Nornie Bero is the Executive Chef and CEO of Mabu Mabu: a Torres Strait owned and run business on a mission to put Indigenous ingredients in kitchens across Australia. What started as a stall at the South Melbourne Market has turned into a cafe, bar and kitchen, Tuck-Shop, catering business, and community.
To celebrate Indigenous Business Month, we spoke with Nornie to get a glimpse into running Mabu Mabu.
I’m an Island girl — Meriam from the Komet Tribe of Mer Island, and I was raised on the Islands of the Torres Strait. I’m also the CEO and Executive Chef of Mabu Mabu; a hospitality food business in Melbourne. I’m passionate about putting Torres Strait Islander food culture on the map and celebrating the abundance of Indigenous produce and flavours from across this big Island we live on Australia.
I want to create a space where everyone from all walks of life can feel safe: a First Nations community hub in the food industry of Melbourne so we can share culture through food. My passion for creating a safe environment, which is fair and showing people they are heard, is on the top of my list.
I don’t think of myself as an owner but a member of our village, growing and expanding into more than just the business I own. Having my business has allowed me to showcase my passion for food, which I believe brings us all together.
I kept seeing native ingredients being served as a tiny sprig on a plate in fine-dining restaurants or being used by the health and beauty industry, calling it a super-food. These were fruits and spices that I grew up with in my backyard, and they were suddenly inaccessible, expensive and exclusive. I thought these things should be used by everyone, so I started making and selling products that used these fantastic flavours in a really accessible way – in curry pastes, in spices and sauces, and I set up a stall in the South Melbourne Market. My mission was, and still is, to get native ingredients in every Australian pantry.
Our community have been fantastic, from our suppliers to our team, to our customers. I’ve always said it takes a village to feed a village, and it takes a village to survive a pandemic.
We knew early on we had to switch it up and our customers really wanted to find ways to support us, so we created an online store where people could buy our products. To thank them and to keep the village connected when they couldn’t come in, I also started offering online damper workshops – teaching corporate teams, community groups, and even groups of friends, to make damper. When I was young my dad turned half our house into a tuckshop selling damper to the locals just to keep our lights on, so when the pandemic hit – I did the same! Our village loved it, and it really saved us. Our online store has kept growing since then and now our village is even bigger with partner retailers across Australia selling our products.
Our newest venue, Big Esso at Federation Square is an all-day kitchen and bar on the banks of the Birrarung, serving pepperberry bloody marys and green antinis with a menu packed full of in-season native ingredients. It joins our cafe Tuckshop in Yarraville to create a hub and places for our community to come together, and for us all to connect with and pay respect to the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities who have been gathering, growing, harvesting and using native ingredients for over 60,000 years on these lands.
We got Big Esso open just four days before the pandemic hit, and we’ve been in lockdown ever since. During the past few months of the pandemic our staff and I have been lucky to be able to keep working out of the restaurant to create our takeaway and delivered heat and eat at-home feasts and cocktails, which we’ve been delivering throughout Melbourne. We’re gearing up to open for outdoor dining soon, and we can’t wait to re-open, celebrate, and welcome people back!
The business started with the purpose of getting native ingredients into every Australian pantry, but as we’ve grown so has our purpose.
The business now is not just about educating people on Australia’s Indigenous produce and food culture, but also about supporting and promoting First Nations suppliers, creating employment and professional development opportunities for First Nations staff, and doing it in a way that is ethical and both environmentally and financially sustainable.
I’ve also been in the hospitality industry a long time, and in all my years working in venues and in kitchens I never worked with another Australian Indigenous chef, and I wanted to change that. When the business started growing and we were adding venues, and catering I wanted to create a workplace for my community, and now I have this amazing team full of women of colour, Queer, and First Nations staff both in the kitchen and front of house.
We are all about celebrating the fantastic native produce from across this big Island known as Australia. We ensure our supply chains are ethical, and as much as possible source ingredients from community — using First Nations harvesters and local small scale farmers. We look for producers that share the same values and respect for Australian Indigenous ingredients that we do. We also work with many First Nations and B Corp suppliers for products we serve and use at Mabu Mabu, including our fantastic all-Australian spirit list at Big Esso.
We can’t wait to start working with our corporate clients again on catering and event services. When Big Esso re-opens we’ll also be able to provide a bookable venue with food and drink packages for business events or private celebrations large and small. In the meantime, we’re continuing to offer our corporate gift service — sending care and celebration packages out to staffing teams and stakeholders full of our house-made teas, spices, and sauces, and to keep teams connected they can book into one of our many online workshops and cooking masterclasses.
October is Indigenous Business Month: an initiative recognising the power of business as a means to self-determination and creating positive outcomes for First Nations communities. This month, B Lab Australia & Aotearoa New Zealand is partnering with Ngarrimili to bring our community spotlights of First Nations-owned and operated businesses that you can support today to use business as a force for good.