They’re preparing kangaroo pies in the sunny kitchen at Yaama Dhiyaan Hospitality Training College when I first visit Aunty Beryl Van Oploo. It’s a warm November day and spring is in full swing in Sydney, Australia. Outside in the street, the jacaranda trees are flaunting their opulent lilac blossoms and raucous cockatoos screech overhead. Aunty Beryl’s training college for young Indigenous women and men is situated in a luminous, glass-walled industrial building beside the recently converted train carriage works in the Redfern sector of the city. Next to it is the warehouse that now hosts the weekly Eveleigh farmer’s market, one of Sydney’s most vibrant community markets. The carriage works have been turned into an arts centre, with a stylish café and theatre.
Yet this neighbourhood has not always been so gentrified. It’s on the edge of a rougher part of town that includes ‘the Block’, a key Aboriginal stronghold within the city which has seen its share of triumphs and troubles. From here Charles Perkins and other activists led the freedom ride in 1965 that raised public awareness about racial intolerance in rural Australia, and triggered the 1967 referendum that finally brought the vote to Aboriginal people. The densely populated area afforded low-cost housing to some of the city’s most disadvantaged residents, and was at the heart of the Redfern riots of 2004. It continues to represent a spiritual home for the Aboriginal communities of New South Wales (NSW). It is no coincidence that Aunty Beryl’s pioneering project is located close to this important Aboriginal centre.
“My aim here is to give young people from my community a training in hospitality – as cooks, waiters, bartenders and so on – so they can acquire skills and find work,” says the soft-spoken Aunty Beryl. Her quiet, seemingly shy exterior soon reveals a strong determination to pursue her mission. Most of her trainees have had difficult beginnings, and their new start with Yaama Dhiyaan helps them move beyond drug and alcohol abuse, or spells in prison. It also reinstates a sense of family, putting the sharing and preparing of healthy food at the centre of their daily lives.
Aunty Beryl is an Aboriginal elder, and is aged 68. There would be nothing exceptional about this were it not that today an Aboriginal woman’s life expectancy is of just fifty years. And that’s in the city, alongside other women who can expect to live for at least twenty-five years longer. “A lot of our people have lost touch with the idea of food as a source of nutrition,” she says. “Junk food, addiction and the lack of structured meals have taken their toll on our health. So in our courses we start from the very beginning, teaching about fresh foods and how to cook them. For many, that in itself constitutes the first step towards a better life.”
In this government-sponsored programme, students sign up for a 9-week course. Some need to improve their reading levels before tackling the theory. “Ninety percent of our teaching is practical and we adapt to fit each individual. Many of our youngsters have had so much taken away from them that they need to learn to trust before being able to work. It’s about sitting down together at each meal, and learning respect. We elders need to be here physically to inspire them,” she says.
Aunty Beryl’s personal story is itself inspiring. She was born in Walgett, NSW, a descendent of the Gamillaroi nation. “We used to live off the land,” she recalls. “My father was a sheep shearer and my uncles were farmers. As kids we were taught to catch freshwater fish from the river nearby. Our family was large, and we grew vegetables and learned to forage for wild berries and plants. We made flour and water bread and baked it on an open fire. Our elders told us to maintain our culture and I’ve always stayed true to that concept. I can still cook traditionally.”
The young Beryl’s life was not different from her contemporaries’. At 16 she left her rural homeland to seek work in Sydney. “In those days, as a young Aboriginal woman, you could only aspire to be a cleaner or nanny. We had no rights whatsoever and little enough education. Traditionally women stayed home, but when we started coming into the work force it was ten times harder for Aboriginal women to find employment,” she says. Beryl feels lucky to have found work as a nanny in a family which not only accepted her as one of their own but later helped further her education. “Other friends of mine got stuck in menial roles and were unable to get beyond them.”
When she eventually went to college to study nutritional science, she was a loner, a pioneer, one of the first ten Aboriginal women teachers to come out of Tafe Technical College in East Sydney. “When they offered me work as a teacher I doubted I could do it. I was no academic. They told me I had common sense and life experience and that would count for more.” Her husband, a Dutch engineer, was equally supportive of her career.
She taught for decades, including on foods for pre-school children. When she retired, several years ago, the local government approached her to run this project. They provided the airy modern space at Yaama Dhiyaan, which serves as a dining room for its catering functions and as classrooms and kitchen for student training. Aunty Beryl’s catering company offers a perfect training ground for the students to practise and start earning in.
Beryl and her chefs, including the young Mathew Cribb, focus too on native plants that were once the staples of the Aboriginal bush: bitter saltbush, fiery river mint, aromatic lemon myrtle. They use traditional ingredients – including crocodile, which she describes as tasting just like chicken – in dishes that reflect Sydney’s multiculturalism, such as Thai kangaroo curry. They believe in sustainability and are setting up an organic farm to provide vegetables and some of the rarer bush specialities, like finger limes and bush tomato. They produce bottled ‘Aunty Beryl’ condiments to sell at the local market along with hot kangaroo pies. Above all they remain true to the values and beliefs the Aboriginal language groups have always lived with.
I am fortunate to have some of these precepts explained to me by Dallas Dodd, a cooking teacher and elder who collaborates with Aunty Beryl. “Each Aboriginal group has its own foods that were used for ceremonial and seasonal gatherings,” he explains as he slices carrots in the training kitchen. “The kangaroo and emu in particular are our two main totems and feature as reconciliation foods. We always pay tribute to these animals as they were here long before us and taught us how to find food and live with nature.
“We are a very peaceful race of people, each in its own lands. We foster people, and give them water. Sharing and caring is our custom. Our custom is about looking after mother earth. The earth is our mother and the sky our father, who loves mother earth. The sun is our grandfather and the moon our grandmother. The stars are our sisters and the clouds our brothers. Our main role as human beings is to look after mother earth. Mother is the core of all family unity, the life of our culture. Our plants and animals are also our brothers and sisters. They each have a spirit. We have respect laws for ourselves and for animals and plants. Me and Aunty Beryl are at a stage of our lives where we are helping young people. It all goes back to sharing and caring. We give these young people hope.”
With a twinkle in her eye, Aunty Beryl concludes: “If you turn one person’s life around, you turn their whole families around too. That’s a good start.”
Yaama Dhiyaan Hospitality Training College
255 Wilson Street
Darlington NSW 2008
Story and photo: Carla Capalbo