Meet Athol Wark, the hunter and gatherer of “wild foods”. As an awardwinning Executive Chef, Athol is passionate about combining regional produce with modern cuisine to create dishes that have a unique Central Australian flavour. Athol is living the dream – creating exceptional dining experiences with Uluru as his backdrop.
Red Centre a banquet of unique wild food bursts - Athol Wark's Story
"As a chef, for me cooking in the Red Centre is about the confluence of Western cuisine and 65,000 years of culture – the merging of the two flavours and with that I’ve taken it to the rest of the world.”
Athol Wark, renowned Central Australian chef, was born in the mid-1960s in colonial Rhodesia to South African and Scottish parents. Athol grew up on a tobacco and cotton farm in Salisbury until 1980 when his family emigrated to South Africa, where he lived until he turned 18.
My parents said to me “why don’t you become a chef – you’ll always travel, never go hungry and you’re good with people – so give it a go,” and one way to do that was to migrate to England to study.
Bournemouth & Poole College in the south of England was the choice for Athol to do his City & Guilds training as a chef. He graduated top student two years runni
From Chamonix in the French Alps to Moulin De L’Abbaye, a medieval monastery in Brantôme, island resorts in Fiji to the bright lights of Miami and New York – Athol has travelled the world sampling local flavours and working with regional cuisines. His passion is re-creating modern dishes by enhancing the taste with unique local flavours – what
“It’s all about fusing a little Asian, a little Italian, European, South American and without recreating the food wheel – it’s value adding with native spices and proteins to create something new”he refers to as ‘value adding’.ng and then proceeded with his placement on a world cruise with the QE2, travelling from South Africa to Singapore, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka and through to Alaska. This cruise gave Athol a taste for travel and food and he has since spent his life immersed in these two passions.
Australia was a destination on Athol’s bucket list and he was delighted when the opportunity to open the Beaufort Hotel on the Darwin Esplanade arose in 1987. Living and working in the Territory gave Athol the inspiration and desire to make Australia his home. Working with regional produce and local spices led Athol to his work with ‘Wild Foods’.
“Wild foods are the native spices and proteins of Australia. To me bush tucker is limiting because wild foods also encompasses everything from the rivers, estuaries from barramundi to the wattle seed in Central Australia. Wild foods also creates a marketability – it sparks that imagination and uniqueness that we can offer”
In 2001, Athol moved to Alice Springs to work as Executive Chef for the opening of the Convention Centre.
“The Convention Centre was looking for new cuisine, a destinationalisation of food for the region and in the creation of these dishes, I value added. Instead of using basil, thyme and rosemary I began dabbling in lemon myrtle, bush tomato and other native herbs and spices to create a wild food cuisine”
“I love cooking in the Red Centre because our local flavours are so unique and I love the colours of the bush tomatoes, the ochres, the warrigal greens, the sea parsley and samphires.”
In 2005, Athol won a fellowship from the International Specialised Skills Institute (ISSI) for his culinary work in value adding to regional produce. This fellowship gave Athol an opportunity to take wild foods overseas to destinations such as Miami and Rhode Island.
“I tested the wild foods in the U.S. and the response was overwhelming and every time I’ve gone abroad it’s been the same – there’s a huge demand for it – for us it’s just about supply. But it’s this demand for our flavours that has pushed me to create a wild foods cuisine. The response was overwhelming and includes catering for VIP’s like former U.S. President George Bush.”
Dishes that Athol has created for an international audience include: emu egg pavlova drenched with wattle seed cream and lashings of berry or the wattle seed rub kangaroo carpaccio with sour jelly, fried capers and a horseradish aioli served with apple and endive salad and rosemary crossini.
Central Australia’s unique dining experiences are also a factor in Athol’s quest to champion food in the Red Centre.
“Our climate lends itself so much to our dining experiences – we have a beautiful skyline and horizon. We have that ability to combine our beautiful landscape and culture into our dining experience.”
Local business RT Tours offer bush tucker tours (Gold winner at the 2012 Qantas Australian Tourism Awards) that are incredibly popular with visitors. For a five-star dining experience under the stars, there’s Sounds of Silence and Tali Wiru – both based at Uluru, as well as Under a Desert Moon at Kings Canyon. On the other end, locals and visitors can pack their own picnic and find a beautiful spot at Ellery Creek Big Hole, Simpsons Gap or the Telegraph Station.
Tourism Australia launched their latest campaign #RestaurantAustralia in May 2014 in recognition of Australia’s exceptional food and wine experiences and to convert the global appetite for Australia as a travel destination into more visits. The concept of the campaign is that Australia is the world’s greatest restaurant. This campaign launched on the back of research that for visitors who have travelled to Australia – our island home is ranked second in the world after culinary giant France and ahead of Italy for our quality of food, wine and dining experiences.
Athol is an advocate for greater development and marketing of our unique position to combine food, culture and landscape.
“I see the majority of our unique dining experiences have not reached their full potential, we have a unique landscape and can offer a world class experience, this is our challenge as a town and industry to cultivate – the world is hungry for our unique hospitality, so I really challenge the industry and myself to capitalize and utilize this niche market that we have.”