Contemporary meets native with a traditional flair. A journey through Ochre with Craig Squire.
Far North Queensland is teeming with restaurants inspired by diverse global cuisines, but if you are looking for a uniquely Australian dining experience, then Ochre is hard to surpass.
Famous both nationally and internationally for its use of Australian native game, fruits, herbs and spices, Ochre's innovative menu will surprise and delight you with dishes you can't find anywhere else in the world.
Featuring crocodile and kangaroo meats, native fruits such as finger limes and Davidson plums and much more besides, Ochre offers a chance to taste the delicious and nutritious food that has sustained Australia's Aboriginal inhabitants for thousands of years.
Craig Squires, the driving force behind Ochre, is one of the handful of pioneering chefs who helped bring bush foods to the mainstream in Australia and he remains a relentless promoter of our country's flavourful native ingredients.
Craig was trained in the rigid, hierarchical structure of a traditional European kitchen – where exacting head chefs berated their lowly apprentices – after he landed a sought-after apprenticeship at the Adelaide Festival Theatre.
“It was very serious training, very old-school. My first executive chef used to stand behind me when I was chopping parsley, and if I wasn't chopping fast enough, I’d be getting swipes around the back of my head,” he recalls.
Harsh as it may have been, he credits this strict training, along with the night classes he took in patisserie and Chinese cooking, with giving him the solid foundation on which he built his stellar culinary career.
In the years following his apprenticeship, Craig bounced around Australia and Europe, honing his cooking skills in kitchens at ski resorts, hotels and high-end restaurants. But it wasn't until he returned home in the early 90s that he began to focus on his burgeoning passion for native ingredients. He soon teamed up with friend and fellow native-food pioneer Andrew Fielke to found Red Ochre Grill in Adelaide.
Craig remembers those first years at Red Ochre as a heady, exciting time out of which much of modern Australian cuisine was forged. They opened in 1992, the year of the Mabo native title decision and then prime minister Paul Keating's famous 'Redfern Speech', and national pride was riding high.
“The timing was really right and the sentiment as well. We had a good five-minute segment on the ABC's 7:30 Report in the first week of opening and it was a smash success,” says Craig.
After an exciting two years in Adelaide, Craig decided to head north where, together with Andrew's brother James, he founded Red Ochre in Cairns hoping to build on the momentum created down south.
“In our minds, we were a group of friends who were going to take on the world with this native-food concept restaurant,” he says.
It wasn't all smooth sailing, however, and those early days in Cairns provided some hard lessons on the vagaries of Australian dining culture.
Despite these initial challenges, Craig and his team stuck to their guns and over the next two decades established Red Ochre as a quintessential dining destination in Far North Queensland.
“We have built a strong local following over the years, both at the restaurant and also with our off site catering and these regulars are essential to our success,” he says.
After 22 years at Red Ochre's location on Shield St in Cairns' CBD, Craig had cemented a reputation as one of the leading proponents of modern Australian native cuisine. This dedication has garnered him scores of awards and countless stints as a guest chef at international hotels and tourism exhibitions.
Not content to rest on his laurels, in 2016 he transplanted the restaurant to its current location at Harbour Lights on the Cairns waterfront. He designed the fit-out from scratch and shortened the name to simply 'Ochre', complementing the sleek style of the new venue.
The move also gave him a chance to get out of the kitchen and focus more on the management side of the business. But he is still closely involved in designing the menu and sourcing new ingredients and wines to feature on Ochre's exclusively Aussie wine list.
“Of course, nothing would be possible without a great team behind me,” Craig says. “Some staff have been at Ochre for over a decade, and many staff from the 80s and 90s are still good friends. Relationships have begun, and babies have been born to our family of staff, and the support I get from our new business partner and general manager Carley Elsum is essential to Ochre’s continued success.”
1 Marlin Parade, Cairns