Nornie Bero is a dreamer, a champion of the wattle seed, a self-described “sea weed girl”, as well as being a hospitality industry lifer. Born and raised on Mer Island in the Torres Strait, Nornie now runs her culinary empire, Mabu Mabu from Naarm/Melbourne. With a tuckshop and catering company in Yarraville, and her restaurant, Big Esso in Federation Square, she sees no end in sight for expansion. If all that wasn’t enough, in 2022 Bero released her cookbook “Mabu Mabu: An Australian Kitchen Cookbook”.
Situated at the Northern tip of Australia between Papua New Guinea and Cape York, sits Nornie’s home of Mer Island. Surrounded constantly by food and culture, a young Nornie could be found skipping school to go fishing, or watching over her dad’s shoulder to make damper. Nornie’s recipes and dishes take you out of the city and back home with her to the Torres Strait. You can head to Big Esso for playful dishes like a bucket of charred king prawns, paired with spiced sea succulents and native cocktail sauce.
We speak to Nornie about her ever growing businesses, the importance of sharing culture, and the versatility of pepper berries.
Congratulations on your incredible, multi-faceted business, Mabu Mabu - restaurant / bar, produce and tuck shop. And as if that wasn’t enough, you’ve recently released a book. Can you tell us a little about these fantastic and delicious businesses (we’ve been and can confirm they are YUM!)
All of my businesses happened organically. From the start of my market stall, to the tuckshop in Yarraville, and then to Federation Square with Big Eso, and then our catering arm. We’re now a staff of 70 people. I bring my culture to my businesses - my tiny little island - where I’m from. I wanted to really place that on the map and talk about Torres Strait Islanders and showcase what amazing cuisine we had and the culture around who we are.
I never ever thought that I would write a book but Hardie Grant gave me the chance and supported me all the way through. It was a really big learning curve. I’m a lifer in hospitality and I’ve been in the kitchen for years. Writing a book is a whole other ball game. I’ve read many cook books in the past and never liked them, so when I was asked to do it I thought “uh yuck!”. Who is even going to read this? I did enjoy writing it because I got to talk about the culture I grew up in, and what it’s like to be a woman in business.
Island people, we love everyone, we’re so multicultural. It was so special to write about where I came from, and my dad. Sharing culture. Sharing that Indigenous people have cuisine.
From what we’ve read, it sounds like your dad was a key figure in your life.
Oh definitely. He didn’t just teach me how to cook, but he taught me how to survive. He taught me how to live off nothing. We weren’t monetarily wealthy growing up but I was always fed. I always had food in my stomach. He taught me a big lesson about respect, that you need to respect someone for them to respect you.
I think being a lifer in this industry has a lot to do with my upbringing. I was around food 24/7 and as soon as I could stand over the stove I was watching my dad make damper - the first thing I ever made! Damper has this great story to me now because it basically saved my business and kept my lights on and paid my staff’s wages.
We love how you’ve championed native ingredients, and with your book, you’e now enabling people to bring that into their own homes. How do we facilitate getting native ingredients into people’s pantries and remove the fear of the unknown?
We’re such a multicultural country and people think Australian food is foreign. They tend to make that comment all the time but then they go out for Italian! At one stage in your life when you started cooking you tried basil for the first time, or used coriander or curry. All of those things exist because you tried! All I’m asking is that you do the same for us.
As someone who isn’t a natural chef, what are your favourite entry level native ingredients?
Ooooh! I have so many and it depends on the season! I’ll go top 5!
Top 5 for me has to be wattle seed on that list because it’s so versatile. It has so many uses and there’s 165 different species out there! It really does belong to us. You can grind it down and it becomes a natural thickener. I could say a LOT about that one. It is one of the coolest things out there.
Next would be pepper berries. How many people can say that in their country they have a natural pepper? From our own backyards! It gives spice like szechuan but doesn’t linger. It can be used in savory dishes by grinding it down for a clove flavour. You can even use the leaf - it’s so spicy, they can be used like bay leaves.
There are fruits too that I love that I grew up with, but they don’t have english names!
I’m also a sea succulent girl - I’m a seaweed girl. I grew up in the ocean so I love those karkalla and sea blites. I always think of sea blites as if rosemary and thyme had a baby by the ocean.
What’s the future of Mabu Mabu?
You never know what to expect with us, I’m always looking for the next thing to do. My accountant tells me to slow down! I want in Victoria for us to have our own street, our own hub - just like the Italian and Turkish districts! I personally wouldn’t mind taking over Fed Square! I think it needs a bit of colour in there and we’re starting to do that now. We are here.
I’m also a dreamer like my Daddy was. I want to work with communities around Australia so they can be the first of their generation to start their wealth. I think that's a really big thing for me.
Thank you for talking to us we we celebrate the start of Reconciliation Week in Australia. The theme this year is ‘Be Brave. Make Change’ - we’re being encouraging to tackle the unfinished business of reconciliation so we can make change for everyone. Why do you think this incredible important goal of achieving true reconciliation remains unfinished?I think we always go two steps forward and then take two steps back. We have to stand up on our own two feet and go forward only and if we can do that we won’t have this same conversation every year. It’s not just about indigenous people but it’s about everyone, and if we all do it together it will make a better start for us. At the end of the day, you can only go forward, I never go backwards, and that’s what I think the future should be for us.
The week is book marked by the anniversaries of the 1967 referendum that recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Census, and the High Court’s Mabo decision that paved the way for Native Title. It’s such a significant week in Australian history, what are some of the ways that the restaurant and you personally like to acknowledge RW?
We’re doing a whole bunch of stuff this month right up until Mabo Day which is one of the biggest days for us. I come from that island and I’m going to represent! We’re going to do a Yum Cha style spread of Island food. My goal is to always put my Island on the map. That’s a part of reconciliation - we are the future.
Any brilliant Indigeous businesses you want to give a shout out to?
I work with lots of different people! Like artists that I commission to do works for us for our buildings.
Lisa Waap: https://www.instagram.com/lisa.waup/?hl=en
Charlotte Alingham: https://www.charlotteallingham.com/
Haus of Dizzy: https://hausofdizzy.com/
Gammin Threads: https://www.gamminthreads.com/
Seven Seasons (alcohol): https://www.seven-seasons.com.au/