“My parents separated when I was five, so I moved around a lot as a kid living between them. My earliest memories are of time spent in remote Aboriginal communities in the NT and central Australia. It’s where we lived for the first few years of my life. My parents were both working so I spent a lot of that time with aboriginal carers, mostly an older couple, who I still consider grandparents.
Moving around and constantly changing schools, I never really felt like I had a home. I found it hard to feel settled living between parents, in different places. It’s not such a bad thing though, I think I’m fairly resilient and independent as a result. I think that’s why I love travelling and feel at ease while on the move. I’ve travelled a lot and that’s definitely a highlight of my life so far, for sure, travelling, exploring different countries and eating new foods. I think I’m pretty lucky, I’ve had a pretty interesting life so far and experienced some incredible things.
I never wanted to move to KI as a kid, I didn’t love the island. Coming from the Eyre Peninsula where I was living with mum, it felt a bit too quiet and too country for me. I eventually moved here to complete year 11 at Kingscote Area school and, to be honest, didn’t enjoy it and therefore was clashing with my parents. It was a tough year but at the end of it, I travelled overseas for the first time. Mum took my siblings and me through Southeast Asia. It was a huge eye-opener, just incredible.
I always loved cooking growing up, but I was unsure if I ever wanted to be a chef. Travelling overseas and eating amazing food definitely inspired me, and after a gap year, I signed up to study at Regency Tafe in Adelaide. I had a few different jobs during and after my studies but eventually got a job back on the island at Southern Ocean Lodge which was hard work but I enjoyed it. That was also where I met Yen, my good friend and now business partner and co-owner of our café Cactus. He worked in front of house and we soon realised we shared a joy of good food. We cooked together a lot and eventually planned a trip to Malaysia, where Yen is from, to go on a food tour.
After working in multiple kitchens around Adelaide, I returned to the island because my girlfriend at the time was from here. I had a handful of jobs over that next year, that included helping out on her family’s farm, working for my dad in the family business as a distiller and picking up work as a labourer.
Halfway through the year, I had an idea to open a pop-up restaurant. I pitched the idea to Yen, saying, ‘Kangaroo Island is just crazy in summer and dead in winter, they need more restaurants in the summer to help cope with an influx in visitors.’ We eventually decided to open up a café, and that’s how Cactus was born. We didn’t have a lot of money but made the most out of what we had. We opened with an incredibly minimal setup; I remember sourcing six second-hand fridges, mostly donated or bought from KI buy swap and sell, we had plates from Kmart, and everything was just super basic.
We opened on the 3rd November 2017 and it was pretty full-on but good! It was a very simple operation at first and we were understaffed, but we made it work. The first six months were bloody intense and after the summer, we decided to close for a month and avoid burning out. Now almost four years later, we have just relocated and renovated a new space. It’s a little bigger and more comfortable than our previous spot and, so far, seems well-received. Funnily, this new location was previously a pizza bar called Bella and was where I worked when I first moved to the island in 2008.
Over the years, I’ve found I keep getting drawn back to KI, one way or another, and I feel the more time I spend here, the more I grow to love it. I think the community is quite unique too; there is an interesting mix of people from all different walks of life. The fact that we are such a small population also means we inevitably interact with one another, which has resulted in a tight-knit yet open-minded outlook. The island is full of good people, I think that’s what makes it so special. It’s that melting pot of nationalities and personalities and, despite it all, we get along—well, for the most part anyway.”