A professional chef for over 25 years, Nornie Bero, originally from the Komet people of Sea Island in the Torres Strait, has just published his first cookbook, Mabu Mabu. The book is named after his company Mabu Mabu, which includes a catering service, small-batch products and two locations – Tuckshop and Big Esso – in Melbourne, Australia, but that name itself comes from a phrase by Meriam Mir (spoken in the Eastern Torres Strait Islands and the first language of Bero) meaning “help yourself”. Mabu Mabu’s overall mission is to make indigenous Australian food and ingredients accessible. More than that, Bero wants to change people’s perspectives and set an example for children who grew up like her. “The easiest way to change people’s minds is to use food,” she tells us. “Food is the way to go. Everyone smiles while eating. And no matter what your opinion, food brings everyone together. Food is multiculturalism. Food opens the conversation. Food is an experience that brings cultures together.
Growing up in Torres Strait, from Ile Mer to Ile Moa, Bero spent much of his childhood outdoors, picking fruit, fishing and cooking. When she was very young, her father (a big dreamer with an entrepreneurial spirit) recognized her passion and gift for food. “Now that I’m older, I realize that all the confirmation classes I failed to pickle mangoes and tamarinds probably led me down this path,” she laughs. When his father fell ill in his early thirties, Bero’s pioneering spirit was stimulated. “He never gave up on the dream,” she says. “Because he got sick so young, I guess I thought I should succeed on my own and be the role model he wanted to be. I think I did that for both of us. So I was there. went and did everything I could, and stood on my own two feet, and just to represent – to make him proud I think maybe half was for him and the other half for me.
His father, grandmother, and aunts also instilled a strong work ethic in Bero. Leaving home at a young age and moving to bigger cities, she entered the hospitality industry as a teenager in the late 90s. The field was – and continues to be – dominated by white men and cisgender. “I just worked with them and took their job,” she laughs. “I came to another era. Many of the female chefs I was friends with who came with me at the time cried most of the time and left the industry. But I grew up with tough people, you know, ‘I won’t let you talk me out of it!’ I just worked three times harder. You really have to be tough in this industry. There’s always that boys’ club. I have restaurants in the industry, but there is always a boys club that really dominates the industry. But I think women are the way of the future for this industry.
Her first restaurant job in Melbourne was at the Grandview Hotel and she moved to various respected kitchens around the city, but often wondered why no one used Australian ingredients. Eventually, in 2018, she opened Mabu Mabu and sold sauces, spice blends and native herbal teas, like pickled karkalla, acacia seed hot chocolate and more. “In Australia, we have so many great power-packed natives, and we don’t use them. They grow naturally and we miss the amazing flavors that are here. As part of what we do at Mabu Mabu, we want to give you all of these flavors, we want you to come and taste these flavors.
One of Bero’s favorite ingredients is the bush tomato, which she calls “the native stock cube”. Indigenous peoples have been harvesting it in the same way for many, many years. “They let it spin almost like a raisin on the bush and then added it to stuff. It’s like something between a tomato and an eggplant. It’s also called a bush raisin because of the way they harvest it, and we still do it commercially the same way. How cool is that? A native ingredient growing here on a small shrub can give you all the flavor of a bouillon cube. And that’s just one ingredient.
Mabu Mabu locations are the perfect way to get familiar with some of the ingredients, if cooking with them is still daunting. “We’re not here to give you a little piece of glasswort [a native succulent sometimes called sea asparagus] on top and go, ‘Samphire!’ You won’t taste… nothing,” she laughs. “We give you five to six different natives in one dish so you can have those multiple flavors and really get a taste of what Australia is all about.” But ultimately, Bero wants to make local ingredients accessible to everyone. “I want people from all walks of life and all sizes of money to be able to afford it. I mean, it grows naturally here, why are we making it a superfood? For me, it’s normal food. This is our food from this country.
This also extends to agriculture, with Bero explaining that agriculture focuses less on native flora. “We need to start helping the farmers who grow them so we can market them to kitchens. We do this for all other products, so why not do it for ours too? »
What was important to me was that I could represent the people where I come from and the many cultures around which I grew up.
Now, with a cookbook – something she never imagined she would write – Bero can spread the word even further. “What was important to me was that I could represent the people where I come from and the many cultures that I grew up around,” she explains. “It was important to represent my culture and to represent something different because I want to make a difference, you know. I want to be a good role model, especially for all the kids on the Island who grew up like me, with a spear in hand in the middle of nowhere, to dream big.
For her, this dream comes through food, but it goes beyond the actual dishes and ingredients. “I think the food industry has an important role to play in bringing people together, no matter where they come from,” she says. “And I just want to make it a very equal place – for everyone.”
Hero image courtesy of Parker Blain for Mabu Mabu