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A Gumbaynggir man from the mid-north coast of NSW, chef Clayton Donovan is the owner of the award-winning Jaaning Tree restaurant and Australia’s first Indigenous ‘hatted’ chef. Highly respected within the industry for his innovative fusion of Asian and European cuisine with Indigenous flavours, Clayton will soon be sharing his passion for native foods and sustainable food practices with a new audience. His new cooking show will debut on Australian television in mid-2014.
Clayton’s love affair with sharing culture through cooking began in his childhood when he would take wilderness walks with his aunties and grandmothers, tasting native foods and learning about his cultural traditions. As an adult, Clayton moved to Sydney, training as a chef under Kenneth Leung at the Watermark Restaurant, before travelling and working overseas in some of England’s finest five-star hotels and restaurants.
Clayton’s dream was to return to Country and give full expression to the ‘craft of cooking’ through his own restaurant. The dream became a reality in 2008 when Clayton launched the Jaaning Tree in Nambucca Heads with his wife Jane and with assistance from IBA’s Business Development and Assistance Program. Jaaning (pronounced Jaa-nee) is Gumbaynggir language for ‘wattle tree’, which has traditionally been an important food source for local Aboriginal people.
Clayton’s cuisine has been labelled ‘stunningly innovative’ by the Australian Good Food & Travel Guides Awards, which has awarded the Jaaning Tree a chef’s hat on three occasions.
All such accolades aside, however, it is his family and community, preserving and sharing his culture, and supporting the region’s food producers and growers about which Clayton remains most passionate.
1. On harvesting the goodness around you: ‘More and more people want to connect with and to know where their food comes from and how it’s prepared’.
I picked out the name of my restaurant when I was a child. It is Gumbaynggir language mixed with English so it’s intertwined, which reflects both my cooking and what Jane and I wanted to achieve with the business. Since setting up the business, we have used local suppliers and producers; so whether it’s choosing food or people, we’re using all the goodness that’s around us.
We want to showcase that goodness because that makes it a uniquely local experience for people visiting the area.
We don’t want food coming in a box, which you stick on a shelf or in a microwave. We’re trying to concentrate on the old traditions and craft of cooking, preparing food from the start without all the technological gadgets. We make all our own stocks – it takes three days – and our own breads and pastas.
What we have been doing here at Jaaning was a big gamble, but I truly believe in staying true to yourself and believing you can make a go of it. Sustainability is increasingly what Australia wants, what the world wants. People are more interested in the old methods and traditions of foraging, sustainable fishing, and using local markets and community suppliers.
More and more people want to connect with and to know where their food comes from and how it’s prepared.
2. On carving out a business identity: ‘For Jane and I, it’s about making people who come to the restaurant feel like they’re part of a family’.
When we started out, we had the white linen and fine dining going, but that changed because of the more casual kind of dining necessary during the global financial crisis. But I think that’s great, because there are other restaurants doing fine dining. This is a little more relaxed and accessible, and it’s a place where people can feel comfortable.
The Jaaning Tree has become a destination restaurant; people stay in Nambucca Heads just to come here.
For Jane and I, it’s about making people who come to the restaurant feel like they’re part of a family. We will see them in the streets around here, or when we do cooking demonstrations down in Sydney and they’ll come up and say “Hi” because we’ve made a connection through that dining experience.
3. On keeping your chef’s hat in perspective: ‘There’s no point in being the best if no-one wants to work with you...it doesn’t matter what trade you’re in’.
We’ve learned a great deal about the challenges and pitfalls of business ownership along the way. Before becoming my own boss, I’d trained and worked in world-class, five-star restaurants where I had people who did my budgets and whole marketing teams; all I had to do was turn up, organise my staff and cook what was required. To start doing it all on my own ... there were things I had missed out on learning. But we asked our friends and our networks.
You need to ask questions, and then stand back and listen to others in business. Don’t be frightened, because no-one knows it all, and everyone’s gone through similar learning curves.
I had also worked alongside some good people down in Sydney, like Mark Wilson from Watermark Restaurant, and I learned a lot about managing myself and others from him that I still apply today. So that’s more about the type of chef you want to be, and the type of person you want to be. There’s no point in being the best if no-one wants to work with you ... it doesn’t matter what trade you’re in.
4. On turning flour into bread: ‘And that’s how I like to work; don’t tell me what’s wrong with it, tell me how to make it better’.
We had so many obstacles when we started out, but for me, it’s always been about, well how do we make it better? And that’s how I like to work; don’t tell me what’s wrong with it, tell me how to make it better.
I started life with not much at all, and I moved out of home when I was young, so I always had to make do with what I had, or make it better. That’s true with cooking too – you start with basic ingredients and turn it into something better – so flour turns into bread.
I’m a true believer; I believe if you have a good idea, something will come of it, the money and the people will come.
We’ve been lucky we have met some really good, well-connected people – people in the industry, financial planners, and the guys at Brookfarm [an award-winning macadamia producer in Byron Bay], who are really great mentors to us. All these people have helped us become a stronger unit. But that’s about being open to it too. It’s so easy to get engrossed in your own business, but other people looking in can offer a fresh perspective and say, “Have you thought about doing this or that?”
5. On bringing others to the table: ‘It’s because people are interested in what we do, which you don’t really think about until you start doing things on social media’.
Having worked in these great food establishments, I’d seen the way they focused and positioned themselves, placing more of their marketing cents in their internet presence.
With our online newsletters, forums and Facebook, we are connecting with people all around the world. It was Stefano Manfredi in Sydney who told us we needed to get on Twitter. He was up here, and as soon as he set it up and we photographed some finger limes it went ‘whoosh’. It was bizarre where it went to and how far. It’s because people are interested in what we do, which you don’t really think about until you start doing things on social media. It’s just us doing our thing during the week; which we take for granted. But people are really interested to read about me finding some native food, or Jane making some chutneys or an event we’re doing with the whole family. What’s normal to us is not normal to people who love the foraging and local produce and that kind of thing.
Jane has been producing and selling chutneys and other products infused with native ingredients at food markets and online, and they are going strong.
And people within our community like to bring their excess fruit and vegetables [lemons, guavas, chillies, bunya nuts] because they don’t want them to go to waste. So it’s that family/community/food connection thing again.
That sharing of food is a craft, and something we risk losing, especially on my side of the culture.
6. On chance meetings and dodgy knees: ‘The TV show will be my culture crossing over to contemporary cuisine, which is an extension of what we are doing here at the restaurant’.
I was doing a cooking demonstration at a festival. I was wearing this punk skull T-shirt with a mohawk on it and everyone else was there in their chef’s jackets. And Jane said, ‘You can’t wear that’. But I think people want to be entertained…and I thought I could make this really fun, so I went wild.
Afterwards I met a lady from the media industry while I was standing in a queue for coffee and we got talking about bringing what I do to television. I’d already been thinking about what I will do once I am no longer able to cook. We’d done some filming for a couple of television shows, and I was already thinking I’d like to do more of that sort of thing if I ever got the chance.
I can’t cook forever, and my arms are already suffering from all the tong work and lifting and flipping frying pans, and both my knees have gone.
So television again is about building a community around what you are doing and how you are doing it. For us, it’s ‘How do we promote bush foods to get them across the line and into Australian households?’ We know how many people are interested, so it’s about reaching people on a bigger scale.
The TV show will be my culture crossing over to contemporary cuisine, which is an extension of what we are doing here at the restaurant.
7. On promoting reconciliation on a plate: ‘We are governed by the need to eat; it’s the oldest ritual and there’s chemistry that happens around a table that people take for granted’.
Each episode we will deliver the story on traditional country, using the country’s Aboriginal name, and then its given name. So it’s Birpai country, and then it’s Taree or Port Macquarie… We wanted to develop an idea where we could promote reconciliation on a plate. It’s about showing everyone how they can easily integrate native foods into their everyday cooking. We sit down and eat three meals a day – isn’t that the easiest way to sell a message? We are governed by the need to eat; it’s the oldest ritual and there’s chemistry that happens around a table that people take for granted.
If you put food from another culture in front of someone, they will eat it, experience it and not be scared of it. In some circumstances, people won’t eat it, but at least they will have a try. And that’s OK, that’s what makes us all unique. Maybe that’s what we need to do with this whole reconciliation thing … just try it from different angles.
So the show will feature all these wonderful, quirky producers and growers who I work with. They’re not all Koori; they are from all walks of life and culture. It’s crucial for me to have these people enriching my life; they all play a big part in what the Jaaning Tree is. There are so many branches to that tree, and there’s room for everyone under it.
Find out more about the Jaaning and follow Clayton on Twitter (@jaaningtree) or Facebook. Or find out more about IBA's Business Development and Assistance Program.