As a photographer, it’s obvious to me when the people I’m shooting with are comfortable, absorbed and present. Having a lens up your nose for days on end can be disconcerting, but during my time at the Prepare Produce Provide (PPP) Djinda Ngardak culinary camp, I was often free to roam quietly through the kitchens, observing and clicking. So immersed were my subjects, that I was almost imperceptible to the young people watching with fascination as my old mate Adam Bielawski butchered a pig from Snout to Tail or nibbling on samples of local samphire while Fervor Food’s Paul (Yoda) Iskov spoke about its flavour profile and potential.
Every year, PPP offers Indigenous students the chance to attend an intensive cultural culinary camp, Djinda Ngardak. The program places young people and elders from a range of urban and remote communities, accomplished chefs, passionate home economics educators, local businesses, and teacher mentors in the same space for 10 days of learning and sharing, culminating in a gala dinner with Yoda at the helm and the kids showing off their new skills in the kitchen. The program focuses on Indigenous and locally farmed produce, and explores the relationships between food, country, culture and connection.
Guilty of inaction and not walking the talk on many fronts, I’d begged founder Catherine MacDougall to involve me in any of PPP’s possibility-creating initiatives with a focus on Indigenous opportunities. I’d been floored by previous interactions with Cath and her formidable determination to make cooking and food a tool for at-risk young people to launch exciting, meaningful careers. 20 years after my first night waiting tables, it’s not lost on me how my hospitality roots have shaped my entire life, and I’m grateful that my early career underpinned my love of food with a deep respect for its origins and creation. Cath said yes, and I made my way south in November for Kinjarling Djinda Ngardak, Albany Comes Alive Under the Stars.
While foraging, sharing stories, attending masterclasses, and of course cooking together, the kids were given space to forge their own learning paths and gain personal growth in individual ways. For some it was the sheer gravity of the amazing chefs in front of them. For others, the fascination of their first toe in ocean, or the wealth of produce laid out for their use. Young women soaked up the leadership of some of WA’s finest female chefs including Melissa Palinkas (Young George, Ethos Deli) and Tanya Healy (5000 Meals), and the atmosphere of mutual respect and a genuine desire to be there was palpable throughout.
The gala dinner was a delicious success. Students emerged on stage to applause as themselves, but perhaps a more fully realised version, and there were plenty of tears. It was not that their educators and mentors were surprised at the amazing qualities of the kids who cooked alongside Yoda, modelled for Indigenous label Kirrikin, or spoke with eloquence about their experiences, they knew of this untapped potential all along. It was that they had the ability to share that now, with the program providing a platform for their voices, and a springboard for the future.
The theme of the camp, and PPP’s philosophy is Live to Tell Your Story. This is a symbolic sentiment, but also a very real message about suicide prevention, seeing out your lifetime, creating your narrative and being alive to pass it on. Across the camp, the students contributed to a collaborative painting that hung proudly at the gala event. It was a tale of origins, evolutions, beginnings, connections, and loss. It said I am a fisher, a gatherer, a hunter, a daughter, a son. It told of community, belonging, traveling and healing. It was a tribute, a funeral, a birth and a light.
Maybe we really are what we eat, spiritually, physically. It’s only natural then that we learn about ourselves and each other when we cook and eat side by side, and do so in a way that honours the source of our nourishment, the land from which it came, and the people who prepare it for us with love. I am grateful for experiencing the story of Kinjarling Djinda Ngardak as told in food and produce, and being able to pass it on in pictures and words.
Taya Reid is a writer + photographer on Whadjuk Noongar Boodja