We chat with Clayton Donovan from the Jaaning Tree in Nambucca Heads – one of our local chefs representing the Mid North Coast in The CRAVE Sydney International Food Festival, 100 Mile Challenge.
When did you know you wanted to be a chef, and how did you get started in the industry?
I knew I wanted to be a chef since I was a kid. I can remember licking the bowl and the spoon while making cakes. I wasn’t just satisfied eating the icing; I wanted to know how it was made. I had a pretty strong passion after that. Just hanging around the kitchen when I was a kid … as long as I can remember, really.
In my family too, in our culture, food was very important. My best friend was also Italian and we both had a big passion for food as kids, which was a bit strange for two young punks running around on a skateboard.
I tried a few other things I wanted to do after school. I played in a Punk Rock band and studied law at Lismore TAFE. But I came back to cooking in the end, because it was a passion. I felt at home with it. So I went back into the kitchen, and that’s when I started my real career down in Sydney, working for places like the Watermark Restaurant and floating around at some other great restaurants on the Northern Beaches.
I did a little bit of work at ARIA with Matt Moran then headed overseas to England and hooked up with the Rolling Stones on tour chef. I was also the executive sous chef for three different restaurants and a couple of other manor houses.
It all snowballed into the final plan of “I’d love to have my own restaurant”. Having my own restaurant and kicking back on the coast … that was my ultimate dream. I’m just lucky enough that my wife and I have been able to do that.
You’re part of the 100 Mile Challenge at The Crave Sydney International Food Festival, representing the area. Who are the chefs you’re working with?
The other chefs that I’m working with are Dustin Bowie-Ford from Saltwater in Coffs Harbour and Todd Richardson from The Corner in Port Macquarie. Todd has a baby due on the same day, so he’s had to pull out, but he has brought some really great ideas to the table. He’s been really helpful.
I’m also working with Stefano Mazzina and Taz Huggins from Restaurant Fiasco in Coffs Harbour … which is really cool, because I have done a fair bit of with Stefano when he was starting.
What kind of local ingredients are you using, and what sort of dishes are you planning to create?
We’ve just basically kept it as simple as possible, because obviously our produce on the coast is totally outstanding. There isn’t much we need to do to them, really.
We’re keeping our ties to the seafood, showcased in our entree, which will be a tasting plate from the sea. Coffs Harbour Fisherman’s Co-Op will be supplying some Blue Eye Cod and School Prawns, and Nambucca River Oysters will also feature in the dish.
We’ll also be using Red Dirt Distillery Vodka, Ricardoes Tomatoes, Wilmeria Balsamic, Nambucca Macadamias and Valley of the Mist Finger Limes. Obviously because of my background and interest in bush foods, there will be a bit of a showcase of that in the entree dish too.
Then for our main we’re using produce from Gaian Organic Farm in Kundabung. They’ll be supplying pork and duck to be served with vegetables, which will be matched with Maria River Daikon Radish, Wauchope Cucumber and Coffs Coast Green Mango and Red Chillies.
Then for dessert we’ll be using some of the great berries from The Berry Exchange, just north of Coffs Harbour. They’re quite popular not only in Australia, but worldwide. They’ll be supplying the blueberries and raspberries, and we’ll also be using Phoonies Strawberries, Hastings Valley Yoghurt, Native Wildflowers, Coffs Harbour Hydroponic Basil and Dorrigo Pepper Berry.
We’ll also be matching the dishes with local wines from the area.
Is there a bit of a sense of pride representing the area?
Yes – just being the first to represent the area, at what is a world international food event. It’s pretty significant to get the opportunity to showcase our local area on such a big platform. Dusty and I talked about it the other day, and we’re just so rapt that we get to represent the area as part of the Mid North Coast team.
It also gives our suppliers a great opportunity to be the star of the day. We’re just the chefs; the produce will be the star of the day, and it’s world renowned. For instance, when I just left England, there was an article about the best oysters in the world. And there was Nambucca River Oysters on the page, representing the top ten oysters in the world. These are the kind of products we have right on our doorstep. So yeah, it’s a biggie. I’m really, really chuffed.
Your own restaurant, the Jaaning Tree, received a mention in the ‘SMH Good Food Guide’ and was a Chefs Hat Award Winner in the ‘Australian Good Food Guide’. Are the accolades surprising to you, or have you been aiming for them?
It’s a really big achievement, as a chef. It’s something I have been striving for. When I was training in Sydney, and all these awards were happening and there were recommendations and reviews in magazines – it was really big. And now that I’m back home and I reflect and I look at my score and compare that with where I trained at, I go, “Gee whiz – I nearly beat them!”
And when you go through the guide, you’re rubbing shoulders with the big boys. I can speak for myself, but also for Dustin, Stefano and Taz. They’re also in the same boat. We’re all rubbing shoulders with the big boys with really huge budgets, and we’re on the Mid North Coast, still giving it a really good slug. I’m not only feeling a sense of achievement just for myself, but also for all the other restaurants who are achieving along the Mid North Coast.
We are lucky to have such a great food strip. If you look at our menu, it’s from the ocean, it’s from the paddock and it’s from the forest. There aren’t too many places you can do that. All the ingredients we looked at for the 100 Mile Challenge were all 110%, and it was so hard to design the menu – because we have so much on the coast.
There is a sense of achievement with all the restaurants on the Mid North Coast that are doing well, including No.2 Oak Street, who grabbed two chefs hats. That’s great! It puts us on the map in NSW as a destination to come and enjoy food. It’s been a long time coming, let’s put it that way.
Thanks Clayton, and best of luck!