Sharon Brindley remembers being on Country with her grandmother, hunting for goanna and bardi (witchetty) grubs in the bush near Geraldton in Western Australia. Her maternal grandmother was a Yamatji Noongar woman and one of the Stolen Generations. “Despite being removed from her culture, she still remembered practices and had such a close connection to Country,” says Sharon. “Food is a way I am exploring and learning about my Indigenous heritage.”
Sharon grew up in Rosebud from the age of four and would travel to WA on holidays to see her family. When Sharon was 11, her mother died and she found herself being the family cook. “If I never see another tuna mornay again,” she says with a laugh. A warm, generous person, she always wanted to be a chef. Still, she found a way to feed people and to feed her curiosity about her Indigenous heritage.
Sharon Brindley at the Cooee Café.
Sharon founded Cooee Café four years ago in the industrial estate behind Bunnings in Rosebud. The proud modern building has a bush feel with its corrugated metal exterior and garden dominated by coastal grasses and flowering banksias. At first glance, Cooee Café seems like any other takeaway with bacon and egg sandwiches and a coffee machine working full bore to keep up with the steady stream of tradies. “I love my tradies,” says Sharon. “They look after me and I look after them.”
She’s a woman who puts her words into deeds, cooking delicious and healthy dishes for the local workforce, such as bush tomato lasagne or stir-fried chicken and rice served with Native Oz Bushfoods quandong and bush lime-flavoured chili sauce. Something you notice straight away about Sharon – apart from her warmth and generosity – is how she collaborates with different businesses.
She cuts some cheese flecked with herbs. It has been made for her new range of catering boxes, smart craft cardboard packed with treats such as emu kabana and wallaby salami. The cheese is sensational and made by one of Victoria’s best cheesemakers, Jack Holman from Stone and Crow Cheese in the Yarra Valley. One is flavoured with mountain pepper berry, the other wild thyme. Both are sensational. She passes over a piece of white chocolate flavoured with Davidson’s plum. It is made for her own brand Jala Jala, which means ‘very good’. The pack is adorned with a painting of a green turtle, her totem, and embellished with a beautiful dot painting by Aunty Patricia Carter. She made it with the advice of Hugh Allen, executive chef of Melbourne Good Food Guide three Chef Hat restaurant Vue de Monde.
She sells her range of food made with indigenous Australian ingredients and other brands such as Three Little Birds Saltbush and Seaweed Spice, My Dilly Bag Saffron and Lemon Myrtle Tagliatelle Indigiearth teas. The shelves of her upstairs food store are lined with bush foods from fellow Indigenous cooks and chefs. “I am growing into my culture year by year,” says Sharon, looking out at the clearing sky. She turns and smiles warmly. “I am learning more and more about my culture. I learn it and pass it on. It is one continuous message stick.”
Richard Cornish is a freelance food writer filing regular food news stories for newspapers and magazines across Australia and now each month in Mornington Peninsula Magazine.
Food made with indigenous Australian ingredients.