Nornie Bero’s Big Esso brings a taste of the Torres Strait to Melbourne’s Federation Square

“I am an island girl, I am a Torres Strait Islander, born and raised. I am fortunate that my father raised me there, a single father, who was wonderful in making sure I learned about tradition and culture,” said Nornie Bero, who is of the Komet tribe of the Meriam people of Mer Island is. “It’s a sustainable way of life. Everyone was growing and fishing for what to eat.”

Bero has channeled her passion for her rich culture into a company, Mabu Mabu. It started out as a Torres Strait Islander deli on South Melbourne Market, before turning into a Yarraville cafe centered around native ingredients, serving dishes such as kangaroo tail bourguignon and purple yams.

This year, Bero took the next step in her mission to make native ingredients mainstream by opening a Big Esso restaurant and bar in Melbourne’s Federation Square.

“Big Esso means ‘thank you’, the biggest, biggest ‘thank you’ you can get. I wanted to call it that because I wanted to say ‘thank you’ to everyone who has ever supported us and to show how grateful I am for the amazing country we live in,” she explains.

At 130-seat Big Esso, Bero makes “Australia the hero”, with a strong focus on where she comes from. “We go into that much more in my Island flair,” she says. You can expect plenty of seafood such as shrimp buckets with native succulents, namas (salted ocean fish), and chili crab in pepperberry sauce, as well as native meats like crocodile and wild boar. Vegan dishes are also plentiful, from Mabu Mabu’s popular damper to yam dishes. “I’m trying to return the yam because it’s very tasty. It’s one of my missions to put it on menus everywhere,” she says. Reassuring semur chicken can also be on the menu this winter.

Big Esso also has Australia’s first native bar. It includes spirits such as Green Ant Gin and ingredients such as muntries and Kakadu plums in cocktails.

A small shop offers products from other indigenous companies such as Haus or Dizzy, as well as the range of spices, teas and sauces from Mabu Mabu and Big Esso.

“We want people to really walk away and try it for themselves. We want to make sure that indigenous ingredients make their way into every Australian kitchen.”

Now reopened after the 2021 lockdowns, the restaurant has a modern Melbourne feel, while incorporating traditional elements into the decor. Bero has surrounded herself with artists like Lisa Waup and Aretha Brown who have created original pieces for the venue.

At 130-seat Big Esso, Bero makes “Australia the hero”, with a strong focus on where she comes from. “We go into that much more in my Island flair,” she says.

“I really wanted to make sure everyone gets a little bit of something. I didn’t just open Mabu Mabu for myself, I opened it to a community and that village feels – what I’m doing is making my village a lot bigger,” she says.

It was important to Bero that her food remains accessible, so dishes cost around $20. Being in the CBD, near the busiest train station in the city, the restaurant is in an excellent location. The location also has special significance, next to Birrarung Marr, a meeting and celebration space for indigenous people, and the Yarra River, which used to be an important food source.

“I wanted a platform where we could really show what we’re doing in a bigger and broader way – and also really show what Indigenous businesses can really achieve,” she says. “I also wanted to bring some color to the city.”

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Great Esso
Yarra Building, Federation Square
Corner Swanston and Flinders streets, Melbourne
Daily 11:00 – late

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