Delving into indigenous ingredients celebrating WA’s fine food scene

Executive chef at Old Young's Rohan Park

While it’s probably not a good idea to start munching on your garden plants, Swan Valley chef Rohan Park reckons there are some that make tasty additions to a meal.

A variety of Geraldton wax with its showy display of waxy flowers has been developed specifically for use in cooking. Geraldton wax ‘Jambinu Zest’ with its edible needle-like leaves adds what Rohan says is a tangy and pleasant, uniquely Australian flavour to stocks, cakes, cocktails and gins.

That gin element is particularly relevant to Rohan given he is executive chef at Old Young’s Kitchen in the Swan Valley which is part of the hand-crafted spirit distillery launched in 2015 followed by the restaurant in 2021.

Rohan’s interest in native and indigenous ingredients was sparked by years he spent working with pop-up roving restaurant Fervor which specialises in using local produce.

His own garden at home and his mother-in-law, Jude Taylor’s Swan Valley property, is home to more edible plants, and Old Young’s Kitchen garden has up to 30 indigenous food plants.

The previous venue’s kitchen garden was rejigged by Rohan’s friend Mark Tucek, from Tucker Bush, who planted everything from saltbush to Geraldton wax, blue lily pillies, macadamia, native lemongrass, three different types of wild mint and more. 

Rohan will be packing some of these ingredients to take with him to Albany in May when he, Hong Kong chef Shane Osborn, and local food ambassador Don Hancey will be preparing the menu for Taste Great Southern’s Catch of the South presented by Commonwealth Bank.

The nine-course seafood degustation, with matching Cherubino wines will be the perfect opportunity to introduce Michelin-starred chef Shane Osborn to some ingredients he’s not familiar with.

Rohan says the seafood from the Great Southern Ocean is incredible.

“You’ve got your sardines to work with, there are all sorts of crabs from sand crabs and spider crabs at the lower end of the budget to snow crabs if you really want to knock it out of the park. 

“Obviously the western salmon if you’re creative enough to make something interesting with it – some amazing things can be done with some of those fish that they previously threw back.”

Rohan is keen to add his native ingredients into the mix.

“Quite often when I come in and I do a collaboration with a chef, I pull out my ferments and my native ingredients so all we need is a bit of a base to the dish and then we can really elevate it with some flavours that people haven’t tried before.

“We also try to educate people on the food’s health benefits and how these native ingredients were used by Indigenous fish farmers for thousands of years.”

Rohan says he chatted to Shane while he was in Perth for another Taste Great Southern launch event and Shane told him he was using pig face, lemon basil and wattleseed in his Hong Kong restaurant, things that a lot of people are aware of.

“But things like muntries (a low growing shrub with spicy berries) and, youlk (a relative of the carrot with potato-like tubers) are local to the Great Southern and also quite rare. A lot of people haven’t tried those yet.”

Rohan sources his youlk from farmers in the Great Southern who grow it in small quantities.

“You’re not going to see them rocking up at the Canning Vale Markets any time soon.”

He also sources ingredients from Dale Tilbrook at Maalinup Gallery in the Swan Valley.

Rohan makes the most of pickling, fermenting and preserving his produce to provide seasonal ingredients throughout the year.

Fermentation plays a big role in the flavour of the food at Old Young’s and Rohan has put a lot of time into perfecting the process.

It has taken years to learn to grow shio koji to provide umami flavours and he learned a lot from Paul Iskov at Fervor who worked at Noma in Copenhagen where the technique was used.

“There’s a lot of work and there’s a lot of pre-planning. I can have four kilos of miso that’s going to be ready in six months but if I lose a batch then I’ve lost six month’s worth of ferment and I’m on the back foot. But I haven’t lost a batch for a long time.

“The youlk, for example, I’ve just made it through for the year and I’m ready for my next batch, but I’ve got about three weeks of supply left so we did really well this year. I’m making sure we’ve got the right amount pickled and we didn’t lose anything.

“We kept everything nice, safe and clean, and controlled nature. So, my product is available for the year round.”

While he has strong family connections to food, in his early years Rohan didn’t see himself as a chef.

His mum was a food scientist, grandmother a cooking lecturer and a great grandfather was a renowned pastry chef.

Rohan came to cooking after spending a couple of years working in the mines and spending his salary in posh restaurants and on expensive cooking equipment when he realised cooking was what he wanted to do.

He’d spent his high school years in Kununurra and Broome before completing his schooling in Perth as a border at Swanleigh in Middle Swan.

Rohan’s now partner Caroline Taylor lived just around the corner where she also began her career as a chef at her family’s arthouse and café.

Rohan worked at winery restaurants Leeuwin Estate, Wills Domain and Arimia and fine dining establishment Fleur.

He signed up with Fervor, spending three years roaming across WA with the pop-up restaurant where he discovered Australian native ingredients.

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Journalist and public relations specialist Allen Newton has worked across major media organisations in Western Australia and PR locally and internationally. He and wife Helen Ganska operate Newton Ganska Communications. Allen started his journalism career at the long defunct Sunday Independent and went on to become the founding editor for news website PerthNow, Managing Editor of The Sunday Times and PerthNow and then Editor-In-Chief of news website WAtoday. As well as news, he has been an editor of food and wine, real estate, TV and travel sections. He’s done everything from co-hosting a local ABC television pop show, to editing a pop music section called Breakout with Big Al, and publishing his own media and marketing magazine.