coffee-based cocktails and mocktails. There will be free demonstrations and chef talks and a range of bars and eateries
will ensure everyone leaves feeling satisfied and well-fed. Entry to the Food Fair is $5 for adults on the day (children under 16 free) or you can pre-register on the website for free entry.
The Food Fair runs from 4pm on Friday, August 9 to 9pm on Sunday, August 11. For more information visit thecuratedplate.com.au.
- The Curated Plate is a new destination food festival which will make its debut on the Sunshine Coast from August 5 to 18.
- The festival celebrates the relationship between chef and producer in the picturesque surrounds of the Sunshine Coast and offers once-in-a-lifetime dining experiences.
- Top chefs from around the world are taking part, including Tokyo’s Zaiyu Hasegawa from the two Michelin-star restaurant Den, renowned French
chef Raymond Blanc OBE and Monique Fiso from New Zealand restaurant Hiakai.
- The Sunshine Coast is one of Australia’s premier regions for
quality produce – it has more than
740 restaurants, 400 food tourism experiences, six dining precincts and 13 new craft breweries.
- The Sunshine Coast’s food and agribusiness industry is valued at $700 million and features more than 900 companies, including some of Australia’s leading food and beverage innovators.
A range of food-related events will be staged across the Sunshine Coast as part of The Curated Plate. Here’s just a taste:
- The inaugural Mary Valley Rattler DeguSTATION Train will steam out of Amamoor Station on Thursday, August 8 with chefs Mark Johnson, Matt Golinski and James Barnden on board. This is a unique culinary journey through the Mary Valley, with great food and wine on board a heritage steam train. Matt Golinski will create the first course and will be the on-board host, sharing stories of the region. The courses will be served at the heritage stations. Booking is essential at maryvalleyrattler.com.au.
- Women Leaders in Food and Agribusiness – Join MC Jennifer Swaine as she dissects what it takes to start a new business in the agribusiness sector with three inspiring speakers. Turn to page 26 to find out more.
- When Harry Met Nelly – This dining experience will be set in the leafy forest surrounds of Harry’s on Buderim, where chef and owner Stuart Bell will welcome chef and owner of Sydney’s nel., Nelly Robinson, to the charming 139-year-old homestead. This event will showcase the best of Sunshine Coast produce.
- The Ginger Journey: From Farmer to Your Plate – Third-generation ginger farmer Shane Templeton will share the story of Buderim Ginger over lunch. Discover how from humble beginnings, Buderim Ginger has grown to sell the world’s finest ginger to more than 17 countries. Chef Mischa Cleland will use fresh local ingredients to create a two-course lunch paired with Buderim Ginger Alcoholic Ginger Beer.