NICI: shaping the future of fine dining

7th July 2021 | Alison Turner
NICI graduates with Neil Perry

An industry-initiated Indigenous culinary institute is unearthing a new generation of talented young chefs who are making a name for themselves, both here in Australia and overseas. The National Indigenous Culinary Institute (NICI) provides training, experience and support to aspiring young Indigenous chefs, who are offered the opportunity to complete their apprenticeship under the guidance of some of Australia’s most renowned chefs at fine-dining restaurants such as Aria, Catalina and Rockpool.

Designed by culinary icons Neil Perry, Guillaume Brahimi, Michael McMahon, Jill Dupleix, Terry Durack and Barry McDonald, NICI aims to increase Indigenous representation in hospitality and foodservice. It has trained more than 200 participants since 2012.

“The focus of the organisation is to provide a pre-employment pathway development support program, called Skills for Success, co-delivered with TAFE here in NSW, and other registered training organisations in other states,” says NICI Chief Executive Nathan Lovett. “The premise is to build up a strength of skill set and capability and understanding for our candidates before they go into employment.”

NICI students undertake their Skills for Success training at Sydney TAFE
NICI students undertake their Skills for Success training at Sydney TAFE.

Preparing to succeed

NICI’s pre-apprenticeship training is designed to arm students with basic knowledge and techniques. Students learn everything from food safety and food prep to knife skills. This gives them an idea of what to expect, and whether being a chef is the right path for them. 

“We do this so the employment part is not as big a shock,” Lovett says. “The knife sets, the terminology, the hard work ethic; even the physical capability of being on your feet 10-12 hours a day. We build that into the program so that once they get into the job, the success rate is higher. And for the ones who just find that it’s really not for them, then that’s okay.”

Once students begin their apprenticeships, NICI continues to provide support. The aim is to ensure they have everything they need to help them get the most out of their experience.

“We provide help with anything that impacts their lives, or anything that the restaurant needs help with,” Lovett says. “Everything we can do as an organisation to support our candidates to be successful in their jobs. This means they’re not worrying about things outside of work. They can just focus on completing their apprenticeship.”

The NICI program is also unique in that it assesses every single candidate individually, providing a different pathway for each that’s tailored to their own personal needs.

“We don’t just say, ‘Okay, you’re all going to Rockpool’,” Lovett says. “Yes, Rockpool is one of our restaurants, but not everybody is suited to work there. It’s really important that we can determine that difference between restaurants, to make sure that it’s the right fit.”

NICI graduate Jayde Harris
Now a qualified chef, Jayde Harris has set her sights on patisserie.

Higher learning

Jayde Harris, 25, a Kamilaroi woman from Boggabilla in northern NSW, completed her apprenticeship at Rockpool earlier this year. She’s now training there as a pastry chef. Harris was first inspired to join NICI after watching her brother Keith (a NICI graduate who’s now a qualified chef at Icebergs Dining Room and Bar) take part in a cooking demonstration at Barangaroo. After she completed her pre-apprenticeship training program with NICI, she first thought she’d like to work at Spice Temple. However, after visiting Rockpool, she knew straight away that this was where she wanted to be.

“It was a really steep learning curve,” Harris says of starting out in the iconic Sydney restaurant. “And there wasn’t always a lot of patience to go around – it could be a very intense workplace. We had a couple of chefs who were like, ‘get it done or get out of the way’. But I think we’ve all learned a lot from those chefs. And we’re better for it.”

NICI graduates take over the Strangers' kitchen
NICI graduates take over the Strangers’ kitchen to create canapés that will remain on the menu until July 9.

Future focus

Along with their restaurant apprenticeships, NICI students also get the chance to experience working in a variety of different environments. In 2019, four NICI graduates got the chance to travel to Ireland for the West of Cork Food Festival. Here, they prepared high-end dishes that featured native Australian ingredients. More recently, a group of NICI chefs including Harris got to work in the kitchen at Strangers’ Restaurant in NSW Parliament House for a Koori kitchen takeover, where they created canapés for 200 guests.

“That was heaps of fun,” Harris says. “The kitchen was massive, and the head chef was lovely. I made Queensland spanner crab tartlets with finger limes.”

Lovett says that the purpose of these experiences is to augment the chefs’ professional development, beyond what they would learn in their day jobs. It also encourages them to think about what their future career might look like.

“When somebody finishes their apprenticeship, we don’t want them to just sit there and be a commis chef forever,” Lovett says. “We’re really pushing our chefs to think about what the next step is; to not lose momentum. We’ve got one chef who is now doing another apprenticeship to become a patisserie chef. He’s got 40 working years ahead of him. What’s he going to be? It could be anything – rising in the ranks to head chef, executive chef; even having his own restaurant. Now he can do anything he wants in that space.”

NICI graduates Luke and Sam Burke
Last year, the Bourke twins were featured in Gourmet Traveller magazine.

First NICI, then the world

NICI’s focus on going that extra mile to nurture and support its students has meant that the program has an impressive retention rate, as well as some remarkable outcomes.

Identical twins Luke and Sam Bourke now work as sous chefs at Rockpool and Neil Perry’s new restaurant Margaret, respectively. They plan to one day open their own restaurant together. Ryan Battersby completed his apprenticeship at Catalina before travelling to London and working at super high-end restaurants such as The Fat Duck.

NICI-graduated chefs have cooked for ambassadors and presidents. One alumnus, a former ice addict who was living in her car, is now a qualified chef who also helps Lovett deliver culinary careers education camps for young Indigenous kids. NICI works, and the Australian culinary scene will only be all the richer for it.

“There are some phenomenal stories about the pathways our graduates have taken; of what they’ve come from and where they are now,” Lovett says. “And the restaurants we work with, they’re in for the right reasons. Yes, native ingredients and Indigenous culture are a really big buzz in the industry right now. But they see the value in employing Aboriginal people. And I think the really great part is that they really feel proud of it.”

For Harris, while she’s more than happy to continue working at Rockpool for now, she has the ultimate goal of travelling the world, working as a chef and trying the cuisines of as many countries as possible. Taking part in the NICI program has allowed her to dream big, providing her with a greater sense of purpose and a greater sense of self.

“It has given me more confidence, more independence and more financial stability,” she says. “Now I can be my own person.”

For more about the National Indigenous Culinary Institute, head to the institute’s website.

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