Find out more about the Indigenous celebrity chef who brought Natalie Portman to Symbio and encouraged Leonardo DiCaprio's mum to visit Wollongong

Sweets with a native food flavour: Mini pavlova served with wattle seed cream and quandong confit for dessert at the Novotel Wollongong Northbeach. Pictures: Greg Ellis.
Sweets with a native food flavour: Mini pavlova served with wattle seed cream and quandong confit for dessert at the Novotel Wollongong Northbeach. Pictures: Greg Ellis.

TV presenter, celebrity chef and Dapto-born Indigenous Australian Mark Olive cooked up a storm with native ingredients at this month's Illawarra Connection dinner with the help of Novotel chefs.

After 150 business leaders enjoyed a three-course meal with many native flavours as Olive took them on a journey from what ignited his interest in using traditional ingredients to breaking new ground in television.

"It has been amazing the career," he said.

One that included him opening an Indigenous restaurant in Sydney before the 2000 Olympics and hosting dinners in New York. He also once worked as a runner on a Baz Luhrmann movie set where he got to know Natalie Portman and Leonardo DiCaprio as well as the Titanic star's mother who he encouraged to stay in Wollongong twice.

"I am a very proud Wollongong boy. My career started here. I grew up in Dapto and worked in clubs and hotels and even Dirty Dicks when it was in Wollongong.

"I started my apprenticeship at a terrace restaurant called The Green Frog. But my interest in food started at a young age watching my mother and aunties in the kitchen. I was so amazed by the process and how all these ingredients came together. To me that was just magic. Since then I have always been really curious about food and being adventurous."

Olive said the inspiration he took from watching food being created in Brownsville as a child helped him not only discover the world but give people around the globe a perspective of Indigenous culture in Australia. He also feels blessed to be a chef who grew up in such a multicultural community with Greek, Italian, Macedonian and Yugoslav neighbours. He got to see many different styles of food being made in the traditional way by people who had grown up in different cultures.

Olive also explored with food by foraging around Puckeys Reserve, Windang and Towradgi for native plants. He said Indigenous food was now really starting to make a mark and he was in a position to be able to help that continue following decades of research into where different ingredients came from and how they could be used.

Natural treats: Mark Olives reveals some of the local and unexpected flavours with distinctive tastes and textures that can be found around the Illawarra.

Natural treats: Mark Olives reveals some of the local and unexpected flavours with distinctive tastes and textures that can be found around the Illawarra.

At the Novotel he brought samples for people to taste and smell. Many were used in the Connoisseur Australian Native Collection he was asked to create by Peters Ice-Cream. They included lemon myrtle, wattleseed, wild hibiscus, pink hibiscus, roasted Australian macadamias, finger limes, sweet bush honey and cinnamon myrtle.

After leaving Wollongong at 30, Olive opened an Indigenous restaurant in Pitt Street.

"I thought I would get in before the Olympics but it was way before its time. It was too early for people to understand and putting kangaroo and emu on the menu at that time was too much. Getting people to eat what I was making and foraging for was very hard."

Two years later Olive successfully enrolled in a film and television course at AFTRS.

"It got me so sparked up creatively. I had always had this dream about getting something on TV. There were no Indigenous people doing a cooking show at the time."

Olive also applied for a film job as a runner and ended up working on Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet where he looked after Leonardo DiCaprio and Natalie Portman who he brought down to Symbio to pat her first koala and kangaroo.

"And Irmelin, Leonardo's mother, made two secret trips down here and stayed in Wollongong without anybody knowing. She loved this region."

Amazing journey: Mark Olive talks about how blessed he was to grow up in multicultural Wollongong and learn from watching his mother and aunties.

Amazing journey: Mark Olive talks about how blessed he was to grow up in multicultural Wollongong and learn from watching his mother and aunties.

Olive then applied for and got into a film school in Melbourne where he did a BA in producing and directing and wrote his first TV series. In 2004 Foxtel picked that up and it was their top rating show for two years. "The series has been in 120 countries now".

He also did a cooking segment for ABC's Message Stick that lasted five years and led to his own series in 2005 called Black Olive. "It was the first time anything like that had been on TV."

That resulted in him becoming a role model for a growing number of young Indigenous chefs. He also successfully introduced a pop-up restaurant in Wollongong in late 2019 and opened a new cafe at Dapto just as COVID hit.

"I am now running Olives on Wadi Wadi at Browsnville and I have also taken over the bistro at the Dapto Hotel. We have called that Dapbeto's Midden. You can come and have your traditional pub grub or you can have a Lemon Myrtle Schnitty."

Olive said when Europeans first came to Mullet Creek and Kanahooka the Indigenous people called the area Dapbetos and from that came the word Dapto. He has also just shot a segment for The Living Room with Miguel and is about to go to Darwin.

Taste of Australia: Entree at The Illawarra Connection where Novotel chefs worked with Mark Olive to produce a native inspired menu.

Taste of Australia: Entree at The Illawarra Connection where Novotel chefs worked with Mark Olive to produce a native inspired menu.

The Menu:

Entree

Black Olive Tapas

  • Native spiced pickled vegetables
  • Grilled crocodile and smoke kangaroo fillet
  • Hummus, dried tomatoes, cheddar cheese and toasted flat bread

Mains

  • Paper bark barramundi served with a chardonnay vinegar mash and seasonal greens
  • Slow cooked beef cheeks served with mash, Dutch carrots and bush tomato

Dessert

  • Mini pavlova served with wattle seed cream and quandong confit
  • Lemon myrtle cheese cake

Supporting local

The Illawarra hotel's initiative to build awareness around locally produced food and beverages is working. Ryan Aitchison said the hotel has hit an important benchmark.

"As of last week, we now sell just over 50 per cent of our food and beverage sourced from either the Illawarra, Southern Highlands or the northern end of the Shoalhaven. In financial terms, this will equate to just under $1 million in annual spend within a one-hour radius and we're bloody proud of that."

Celebrity guest

Illawarra Women In Business has a special guest with an Olympic connection lined up for its annual Conference Day at Villa D'Oro on October 22.

Jana Pittman will speak about her work in the world of medicine after a highly successful career as an athlete.

Read more:

Movers and Shakers is a new weekly feature of people doing significant work in or for the Illawarra community. Do you have an interesting business story you would like to share? Email grellis@austcommunitymedia.com.au.

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This story The celebrity chef who encouraged Leonardo DiCaprio's mum to visit Wollongong first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.