Nornie Bero’s Big Esso was slated to open in July of this year.
“We only opened for four days, and then we were in lockdown for the rest,” Bero says.
The restaurant and bar in Melbourne’s Federation Square is Bero’s second venue; her first, the Mabu Mabu tuck-shop in Yarraville, is part cafe and part pantry, where Indigenous herbs, teas, homemade sauces and other products can be found.
“I’ve basically built businesses during lockdown,” Bero says. “When I opened the cafe in Yarraville, I was only open for four to five months and then I was in the first lockdown.”
For Bero, who calls herself an “island girl” with palpable pride, it was a “do or die attitude” that helped her keep both venues running with all her staff retained through 20 months of uncertainty.
“I grew up with nothing, and my dad used to try different ways to keep the generator running so we could have the lights on. I guess during lockdown you just learn to live on a shoestring, and you make sure that you keep all the lights on.
“I wasn’t going to let my dreams fall away just because Covid hit.”
At Big Esso and Mabu Mabu, Bero designs dishes and menus that follow the seasons and champion Indigenous ingredients, often featuring up to seven native flavours in each dish.
“I want to teach people that, yeah, you can have this now, but you can’t have it six months from now, you know? We’re so used to the idea of having what we want, when we want, all the time, that you forget about the surprise of each season coming in.”
In her hot eggs, Bero uses a fresh seaweed that she sources locally, as well as Mabu Mabu’s pickled karkalla (a kind of sea succulent, also known as pigface or beach banana) and a chilli paste made with extra-hot chillies, macadamias and pepperberries. At the cafe, the scramble is served over saltbush damper and finished with a fragrant lemon aspen salt.
These days, products like karkalla can be found across Australia at farmers’ markets or through suppliers such as Flowerdale; Bero recommends asking whether ingredients can be ordered in. And, as Indigenous ingredients slowly filter onto more mainstream plates and palates, she says the key, as always, is education.
“Once upon a time when we were coming up as chefs, we didn’t know how to use Sichuan pepper, but we learned how.
“I think that’s all we need to do with Australian natives as well, so we can really showcase it properly and make it the hero instead of just adding it because you want to have a name on a menu.”
Bero remembers a childhood in the Torres Strait spent preserving mangoes and tamarind, and picking periwinkles out of the ocean to cook; she also recalls her father predicting that she would end up working in food.
“Yeah, my dad told me early on that I would. And I was like, ‘no’, and I did everything else!” she says, laughing.
“I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years now and I still love it. I don’t think that will change.”
Nornie Bero’s hot eggs
Prep 15 min
Cook 10 min
Serves 1 or 2
5 large eggs
2 tbsp (30ml) vegetable oil
6-7g dried seaweed, such as kelp
50g fresh or pickled karkalla
1 tbsp Mabu Mabu chilli paste, or chilli paste of your choice
Pinch of lemon aspen salt
1 tbsp crispy fried shallots
Place dried seaweed in a bowl and cover with cold water; let it soak for at least 10 minutes or until fully rehydrated. You should end up with about 50g of rehydrated seaweed. Cut into thin strips, about 5-6cm long.
Crack eggs into a medium bowl and beat together until just homogenous.
In a heavy frying pan heat vegetable oil over high heat. Fry the karkalla and seaweed for one minute. Add beaten eggs, chilli paste and lemon aspen; using a spatula, fold ingredients through eggs, pushing your spatula through the egg as it sets to create large, tender curds.
Remove pan from heat and plate up just before the eggs fully finish cooking. Top with crispy shallots and, if you like, serve with buttered toast.