At the age of only 23, Elijah Holland (also called EJ) has an impressive CV.
He started as an apprentice at age 13 at Aria, and has since worked at some of Sydney’s most iconic venues. EJ was probably one of Sydney’s youngest head chefs when he ran the kitchen at The Powder Keg in Potts Point. It was here that he really got the creative freedom to use his knowledge of native plants, fruits and berries.
EJ has been in the spotlight lately as the official forager for Rene Redzepi when he brought his pop up restaurant Noma to Australia, and he was recently featured in the New York Times.
I wanted to meet with Elijah to talk about native food, foraging and of course what it was like working with Rene at NOMA Australia.
My only personal experience with foragers was back in the early 2000’s when I worked as a commis chef at the Ivy in London.
Two hairy, slightly smelly, and possibly stoned guys would come in through the backdoor once a week with big black plastic bags full of weeds and sorrel. I remember this vividly as it was my job to clean them (the weeds not the smelly guys)
But Elijah is nothing like that, I would actually say the opposite, energetic and positive young, fit (and clean!) with arms full of tats.
There is an energy about him that is infectious, an energy I’ve seen before in passionate chefs, Its like the creativity almost boils over in excitement.
Where did you passion for cooking and foraging come from?
My granmother and my mother, I did a lot of cooking with them when I was young. My mum makes everything from scratch, cheeses, yoghurts and preserves, and she would get us involved and cook with us from a very young age,
I’ve always loved being in the kitchen.
I started baking bread with my brother when I was around 11 and then went onto do my apprenticeship 2 years later.
And when did the foraging come into the picture, How did you know what to pick and what was edible?
My parents have degrees in horticulture and permaculture. My dad is also a botanist, and used to have a landscaping business, so I learnt a lot from them. Even my grandparents were a big inspiration as they have always used plants like nasturtiums and monstera in their cooking.
Over the last 3-4 years I just got into it a lot more and started doing more advanced research. It really kicked off when I was at Jonah’s in Whale Beach where I really started to learn and understand a lot about the nature around us. And from there I just really tried to research as much as possible, I still research wild foods, edible herbs, seeds, nuts, weeds, and barks daily.
While I worked at the Powder Keg where there is a small kitchen, I had to watch my food cost, but I hate to be mainstream and copy other chefs and I wanted to be creative and inventive, so this was a great opportunity to use more native stuff. I would go out spear fishing and hunting and picking herbs and fruits whenever possible,
Hunting, what sort of things would you hunt for?
Wild boar, rabbits, that sort of thing we’d hunt with a compound bow. Me and my mate have been going out in the forrest for years picking mushrooms and stuff and it just evolved from there.
I once shoot a large wildboar and ended up using it for a 8 course degustation dinner with Krinklewood wines and then made salami and charcuteries with the rest.
Out of Australia’s wild and Native plants how much would you say was edible?
A lot, I find in my daily research more and more plants, weeds and barks that are edible, if anything it’s the fungus that have a high percentage on poisonous species. When I say poisonous it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll die from eating them, but they will make you sick.
There are so many varieties out there, some plants are really similar so its very important that you’ve done your research properly. Sometimes it’s also a matter of timing, some berries and fruit can be poisonous when they are unripe but not when they are in season.
But its really exciting how many different species and flavours there are, some have more of an acquired taste but then there are things like native vanilla bean floss that taste just like vanilla ice-cream.
Things that grows in the wild has to adapt to the climate and nature around it, compared to being farmed and watered regularly, they have to work harder and send roots deeper to gain more nutrition and flavour. When things are grown on a commercial scale and in high quantity farmers want it to grow fast, they waterer it more and use chemicals, and that takes away the natural integrity of the plant.
Wild and native food is very nutritious, its high in proteins and vitamins and is probably 5 times more nutritious than “normal everyday vegetables” It’s such a shame that we haven’t used more of it on a commercial scale until now, I think that if Australia would have tapped into the native plants years ago we would have a more definite food culture today.
So tell me, How did you become the “head forager” at NOMA Australia?
Well it was thanks to Grant King that I’ve been working with and suppling produce to for a couple of years now. He told Rene’s crew to contact me and so they did. I couldn’t believe it when I got the call. I showed up to ur meeting with around 300 containers of wild and native stuff. I was just so excited to meet Rene. They were all very impressed and I needed up taking them out and showing them where to go. This was when they came out to to their researched, once the restaurant opened we would go out in the morning and collected what we needed and then go back to the restaurant and help out in the kitchen. It was an amazing experience, Rene is so down to earth and treats everyone like a mate.
Comparing to other chefs and kitchens that you have worked in was there a different atmosphere in the NOMA Kitchen?
Yeah definitely, Rene has a different way of looking at things and really considers every part of an ingredients. There were like 63 chefs in the kitchen, a service team and a prep team. And a lot of interns that just picked herbs, cracked macadamia nuts and pealed tomatoes, But with that attention to details and using such fresh ingredients you needed the manpower, we would pick crab to order, hot from the oven so it was still warm when the plate hit the table. It was an amazing experience. I love how Rene always thinks outside the box and nothing is impossible.
In term of sustainability a lot of chefs and restaurants now strive to be sustainable and use more native produce, Is there enough stuff out there if everyone went out and started foraging? Is there a endless supply?
If everybody is conscious and conservative about how you treat the eco system, and aware on how and why you are doing it. You must be mindful of how you cut and trim plants and not take to much from one area, the spot should look the same when you leave as it did when you got there. Trimming the plants correctly will boost there growth and make it more sustainable.
What advice would you give to chefs or keen forager, that wants to get out there and start using native products?
First off, research, read Australian native food books and bush tucker books, there are also a lot of platforms on the internet. You must do your research and respect the nature, it doesn’t happen over night, I have accumulated a lot of knowledge and been out in the forrest and on our family farms for years.
What is store for you next?
Well at the moment I’m keeping busy with my business Nature’s pick
where we source Australian produce for restaurants. I supply places like Aria, Nel, Pilu and Gastro Park. We have three different farms, and I have couple of employees and my business partner to help me. We also work with a distribution company that helps me with delivering produce to restaurants.
As much as I love all the foraging and working with different unique plants and vegetables I do want to concentrate on my cooking and my special dinner events, so eventually I will have to take a step back from this but for the time being I’m really enjoying it. I’m planning to go to Scandinavia next year to travel around the work at Noma in Copenhagen .
What are these special dinner events?
I’m doing some different dinners where we go out and hunt and forage and then cook the dinner out in the wild. I recently did one at the Oakridge in the Yarra Valley with Matt Stone and it was a great day, we found so much stuff and the dinner was awesome. I’ve had interest to do dinners like that with Nelly from Nel restaurant, Grant from Gastro Park, James from Biota and Monty from Icebergs. Some of it will be at the restaurants but I like to do more dinners on one of our farms or out in the wild.
This interview was written by JRM commercial manager Kristin Jonasson
Pictures in the text are credited to Elijah Holland, you can follow him on Instagram