Uncle Leroy Lester is holding court in Australia's Red Centre at morning tea time. You might think it'd be easy to pull up a pew but big-city backsides are already squished onto the benches lining Ayers Rock Resort's Town Square lawn. For latecomers, it's standing-room only. Welcome to the resort's free daily Bush Food Experience – a simple affair where the Anangu man chats about bush tucker. Guests hang off Lester's every word as he divulges which grass seeds make the best bread flour (woollybutt, if you're wondering) and how to sweeten that bread (add tiny but intensely flavoured desert fruit such as quandongs or bush tomatoes). It's MasterChef meets the outback, and guests seem hungry for every crumb of this ancient knowledge.
While Lester speaks under a sun so dazzling that it's softening cubes of unsalted butter for what comes next, native ingredients are passed around for closer inspection. One dot-speckled pottery bowl cradles tiny golden orbs that even the most sophisticated foodie struggles to identify (desert figs, it turns out). We inhale the scent of native lemongrass. "It's from the desert and it's good medicine," Lester declares. His colleague, Eddie Robinson, takes over to demonstrate how to make wattleseed biscuits. This is where the sun-softened butter comes into play. Robinson must also separate an egg while all eyes are upon him. The young man, also an astronomy supervisor, earns a round of applause when yolk and white cleanly part ways. He finishes mixing the dough and passes around plates of biscuits prepared earlier.
It might sound like a small thing but the new activity is part of a seismic shift at the resort, which used to be the whitest place in the Red Centre. In 2010, when it had just two Indigenous employees, the resort was sold to the Indigenous Land Corporation (the ILC is a federal entity that acquires and manages land to benefit Indigenous Australians). Since then the black workforce has burgeoned as the resort works towards a goal of 50 per cent Indigenous employment by 2018 (it's currently at 37 per cent or 321 staff).
The resort introduced other changes that stitch it more authentically into Australia's spiritual heartland – home to landmarks such as Uluru and Kata Tjuta that are rich in tjukurrpa (Creation Stories). Many of these stories also teach important life lessons to the next generation. These days, the resort taps into Indigenous Australians' natural story-telling ability. Guests can hear light-hearted yarns from Indigenous storytellers at the Circle of Sand on the lawn or join an Indigenous dance troupe to bust a few moves on an outdoor stage fashioned from red sand. Those with a more artistic bent can sit next to central desert artists at outdoor dot-painting workshops to learn how various marks and symbols tell a story. This helps with "reading" works displayed in Wintjiri Arts and Museum (although gallery manager Terese Cooke is also extraordinarily knowledgeable about such stuff).
Bricks-and-mortar changes have arrived with desert-themed carpets, cushions, artwork and light fixtures installed at Emu Walk Apartments, Sails at the Desert and, most recently, Desert Gardens Hotel. The spotlight has now turned to food and beverage, with resort-wide dining undergoing an everything-old-is-new infusion of native ingredients.
In 2015, the resort launched the Bush Tucker Trail. Eateries featured dishes with an outback twist, such as pizza with smoked kangaroo and emu strips, grilled crocodile tail dusted with bush dukkha, and braised pork belly sliders with Kakadu plum chili sauce. This year, something less outback cliche and more haute cuisine was unveiled with the launch of Bush Tucker Journeys.
This evolution showcases native ingredients in multiple ways. Across the resort's 10 eateries, menus are dotted with a constellation of bush tucker symbols. They nestle next to dishes such as Arnguli Grill & Restaurant's black Angus fillet with bush tomato jus, chicken chimichurri with mountain pepper, rhubarb shortcake with candied rosella and creme caramel with cinnamon myrtle.
Those who splash out on the Tali Wiru dune-top dinner ($345 a person; add $420 a person for a rock-star helicopter arrival), where dishes are somehow conjured from a basic bush kitchen within sight of Uluru, will find a new finesse (and culinary vocabulary) on show. As Tyler Baira, whose mob hails from the Torres Strait, coaxes a desert symphony from the didgeridoo, colleagues twirl with platters of canapes that have undergone a sophisticated tweak. Back in 2015, seared scallops were finished with lemon myrtle butter. Fast-forward to 2017 and scallops are anointed with gulgulk (a citrusy native green ant) beurre noisette. Similarly, instead of topping crostini with emu prosciutto, it's smoked kangaroo and kutjera (desert raisins, a species of bush tomato). An element of showmanship adds flair to the Textures of Chocolate dessert, with hot chocolate sauce poured onto a chocolate lid that melts away to reveal Davidson plum, quandong and lemon myrtle. The candy-pink rosella and lychee petit gateaux, ringed with coconut snow, raspberries and a scattering of pansy petals, looks worthy of a Michelin star (instead, it's served under those in the Milky Way).
This level of cooking will be demonstrated at Uluru Feastival – a quarterly culinary event debuting in August. Event ambassador, the Wollongong-based Indigenous TV chef Mark Olive (aka The Black Olive), will helm a bush tucker masterclass and a three-course dinner under the stars (and the moon and perhaps a planet or two). The menu will feature canapes such as cider-poached crocodile with pickled muntries (also known as emu apples or native cranberries) and lemon myrtle blini, quenelles of Illawarra plum and beetroot mousse punctuated with shards of saltbush lavosh and scattered with finger lime "caviar", barramundi on cauliflower and bunya nut puree, and a shiny-smooth sphere of desert lime petit gateaux with poached quandong and compressed pineapple.
Ray Stone, an executive at Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, which manages the resort for the ILC, says Feastival came about because "we felt we needed to innovate more and add another dimension to what we're doing – we'd been thinking about making that dimension food, for obvious reasons".
For the larger-than-life Olive, Feastival's arrival is a no-brainer. He's watched the bush-tucker movement evolve since the 1980s. "It's been a long journey, a tough journey, but it's slowly getting out there," he says. People are [now] looking at it – especially overseas – as new food. That's the exciting thing – we have a cuisine in our country. But that's been the biggest challenge – to educate our own people that we have this food."
Attitudes have changed, he says, thanks partly to TV cooking shows. "We've become so sophisticated in the last five years – everybody's watching a cooking show," he says. "They become experts, they become critics. They talk about it at the pub the next day. Yes, [bush tucker] is trendy but this [new event] is taking it to the next level."
The inaugural Uluru Feastival takes place August 18-20; further Feastival events will be held on November 3-5, March 9-11 and June 22-24.
The first three Feastivals will coincide with Field of Light. British artist Bruce Munro's solar-powered installation of 50,000 glowing spheres connected via fibre-optic tendrils has extended its stay until March 31, 2018. A Night at Field of Light ($245 an adult) includes a bush tucker-inspired buffet, starting with dune-top canapes such as paperbark-smoked crocodile frittata and mains such as dukkha-seared kangaroo loin with quandong couscous and native mint yoghurt. See ayersrockresort.com.au
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