A Taste for Bush Tucker:
As a 'young and weirdly obnoxious' kid, Clayton Donovan would give not only give his mum grief, but aunties and elders too.
“One day I almost gave my mum a heart-attack because I was running around, being ‘normal me’ so my aunty suggested to take me outside to learn about bush foods and put my energy elsewhere.”
So Clayton, who grew up in the Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung land, was introduced to bush foods at a very young age by his elders who would teach him what the native produce was and how to eat it.
Clayton mixed his passion for food and knack for bush tucker right through school and soon after found himself working in a restaurant, but not the way he imagined.
“I got to a stage where I was working, cleaning dishes, wiping tables and had great ideas but nothing was happening,” he said.
“An older chef friend of mine turned around and said to me ‘what are you doing mate… You should move to Melbourne or Sydney and start a career’. So that’s exactly what I did.”
After almost taking a career in the sporting world, Clayton ended up with a sporting injury and it was during his recovery time where he decided to suddenly pack up and move to Sydney.
Recipe for Success:
“Sydney was good - I was just starting out so everything was new, and being a country boy living in a big city I found everything overwhelming. But I just went with it. It was easier to go with the flow then against it. I enjoyed it in that respect.”
Like most jobs, climbing the ladder of success comes at a cost, but that didn’t stop Clayton.
“I worked bloody hard to get my big break,” he said.
“Crazy stuff like not taking actual holidays for 4 years, pushing myself to learn from other chefs and no sick days, that’s for sure!”
“I was always busy learning from other chefs and because I was Indigenous, I wanted to focus on everyone else’s flavors, cuisines so I took the chance to experience cooking from people of different cultures as much as I could.”
In Sydney, Clayton completed a culinary course and also landed a job on a catamaran to learn more about cooking. His hard work soon paid off and he found jobs at some of the biggest restaurants in Sydney.
From the likes of Watermark near Balmoral beach to ARIA in Circular Quay, he was able to train and learn from others. But the big ideas he let simmer in his head since childhood were starting to boil.
Clayton was hungry to introduce native produce to the plates of Australia, but things didn’t go as smoothly as imagined.
“No one wanted to learn about bush foods so I moved overseas to the UK because Australia wasn’t there yet, so it was the perfect time to leave and learn more about foods in other countries and cultures.”
Nurturing Native Ideas:
After eating up all that he could from international chefs, teachers and friends, Clayton finally decided to return back to Australia and dish up bush tucker.
A Jaaning tree is one of the main plants that got Clayton interested in bush foods. He used to collect the golden sap from the top, being the jaaning which is used as a bush lolly.
Just over nine years ago Clayton started his restaurant – the Jaaning Tree.
“It was basically an idea where I wanted to showcase our culture within a cuisine. I found ways where we could use traditional ingredients for a dish and shake in some flavor too,” he said.
“After trials and experimenting with different foods I was able to create a menu totally based off stuff I was shown and bush foods I knew growing up.”
“You could do that with crocodile and you could put chocolate jus with kangaroo and it would just work.”
After years of research and experience, the Jaaning Tree became Clayton’s big project.
“It was what I believed in, in my heart and with cooking, culture and growing up on the side of the coast water was a big part of it,” he said.
“It was a place where you could show kids bush foods, and inspire native food within the modules of cooking schools and Tafes which is important so you can create the identity of Australian cuisine.”
One of the oldest super foods in the world soon became the main ingredient used on Clayton’s menu.
“Finger limes, strawberry gums all the myrtles – cinnamon, rose, lemon. I’d chop and change every week, actually - every day. It always changes,” he said.
“It was so unique in the culinary world but so familiar to me in my cultural world.”
After all types of foodies flocked to the Jaaning tree, the restaurant became a hit with exotic tastes being the talk of every town. His restaurant’s success soon saw him land a gig on a TV show, where he was able to showcase his knowledge for food and passion for using native ingredients.
The recipe for success certainly was a challenge and Clayton has an Indigenous Australian chef to thank for inspiring him.
“I always looked at Mark Olive and thought wow I want to do what he’s doing. It was like watching another brother doing what I believed needed to be done,” he said.
“I was training at the time and it helped me see a light at the end of the tunnel. It was a hard place to be, and this enabled me to move forward.”
It was the start for Clayton, one where he could find his identity through food.
“I was starting to place that on the plate. The knowledge that was installed in me after being a pain in the ass kind of kid…Every piece of the puzzle started to fit and build it to what it is now.”
Cooking up a Storm:
In February 2014 Clayton decided to take a new career path which saw him put an end to his Jaaning Tree after more than five good years of business. Now he’s bringing his passion for native foods and local produce to a wider audience.
The father of two wanted to settle down and start a happy family in Nambucca heads. Here he is able to catch planes and fly down to Sydney for pop up restaurants and float around working with Indigenous tourism Australia, where he’s able to train up newcomers and look after the menus and kitchen side of things.
He is proud that Australia is finally ready for him and his native bush produce.
“Concepts and ideas are changing about developing bush foods. The knowledge factor is a big one for all. Everyone can understand it and see it and taste it. The food is now available.”
He’s been able to experiment with unimaginable and unique ideas.
“I developed a cider, it’s called Byron bay wild cider. No one’s done that before – a native bush food cider, so going in my own direction was really great,” he said.
“It was the last thing as a chef that I thought I’d be doing but it’s really served its purpose.”
The Byron bay wild cider was thought up by Clayton and a couple friends who wanted to place native foods within the market and saw room in the cider sector. They focused on apple cider and Quandong and pear. If that doesn’t quench your thirst buds they’ve also complimented that with a nonalcoholic sparkling cider - Apple and Finger Lime, which is low in sugar – apart from the fruit sugars, which is a great alternative to sugary drinks.
In 2016 Clayton’s innovative ideas were widely recognised as he was the only Australian to score an award for the most innovative idea in the food sector with elderly care.
“I developed ready-made meals for a company called integrative living – it’s for all the aunts and uncles out there who are in aged care facilities and need ready meals,” he said.
“We made kangaroo lasagna, Burmese curry with aniseed myrtle and cinnamon myrtle… we also did a risotto with bush tomato and zucchini. Basically just easy meals where we could help elders get their dose of traditional foods. Growing up, they’re major diet was big on all the native foods and they then get to a point in life where that doesn’t happen anymore, so this was a fantastic project to help them.”
Clayton says he has his elders to thank for everything he creates.
“They had a connection with bush foods so being able to see not just them but non-indigenous people too saying ‘we used to go pick that’ or ‘we used to eat that’ so it was great to be able to exchange ideas and stories,” he said.
“I always get a smile on my face when someone has a story to go with something I’ve made. When I serve kangaroo I get told about the first time they ever caught one and these stories around big tables is what is important. Seeing something from the past come to life.”
Despite not having the heat of his restaurant to keep him busy in the kitchen, Clayton still has several tricks up his sleeve for his cooking career.
“I’m working on loads of stuff at the moment. A few with TV ideas and slowly working on my cookbook that will eventually come out, but I’m still in the process of jotting down ideas and creating new tastes,” he said.
But his casual work at Brisbane’s Institute of Culinary Excellence in Coorparoo is most rewarding, as he’s able to mentor up and coming chefs who will one day but native bush foods in their recipes.
“They (ICE) wanted more of a gutsier Indigenous section for training apprentices so I go up and do intense days of bush cooking with lots of demonstrations where all types of people be it young, old and famous come to learn,” he said.
“It’s really rewarding to work with native foods and new students who will eventually become top chefs that will place native foods on their menus.”
As for the future, Clayton’s sure to cook up a storm.
“I’m working for Commonwealth Games as a food advisor so it’s a different spin on what we’re trying to achieve in the food industry but it’s still early days however I’ve got some exciting ideas and a great young team I’m working with.”
Hungry for more? Catch the #OnCountryKitchen premiere this Wednesday 24th May @ 7:30pm on NITV (CH34).