Wollongong TV chef and Bundjalung man Mark Olive is set to bring a “uniquely Australian” culinary experience to the Sydney Opera House.
Once a gathering place for Indigenous ceremony and culture thousands of years before the world-famous structure was conceived, the Opera House seems a fitting host for his new restaurant Midden by Mark Olive, which will open on Tuesday (July 4) to coincide with NAIDOC Week.
Taking over the former restaurant Portside space in the Western Foyers, the Midden menu will draw on Mark’s Indigenous Australian heritage and heroes a produce-focused menu of native Australian ingredients – from wattle seed and bush honey to saltbush and succulents.
Mark, AKA “The Black Olive”, a renowned Australian chef known for his hit global TV series The Outback Chef, said much of his inspiration stems from his Illawarra upbringing.
“Even when I finished school and left home for my apprenticeship, I would return two or three times a year. Going home, my aunties introduced me to things like lemon myrtle and wattle seed,” he said.
“I got a taste for those flavours. Whenever I would come home I would collect herbs and spices to experiment and cook with. I started foraging a lot around the Illawarra and much of my research in the 80s was around the edible plants I found there.
“There are a lot of beautiful Acacias around the coast, botany greens and warrigal greens. I have incorporated it all into my menus.”
Locally, Mark has put this fingerprint on his Shell Cove operation The Farm Kiosk in Killalea Reserve.
A firm favourite on the South Coast, it showcases local fruits in the muffins and cakes, the distinct flavours of his signature bush tomato chutney in his burgers, as well as various lemon myrtles and other bush tucker.
But though he has now resettled in Wollongong where he was born and bred, Mark said opening a restaurant on Tubowgule, Gadigal Country, was “a dream come true”.
“I could not be prouder to follow in the pioneering footsteps of leading Indigenous Australians like Rhoda Roberts, Justine Saunders and Stephen Page who have brought incredible First Nations storytelling to this place over the past 50 years,” he said.
When Doltone Hospitality Group asked Mark to take the helm and name its new restaurant at the Opera House, he said Midden was an easy choice.
The word describes a sort of meeting place where Indigenous Australians would converge to eat, enjoy each other’s hospitality and have a good yarn.
“In fact when they chose the site for the Opera House, it was covered in layer upon layer of shells from oysters and the like that Indigenous people had discarded long before,” Mark said.
The menu seeks to give diners a taste of “vibrant flavours inspired by millennia of traditional cuisine” – and perhaps even inspire people to cook with Australian native ingredients at home.
It includes entrées like damper bread infused with native herbs served alongside whipped eucalyptus butter.
Main courses include blue gum-smoked barramundi, wallaby shanks braised in bush tomato, and quandong-glazed chicken stuffed with warrigal greens.
“The whole menu is going to invite people to understand what our fruits and herbs taste like and eat proteins like kangaroo,” Mark said.
“To some people kangaroo meat is confronting but it was never a coat of arms for First Nations people. It was a totem, a part of Dream Time stories and it was a vital food source. Midden will allow people to experience it that way.
“They’ll taste different lemon myrtles, and green wattle and roasted wattle seeds are also on the menu.
“I want people immersed in the flavours, to understand we have this amazing profile that’s uniquely Australian, and which should be more widely seen as our national food.”
Mark said an awakening to the culinary gifts of the land that Indigenous Australians have used for millennia was long overdue.
“We’ve been here tens of thousands of years, to only now have the platform to showcase what we’re able to do – it’s taken far too long. We’ve embraced every other culture in this country except our own Indigenous culture,” he said.
“I hope Midden can help break down barriers, and become a place where people can experience and enjoy the food, culture and people that are unique to this land.”
Midden will open daily for lunch (11:30 am to 2:30 pm) and dinner (5 pm to 8:30 pm), with matinee high teas served every Wednesday and on weekends (10 am, concluding at 11:30am and 2 pm – 3 pm, concluding at 4:30 pm). Visit Midden Sydney to book.