As the undisputed champion of Australian Indigenous cuisine, Chef Nornie Bero is still an “island girl at heart.” She embodies a heartwarming tale of creativity, identity, and passion with an unwavering connection to her roots. Bero from the Komet Tribe of the Meriam People on Mer Island in the Torres Strait, her journey in the culinary world is far more than a series of successful businesses. In an industry often criticized for its lack of diversity and representation, Bero’s inviting smiling combined with the comforting aroma of traditional food prepared with native ingredients, reminds us of the inherent power in embracing one’s heritage.
At the heart of Melbourne, Bero’s restaurant, “Big Esso by Mabu Mabu,” which means “the biggest thank you” and “help yourself” is located in Fed Square on the land of the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung peoples. The menu at Mabu Mabu paints a picture of the islands: seafood offerings like emu fillet with zesty lemon myrtle tzatziki that evoke the azure waters of the Torres Strait, spiced game meats like kangaroo that summon the wild essence of Australia’s untamed landscapes, and let’s not forget the uniquely delicious pickled watermelon. Bero’s pioneering spirit extends beyond the kitchen as she engages in community-building through food-centric events and initiatives, advocating for the sustainability and recognition of native ingredients.
While Bero has earned well-deserved accolades and recognition, her mission transcends personal achievements. Through workshops and seminars, Bero unveils the hidden stories behind each dish, weaving a rich tapestry of culture and history that deeply resonates with her audience. Her passion for education goes hand in hand with her advocacy, inspiring others to explore the depth of Indigenous cuisine beyond the performative. It is through these transformative experiences that Bero aspires to ignite a culinary renaissance, one that places Indigenous knowledge and flavors at the core of Australian gastronomy. She envisions a future where Indigenous food is not merely a novelty but an integral part of the national identity, celebrated for its diversity and historical significance.
In her pursuit of culinary excellence and cultural revitalization, Bero stands as a role model for aspiring chefs and individuals seeking to reconnect with their heritage. Her story serves as a reminder that our roots hold immense power and that embracing them can lead to a profound sense of fulfillment and purpose. Through her unwavering dedication, Nornie Bero continues to leave an indelible mark on the culinary landscape, inspiring others to celebrate the richness of Indigenous culture and cuisine.
Noël Burgess: What’s the origin of your passion for food?
Nornie Bero: It started with my dad. Also, all my aunties and grands and stuff too. We didn’t grow up with toys and stuff like that because we were always outside. As soon as I could walk on the reef, that’s what I did. I would go out getting fresh octopus in the morning and we’d pickle it. Food has always just been around us, and especially traditional food, because that’s all you get there. In the Torres Strait, the islands are small, so we don’t have supermarkets. We live off anything that comes out of the ground, from the ocean, or you hunt for it. So, my love of food started way back from being a child and being able to eat anything that I wanted, straight off the reef or straight off the trees.
Burgess: How small are the islands? Are talking about a few hundred or few thousand people?
Bero: No, like only like a few hundred. Sometimes islands can have only 300 people. I think Thursday Island is probably the smallest island up there, but it has a few thousand because it’s the capital. But each island only has maybe 500 people or less. And that’s how you live in a community. So yeah, it’s a small space. I know I came to a really giant city in Melbourne which has about 5 million. (Laughs) It’s a little different.
But I loved growing up there. It really gives you a perspective of what your life is like, you know? We were really poor however I didn’t know it because I had a roof over my head and my tummy was always full. So,I didn’t really have those thoughts about monetary things, which is kind of a cool way to grow up.
Burgess: What are some traditional foods that your family made, when you were younger?
My dad used to make my make Pumpkin Damper [Quick Bread], pumpkin buns, and fish burgers for the locals. He would place a bamboo wall down the middle of our living room and turned half of our house into a tuck shop [a little food store]. We made our damper in banana leaves and then would serve it like that. We’ve got it on the menu here at Mabu Mabu.
Burgess: Did you always know culinary was your calling? How did you get started?
Bero: My dad told me I was going to be a chef but I did everything else first (Laughs). I did a house painting apprenticeship. I worked with semi-trailers, building semis. I even worked on farms. I did a lot of different things, because I wanted to do everything. But then I end up back at cooking anyway. At sixteen I was scrubbing dishes. Like I said before, we grew up really poor, and I wanted, I needed to stand on my own two feet. And my dad got sick really early on, so I really needed to look after myself, so I did all these different jobs and often two jobs at a time. I would work in kitchens, starting from the bottom, being a dishwasher because in Melbourne it was really hard for people that look like me to get a job.
Burgess: What do you mean by “people that look like you?”
Bero: I remember walking into an agency when I was young and I needed to get a job. And they said to me, oh, you’re going to have to do something with your hair. And I was like, ‘I don’t understand.’ I had a big afro back then; a massive afro. I was a young black indigenous woman in this industry. Um, it was really hard for me to get my foot in the door because most kitchens in the 1990s in Melbourne were ruled by men. That’s was a thing here. Fortunately, around eighteen I was offered an apprenticeship at an Italian kitchen thanks to a lady named Kate.
Burgess: Did you concentrate on culinary at that point?
Bero: No. I did fall in love with it [cooking]. But I also still was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this.’ So, I did a house painting apprenticeship while I was working in kitchens at night. I worked for this father and son team and we would paint houses around Melbourne during the day. Then I’d work in the kitchen at night. It was a lot of fun but I needed to look after myself and make sure I had money. I still can’t believe that I did so much when I was that young. I do appreciate it, though. I love that I’ve done different things.
Burgess: When did you feel like you’d made it?
Bero: I don’t think I have made it yet. I think there’s more to do, but a key moment for me is when I bought a house. It was the first time I’ve ever owned property. I still get shocked that I do own a house now. I love the idea that my cousins can come and visit and we have a house. I love the idea that I could just put a hammer through the wall and it’s mine and I don’t have to worry about having to fix that.
I wish my dad could have seen it too. When I was growing up in the Torres Straits, I didn’t think that was attainable. You know, I didn’t think I could because you’re just living on a small island. You’re not thinking it. They’re not raising doctors and lawyers. They’re just making sure that you get through school or a trade.
Burgess: How do you give back to the “island girl community?”
Bero: When I first opened my cafe, a customer came in and said, ‘I didn’t know Indigenous people had cuisine.’ I was like, well we gotta eat. In my head I’m like, ‘welcome to the party. We have been here for hundreds of years.’ You don’t see people like me in positions that I am in, right? So, I use what I’ve done here to encourage the next generation of kids that grew up like me, that they can achieve anything they put their mind to. And you don’t have to have money in your pocket to do so. Because I started my business with my own money. And still today, it’s all my own money. I didn’t have any funding or anything like that to help me. I was just a very smart businesswoman, just like when I opened this place [Mabu Mabu].
Burgess: How did you end up with such a sweet spot in Fed Square? And why did you name it Big Esso?
Bero: It was a really organic choice to come here [Fed Square] and build this. So, we were building this in the last year of COVID and then opened up. But I wanted to do something really different when I opened this one as well. And I called it Big Esso because I wanted to say thank you to all the people that got me there, because all those damper workshops kept my business alive and made me be able to open this as well.
Burgess: Why is ownership so important to you?
Bero: Well, because I want to be a role model for the kids that are coming to see that you can do it. We need to be owning more spaces of our own. And I want to do that. You know, I want to showcase that we can do that and that we all can do it. Also, because I don’t think I do things just for me. I think I do it for my village and for my people. You know, my aunt, I hadn’t seen her in years. And she was here [Big Esso] recently and she walked in and the Dhari, a symbol of our native headdress on our flag, is throughout the restaurant. I know she just loved to see that. I think that’s important. When people walk by, they’re from your culture and see that. And I’m sure a lot of people have no idea what they’re even looking at. Which can be, you know, it’s a good starting point. That’s fine. Yeah, I do workshops all the time. And I’m like, you know that other flag next to the Aboriginal flag? Well, that’s our flag.
Burgess: What do you want people to experience when they come to Big Esso by Mabu Mabu?
Bero: We’ve created a space here where people of color can come to sit, laugh, be loud, and be fun and have fun without it being uncomfortable. I’m changing the way that we are seen out there and that’s what I want. And we everything that we have here at Big, we’re one of the only restaurants in Australia that does all Australian products. That means our soft drinks all the way to all of our liquors on the shelf are all Australian made either from small farmers or people that are buying ugly fruit from farmers and making it into liqueurs to help the little guys grow. So, I get to do that now. I get to really showcase these amazing farmers or people that are doing amazing things in the sustainability space like using sheep’s milk to make vodkas, you know, it’s crazy.
Burgess: Any final words?
Bero: There are amazing Indigenous companies out here doing some really cool things. Look for them, please look for them. They’re out there. Even look for them with us, you know, because we put them out as much as we can, because they’re doing some really awesome things. And there’s a big culture here in Australia. Please come enjoy it.