The chef revolutionising Australian food
An entrepreneurial upbringing
Nornie Bero got her first job before she’d even turned 10, delivering her dad’s warm, freshly baked native pumpkin buns and fish burgers made with freshly caught island fish to her local Torres Strait islanders before school each morning. She wasn’t much older when her dad built a bamboo wall down the middle of their house on Mer Island to create a tuckshop to sell his baked goods.
Clearly it rubbed off as Bero was soon displaying her own resourceful, entrepreneurial spirit, skipping confirmation classes to pick fresh mangoes and tamarinds she’d use to pickle the octopus she caught at dawn each morning. Brought up by extended family and her dad, a single father at 20, Bero says it was a childhood rich in culture, tradition and native food.
“We were super, super poor but I never thought we were poor because I never went hungry. My dad got sick very young so I’d make things out of nothing, when you live on the islands you’re very resourceful. I had a great upbringing, I really appreciate now that I learnt to stand on my own two feet.”
The mabu mabu empire
“For someone like me – a poor kid growing up on an island with a spear in my hand – if you’d told me then I was going to be a CEO and running a restaurant with 80 staff I would have had no idea what you were talking about!” Bero says.
The journey of how she got there is one of resilience, determination and refusal to give up. With her Dad too sick to work Bero moved to the mainland aged 16 and juggled school and two jobs: working on a banana plantation in Innisfail, far north Queensland, and making pub meals in the kitchen of the local pub.
“And that’s how I started in hospitality,” she laughs.
Two years later she moved to Melbourne but, despite two year’s hospitality experience no-one would employ her.
“It was really hard finding a job because of the way I looked, and being female. I just needed the opportunity to get in the door.”
Eventually the manager of the Grandview Hotel in Fairfield took a punt and gave her a job in the restaurant kitchen. She was on her way. For two decades she honed her skills in various kitchens before buying a market stall in the South Melbourne markets in 2018 selling her condiments, enabling her to build the Mabu Mabu brand (‘help yourself’ in Meriam Mir, Nornie’s first language before creole and English) and despite repeat offers she waited for the right one before selling her stall and using the proceeds to start Tuck Shop, a 30-seat cafe in Yarraville in 2019.
“Everything was done by choosing the right moments of being able to grow,” she says, noting she remains self-funded to this day.
By now the business had expanded to include her events catering line, initially supported by her network of ‘gay and rainbow friends’ who would have her cater their anniversaries, birthdays and events, with word soon spreading about this innovative, delicious range of food championing Australian native ingredients.