Did you know that there are over five thousand edible native Australian ingredients? Many of these foods are delicious, drought tolerant and.don’t need to be farmed. Paul Iskov created his business Fervor around his passion for native Australian ingredients. Fervor offers pop up dining experiences in unique and far-flung locations across the state, with the menu created around locally foraged foods. Paul chats with me about the origins of Fervor, and how we need to have more awareness and education for native foods and the land that they come from.
Surf All Day, Work All Night
A lot of news stories always say I’m from Albany, but I’m not. I’m from Perth. I started my apprenticeship when I left school, doing refrigeration air conditioning actually. They ran out of work for me in a year or two, but the family that I was working for knew of a restaurant looking for chefs, and they said if I worked there it meant I could surf all day, and just work nights. I thought ‘yep, I’ll take it.’ I’d never cooked before that, I was terrible at cooking. I was just chopping vegetables in that job mainly, and then I got put on the pizza oven, but I was missing Albany so much. I’d been going down there since I was about 14 to surf, so I transferred my apprenticeship there. That’s why everyone thinks I’m from Albany. I was never a big fan of the city.
Burgers, Chips and Sweet Waves
I worked at Dylan’s on the Terrace in Albany, it’s still there. It’s a family run restaurant and now the daughter and her husband are running it. It was super chill, just burgers, steak and fish and chips. At that stage I wasn’t that dedicated to food, but I loved working there coz all my mates worked there too, and the owners were like our parents. They’d be disappointed if we were ever late or hung over. I learnt a lot there about how to run a busy little kitchen and be organised. At the time my sister was working at Watershed Wines in Margaret River, and they’d just won a Gold Plate award. She said ‘come and work here so you can learn how to really cook, move on from the burgers and chips.’ I was like, ‘yeah I could, but I’m getting sweet waves here and just taking it easy.’ Anyway, I did what she said and finished my apprenticeship at Watershed. After I finished my time there, I moved back to Albany and worked in a fine dining restaurant, did a bit of travelling, and then started working at Restaurant Amusé in Perth. That’s when everything changed for me. They were doing incredible food, really different and interesting stuff and I was learning at a rapid pace. I’d stopped surfing. I was working sixteen hour days, it was huge.
Doing It Differently
I finished up at Amusé and booked an around the world trip for a year, so that I could work all over. I got a placement at a San Fransciso restaurant where I was only supposed to be doing work experience, but they’d lost a chef in the previous week so I got thrown right in the deep end. I remember thinking, ‘ah, I’m really in the shit here.’ It ended up being incredible, and they were actually one of the Top 50 Restaurants in the world. Their Head Chef knew the other restaurants in the Top 50, and he lined up all these jobs for me at them. So I travelled around from top restaurant to top restaurant, I was super lucky. I did two months in Mexico city, that was number twenty eight. Sao Paulo was number three. That was an insane experience. Their head chef was spending a lot of time in the Amazon with local people, so he was using these crazy ingredients that I’d never even heard of. Other people wouldn’t have a clue. I was already interested in using Australian native ingredients, but he really pushed me to run with that idea. He said, ‘it’s ok to be doing something different.’ I’ve always liked doing things differently anyway.
My year was up overseas, and I knew I wanted to start Fervor. I’d been thinking about it for a long time. The word ‘fervor’ means intense passion, it’s an old English word. There was a whole heap of names that we had, and then the first event got closer and closer and we had to get posters and stuff done and I was like alright, let’s just choose one. It’s a tricky word to say on the phone, people always get it wrong. Next time we open a business we’d think about the name for a bit longer I reckon.
Here to Stay
I became interested in native ingredients a little bit through surfing, just seeing what was around in the areas I was in. We’d always used lemon myrtle and wattle seed at restaurants I’d worked at, but I always wondered, how much more is out there? There’s over five thousand edible native Australian ingredients. I mean, some of them are gonna taste like shit, but they’re out there. Ten years ago when I started Fervor, no one was really utilising them to their full potential. In the 90s some restaurants were giving it a go, but it faded away. Now I think they’re here to stay. Why are we not using these more, when they grow in our own back yard? All of these plants and animals are endemic, so they don’t need to be farmed. A lot of them are even drought resistant. They don’t need water and fertiliser, they’re just there.
A Pop Up Community
We started Fervor in 2013, so we’re in our ninth year now. We did our first ever pop-up event at Fair Harvest in Margaret River. From there we went to Mukinbudin, a tiny town out in the Wheatbelt. That was the first event we did completely off grid, no power, not even a proper kitchen. We were borrowing tables from the golf club, and chairs were hay bales from a farmer. There was all this other stuff we hadn’t even thought about, like how are we even going to do the dishes? So all our guests, they were all local crew, they were bringing in detergent for us, blocks of butter. The whole vibe was just incredible, and the support from the community blew us away. Doing pop-up dining definitely wasn’t the initial plan. I mean, we only did the pop-up because we didn’t really have any money. After doing a couple of events like that, we realised that it gave us an opportunity to travel, meet people and explore, and I guess that’s why we’re still doing it today.
The Right View
When we started Fervor I decided we needed to approach traditional owners, learn more and get permissions before we jumped in. We made some amazing friends who took us under their wing, and over the years we’ve built up such a good friend base across WA. That first year of learning alongside traditional owners really changed our attitudes towards the ingredients and the land. It became less about just getting enough ingredients for our dinners, and more about the care of the land. We learnt from the traditional owners about the importance of being on country, caring for country and indigenous culture. It’s about much more than just using these ingredients and feeding people, it’s about the holistic view.
We always ask for permission from the traditional owners before we go and forage on their country. We also need a licence to pick any native Australian ingredients. There are certain things that you can pick as a normal person because you’re not using them for commercial purposes, but because we sell a ticket it’s deemed as commercial use. We get a licence through DPAW, and then we need permission from the shire to collect there, if it’s on private property we need a letter from the landholder, and if it’s next to the road we’re supposed to have a letter from Main Roads as well. To me, the most important one is the traditional owner’s permission. That comes above anything else.
The people who do have a licence have an understanding of how much you’re meant to leave on the tree, or what parts of the plants you can and can’t take, so I think it’s a good thing. It is a lot of paperwork though.
You have to go slow sometimes with native ingredients. Chefs can be arseholes, they’re like, ‘hey, where’s my produce?’, but it is what it is. There’s quite a large demand and not a huge supply, so we need to be mindful of that and realise that when it runs out, that’s it. If there’s a season where they’re not picking certain things, or there’s a shortage of wattle seed then we just need to accept it. There are times when Bush Tomatoes won’t be picked by the ladies in the desert for a whole season, because they’re letting the seed fall on the ground and managing it. You look at how hard some ingredients are to get, or how scarce some of them are and you respect them more for it. It’s happened down here a bit with Quandongs, people seeing an area full of bright red fruits and then before you know it, the whole area’s been stripped. They don’t realise that you need to leave some for the birds, and you need to leave some for the seeds. We need to look after the land.
There’s a lot more education to be done for the TAFE kids, and that’s what we’re trying to do. I didn’t learn about any native ingredients when I was at TAFE, it was all French cuisine, and I get that classical French techniques are important, but I think there should also be elders coming in doing cultural awareness training.
I love cooking on the beach, shoes off kind of thing. We did an event at Mackerel Islands off Onslow a few years ago, where we actually put our truck on the back of a barge to get all of our stuff over there. We drove down the beach and pretty much got bogged straight away. We were just cooking right in the sand, which was really cool. I think being by the coast will always be my favourite, I just love it. My dream cooking day would probably be a day in April or May down in Albany, one of those days where it’s 25 degrees, nice and crisp, no winds, down on a granite rock somewhere. Yeah, that’d be my dream day.