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Food and wine writer and Ash

“I’m definitely the accident-prone one in the kitchen,” says Ashleigh Jarvis, one of the first students to graduate from the National Indigenous Culinary Institute (NICI).

“I’ve cut a few fingernails off . And I was making caramel popcorn last week and the whisk fell out and I burnt myself. I have a lot of battle scars now,” she says, laughing.

NICI was established in 2012 to improve employment opportunities for indigenous people. The three-year hospitality industry-initiated program offers training and experience to aspiring indigenous chefs in top Sydney restaurants, including Aria, Catalina, Icebergs Dining Room and Cafe Sopra. Students are recruited through employment agencies, Koori radio, and information sessions at schools.

A ceremony for the first seven graduates is being held on Monday at Fratelli Fresh in Bridge Street in the city. It will be attended by several high-profile industry figures and federal politicians.

Jarvis, who is a pastry chef at Rockpool Bar and Grill, has wanted to be a chef since the age of 12.

“In my first home economics class, we just made something little and I was like ‘that’s it; I’m going to be a chef’,” the 19-year-old says.

“The [NICI] course has given me so much more confidence in myself and given me more goals to work towards in the future. I really want to travel and taste different flavours and see where other people’s passion comes from.”

John Seden is another graduate and is part of the Gamaliel people from Bathurst. He says the best part of the program has been learning something new every day.

“Every shift is a challenge and there’s a lot of pressure, but it’s addictive,” he says. “I never thought I’d end up working as chef – I was a landscaper before this. Graduating is the best feeling in the world.”

Two students will be awarded merit certificates at Monday’s ceremony and be given opportunity to fly to London in April to work in the Michelin-starred kitchens of The Ledbury (helmed by Australia’s Brett Graham) and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal.

All seven graduates have been offered full-time positions in the kitchens they’re currently stationed in.

“A lot of the guys have said they never thought they’d have a chance of working in restaurants at this level,” says NICI program co-ordinator Cain Slater. “Now there’s no reason they can’t.”

NICI is set to launch in Melbourne later in the year. The program is funded by the NSW government in partnership with the federal government and corporate sponsors.