Dinner with a desert chef

Andrew Bain explores cuisine, culture and country near Alice Springs.

In the desert outside Alice Springs, a campfire is burning. Dinner bubbles in a pot and Bob Taylor looks over a landscape he considers more abundant than barren.

For more than 25 years, the Arrernte man worked as a chef in kitchens around the world.

For the past six years, this desert has been his open kitchen, bringing travellers to the source for his Mbantua bush-tucker dinners at the foot of the West MacDonnell Ranges.

"In a commercial kitchen, everything's a procedure," he says. "You come in, switch on the lights, turn on the exhaust fan. Out here, it's dynamic. How can I ever get bored?"

My journey towards dinner begins a couple of hours earlier at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station. As other visitors poke about the site of Alice's original settlement, Taylor leads me through the trees and shrubs that grow around its perimeter. As we walk he points out edible bush oranges and a witchetty bush, the roots of which are the source of witchetty grubs. He stoops and picks a wattle seed from the sand.

"Someone told me that we have 107 types of acacia you can eat out here," he says. "Imagine that. In society, we basically only eat three grains and here you can get 107." From the telegraph station, we head out of town into the West MacDonnell Ranges, beginning a culinary journey that Taylor describes as being about food, culture and country.

As he drives, he talks about his life, from his childhood in Adelaide as one of the stolen generations to work in restaurants and hotels as far-flung as the Netherlands, and an eventual return to his homeland around Alice.

"Coming back here and getting involved with tourism, I hope other people look at that and say, 'Jeez if he can do it, then I can do it,"' Taylor says. At Simpsons Gap, where black-footed rock wallabies scurry about the rock debris at the base of the escarpment, we stop to wander again through the natural bush pantry. Native lemon grass sits in tussocks beside the walking track and a bloodwood tree hangs with "bloodwood apples", woody cocoons that encase edible grubs. "When they turn white, you crack them open and the insect inside is beautiful and sweet," he says.

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At the entrance to the gorge, a large bush fig bursts with fruit, providing tasty evidence of two years of good rain in the Red Centre. It's like walking through the menu before we sit down to eat, which we'll soon do at a nearby picnic area.

While Taylor lights the fire, I wander to the top of a hill, watching as the setting sun bronzes the cliffs at Simpsons Gap. When I return, a bowl of macadamia nuts is on the table. The chef has roasted them with wattle seed, native pepper, lemon myrtle and crushed bush tomatoes from his family's garden.

An emu salami sizzles on the hot plate and, in the encroaching darkness, the firelight flickers across the drooping needles of the desert oaks around us. The sky has filled with birds feasting on insects, as we begin feasting on the salami. "My food out here has to taste as good as anything you can get in town, and I think it does," Taylor says, crouched in the dust, tending the dinner. "You're getting a package: dinner and you get to see the trees the food has come from."

After starters - macadamias, salami, bruschetta on home-baked bread - Taylor serves an outback beef hotpot with native thyme, yam fritters with saltbush and stir-fried vegetables with lemon myrtle and soya.

Around us, the desert ticks with insects and bats and the sky is full of stars. A pair of ghost gums are silhouetted on the north horizon. The mulga-wood fire burns by our feet, cooking a quandong, white chocolate and wattle-seed steamed pudding with caramel and coconut sauce that's still to come. No bush-tucker restaurant could ever hope to compete.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Qantas flies to Alice Springs from Sydney and Melbourne. See qantas.com.

Touring there

Bob Taylor's Mbantua Dinner tours run on request, with hotel pick-ups in Alice Springs at 3pm in winter and 4pm in summer. Tours cost $150 a person; phone (08) 8952 0327; see rttoursaustralia.com.au.

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