Clayton Donovan… Bringing People Together
Clayton Donovan is well known for his skills in the kitchen and his work as a champion of bush foods, but he could have made a career as a musician or a professional sportsman had he chosen either of those paths.
Clayton grew up on Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung land on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales, where he learnt about native Indigenous superfoods from his aunties and grandmothers, taking what they found in the bush and cooking it up at home.
According to his website, Clayton returned to Nambucca Heads in 2008 and opened his restaurant, Jaaning Tree, combining his international experience with his understanding of Australian native foods to produce a unique and contemporary cuisine with an Indigenous twist. His talent and hard work was recognised when he was awarded the Australian Good Food Guide Chef Hat four years running.
In 2016 Clayton wrote and presented the popular ABC TV series, Wild Kitchen, which followed him on his travels through the Indigenous nations of the region, visiting farms and providores to source the freshest ingredients for his delicious creations.
These days, Clayton is creating mind-blowing meals at corporate functions and public and private events, and sharing his knowledge at schools with cooking lessons and mentoring programs.
I first spoke with Clayton over the phone while he was in Tasmania working with MONA, in collaboration with Design Studio for Social Intervention, on the Public Kitchen concept, and again when we met for the cover shoot with photographers Jeremy Greive and JP Westlake.
He’s a larger than life character with a huge heart, and these experiences – getting to meet people like Clayton – are one of the many reasons Dan and I still love working on The Beast after more than 13 years. We hope you enjoy the read…
G’day Clayton, thanks for your time. You grew up on the Mid North Coast, around Nambucca Heads? Just near there, Macksville, the same place as Phil Hughes and Greg Inglis. I’m a Macksville boy.
Did you have an awesome childhood growing up around there? Yeah, it was a great place to grow up. The town’s only got about 7,000 people, now it would only be around 10,000 tops. Country life, you know, not much going on, but there were some challenges.
Shitloads of sport? Yeah, I used to skate and play footy – it’s a real footy town. Footy in winter and cricket in summer, that’s what we did. Apart from that, I used to skate and surf. Me and my Italian friend used to skate all the time.
Where are the best surf breaks up there? Scotts Head is the best, that’s where I grew up.
How are the locals in the water? Is it a friendly spot or is it pretty localised? I grew up with Trent Munro, Neridah Falconer and Asher Pacey. My sister was really good too. Neridah Falconer said that my sister was the only person she was ever scared about taking her title. We have this really big surf and skate culture, in a very small place, like Venice Beach.
You were going to become professional at one stage? Yeah, and I used to box as well, pretty efficiently. I played rugby league too. I got a scholarship to go further – same with boxing – but I broke my back.
You broke your back? Yeah, my thirteenth vertebrae, I severed my sciatic nerve, started losing my left side.
Playing league? Yeah, playing rugby league. I was only a little guy but I could smash ’em, and I compressed my own disc tackling.
What age were you when that happened? I was only 18. I moved out of home when I was 14, 13, 12… I can’t remember, I’ve got a mental block. I was just cruising on the streets, just wandering between Sydney and the Gold Coast. I had a place at Scotts Head. My mates’ mums used to look after me, they’d come and pick me up from Ballina and bring me home, stuff like that. I did that for years. But then I said, “Yeah, I’ve got to get my HSC, I’ve got to do shit,” because that was the big be-all and end-all back then, but it didn’t mean shit really. So, I made sure I went through high school, I did that and I was playing in bands too at the same time – I was a drummer – and then I moved away. I’d done my back in, I got addicted to painkillers for ages, and then played in bands up around Newcastle. Then I got to a stage, my grandfather was on his deathbed, and he said, “If you can do something for the rest of your life and you’re passionate about it, you’ll be the richest man in the world.” For some unknown reason I chose cooking, because I could always cook I suppose. Then I moved to Sydney and the rest is history, just f*cking went bang! I spent seven years addicted to painkillers, and everything else.
How did you get yourself off painkillers? Do you actually go and seek help? Or do you just go, “Right, f*ck it, this is it, I’m quitting”? I was addicted to heaps of shit. I was like, “F*ck it, I’m doing this,” and I got off it. But then I just compensated with other stuff.
How did you get into cooking in the first place? My mother cooked really well. We didn’t have any money and she cooked from a recipe book. It was like travelling around the world, and I really enjoyed that. I also grew up with my Italian mate and I’d go around to his place and eat his cooking – his dad’s cooking, his grandmother’s cooking – and I really enjoyed that Italian side of his family. I had another good friend, his mum cooked really well and looked after me when I was younger as well. I just thought it was the bee’s knees. Food brings people together, makes you better.
Can you tell us a bit about what you’re doing in Tasmania right now? I get asked to do a lot of gigs. Sometimes I look at new gigs and then sometimes I don’t, and with this one I just thought that I had to feel it and actually be here. It was one of those gigs where I was right. I’m working with MONA, in partnership with Public Kitchen, you just saw it on YouTube. It’s part of time, it’s part of history and it’s also art. I’m working with a team that, first and foremost, makes positive change in a community, in the worst areas you can find. We’re in this cul-de-sac just out of Hobart; the less privileged, the vulnerable, people who have been cast out of society. The government doesn’t want to know about it, they just leave it there. No one’s doing anything about it, they just walk away and leave them and it’s really sad. There’s drugs and alcohol, there’s crime, but they’re good people – they’re really good people – and they’re no different to me and you.
When you were a young bloke – as young as 4 years old – you used to go foraging with your Aunty Jess and your grandmothers; was that what originally sparked your interest in food, especially the native ingredients that you’re now so well known for? It was weird hey, because I’ve got a lot of medicine men in my family. We were kind of outcasts with my family, it was a bit to do with my grandmother and my grandfather. My grandfather died when he was 13 so I never got to meet him, but that line was pretty special, on my grandfather’s side. And I became a chef, using superfoods from Australia. I was a naughty, obnoxious little kid and that’s where I learned it. My Aunty Jess was like, “You’re giving your mum a heart attack every second moment,” so she said, “Right, we’ll take this boy out. He loves his food, we’ll show him native foods, our culture.” Berries, wild carrots, different grasses, you name it. Different flowers as well. I could walk around the backyard and see something and know whether or not you could eat it. I just loved it and it became an obsession. I thought, “Right, I need to become a chef.”
Are you constantly discovering new native foods when you’re travelling? Do you ever reach a stage where you know it all? Yeah, there’s no final bit, even when I feel like it’s getting to that I’ll get connected with Sean Sherman, he calls himself ‘Sioux Chef’. Sean’s doing a similar thing with the native foods of America. I’ve got to keep on travelling; I’m really interested in looking further afield. I know there’s still so much to learn here, but I want to learn about the native foods in America as well.
When you go to a new part of Australia, what’s the process of learning about the native foods of that area? Just ask the elders. In some cases I’ll find a person who’s really embedded into it but I usually just ask elders.
Have you ever eaten anything that’s made you crook? Yeah, this one little berry. I thought it was one of these coastal berries that you can eat, I had it – it was no bigger than a ball bearing – and it was the best berry I’ve ever had, it just blew me away! I thought, “F*ck, I’ve got to go to hospital.” I’m very scared about entering the fungus side of Australia, it’s do-able but it needs a lot of research before you’d go there.
Has a lot of this knowledge of traditional foods been lost? Or has it managed to get passed down through the generations? In cases, yeah, but there’s certain plants where we just don’t know the traditional name and we’re just riding the Latin or European name of it. We just can’t find out, we’ll go and ask elders but it’s just gone and we’ll never know the traditional name. In another region there could be an elder that will know it. Take the Flax berry for example, in my region – Gumbaynggirr – and the Dainggatti, and also the Worimi mob, we all call it Dianella, but that’s the Latin name, not the traditional name.
Is there a Clayton Donovan signature dish? Oh f*ck yeah! I do it every Australia Day when I’m at a festival, my Coat of Arms – emu and kangaroo, all on one plate. Do you know why those animals are on the coat of arms?
No, why? Because they don’t take a backward step. I’ll part smoke the kangaroo, I’ll sear the emu with different wattles, secret sauces and gels, foams – all that swanky shit – and place it on a plate at a festival in front of people and see if they’re going to walk out or not, just to test them. Because, from my side of the fence, it’s a protein that significantly sustained a culture for tens of thousands of years. On their side of the fence, it’s a f*cking emblem that doesn’t take a backward step. I think my case wins!
When I first moved to Sydney, my brother and I were broke and kangaroo was the cheapest meat you could get; it was the only animal protein we could afford when we first moved here… Well, you’re smarter than most people. All the other shit’s hard-hoofed and it kills the land, compared to a softer kangaroo. We should be farming more of them.
Are their other Indigenous chefs doing good things in the same area? My main man Marky (Mark Olive) and young Zach Green; he’s coming through too and he’s bloody good.
You’ve mentioned Mark Olive as being very influential on your career; how did you meet him and how has he inspired you? He’s a family cousin. I was told I had a cousin in the same field who works in Sydney and in Melbourne – he’s got his own restaurant – and I thought that was pretty cool. It’s tough as shit doing what we’re doing, being Indigenous, you know, but the winning factor is, how do you beat it? I was really inspired by Mark because he challenged it and I wanted to come and help him challenge the rest of it. But I’m a little more punk!
There’s been a lot of debate lately about changing the date of Australia Day; what’s your position on that issue? Look, we were talking about it with a friend down here, my host, just recently. Now, my point is that there’s only two days in Australia that you could have. One of those dates, it would be wrong to put another day on that date, and that’s ANZAC Day. The other day is Eureka Stockade, the one we forget about. It’s the day we walked together; we walked away, we tried to walk away from the colony. To me, that’s it, that’s the day. There’s also May 8, maaate! I thought that was pretty f*cking cool. But seriously, I think Eureka Stockade, that’s the day where we should be paying more homage, because if it wasn’t for my Irish family we’d have been pushed over a cliff.
This is incredibly ignorant of me, especially since I’ve panned for gold at Ballarat, but what was the date of the Eureka Stockade? I don’t actually know, but I think the original date of Australia Day was July 19 – John Howard or someone changed it around 25 years ago – but you’ll have to research that, have a look. To the younger generation, it’s embedded in their heads that January 26 has always been the date, but the date actually changed and a lot of people don’t know that.
So this idea that January 26 is sacred and can therefore never be changed is just nonsense? Who would listen to that little muppet?! Eureka Stockade’s the day where we walk together.
I asked my mate Doug what he thought, and he said that he didn’t really want the date to change because it’s the day where people ask him about his background and he really gets to talk about his Indigenous family history… I can’t trace my family. I can trace my Irish family all the way back to f*cking Cork, but everything else is just gone, I can’t follow it any further. I’m not whingeing but, you know, that’s real shit.
The Beast magazine is the local magazine for the Eastern Beaches of Sydney; I hear you’re living nearby? Yeah, in Rose Bay. I’ve been there for about a month now.
Do you get down to the beach often? Yeah, Bowl-A-Rama and all that shit. I’ve just got to get my surfboard back and I’ll be hitting the beach all the time. And my skateboard as well.
Where do you prefer to surf around here? I’ll be hitting Bondi, and also Tama. I’ll be doing trips back to Newcastle as well.
Tama was firing yesterday morning… Yeah, we’ll have to go surfing together. But I really love skating.
You know there’s a skate park at Maroubra as well? Yeah, it’s mad hey. I love bowls mate, I love hurting myself!
Do you have any favourite spots around the Eastern Suburbs, any favourite restaurants or cafes? You can’t beat Rocker, the one at North Bondi. Stuey Toon, my mate Stuey, the chef there, he rocks. And Three Blue Ducks; anything that the Three Blue Ducks put their name to, it rocks. Apart from that, my main man Robert from Bennelong. I find him one of the best chefs in Australia – in the world.
Which Robert is that? Robert Cockerill, he lives locally, he’s Peter Gilmore’s chef.
What pisses you off about the area, other than the traffic of course? No one says “G’day”. No one really does in the whole of Sydney, and that shits me.
It’s changed a lot, even in the last five years… Yeah, I know.
Can you tell us a bit about the Jaaning Tree? It’s a wattle tree, Jaaning is the sap. It’s the first bush lolly. We had one in the backyard and it was the place where I used to hide from mum and dad when I got in trouble, it was my naughty place. So when I got my restaurant, that’s what I called it, my other naughty place. I’m not naughty all the time though!
You do a lot of work with OzHarvest? As much as I can. On my days off I want to go and help Travis. All these gigs I get are great, but I want to help as many people as I can. Where we are today, for example, is one of the nicest spots in Tassie, so if I keep doing these gigs – meeting all of the influential people that I get to meet – maybe I might be able to one day.
What advice do you have for young Australians wanting to follow in your footsteps and become a professional chef? Have a f*cking crack! You can do anything. You know what my grandfather said to me before he died? “You taught yourself to walk, don’t forget it,” he said. “Other people just guided you.” That’s probably the best advice my grandfather gave me, other than teaching me how to grow vegetables, but I’m shit at growing shit. And where fresh eggs come from, stuff like that.
How hard have you worked to get where you are today? Bloody hard. Look, I remember when I first opened my restaurant, I did 20-hour shifts for the first two months.
I read an interview you did with SBS a while ago where you talk about not taking sick days, ever… Well, I was addicted to shit, man. I’m not going to take a sick day, I’d just pop a pill, or whatever I had to do, you know, that’s real. You are the only one who’s going to print this shit. Only this year I told the OzHarvest team that I was homeless as a kid. This year I thought, “Well, you know what, maybe I should just really tell people the truth, rather than talk shit.”
How do you find young kids today, in terms of their work ethic? The kids are good, I think they’ve got it harder these days than we had it, in some ways. There’s a lot of them – I call them ’20 months interest free’ – that expect to make a million dollars straight away, but a lot of them that I get to work with are genuinely great. It’s really hard I think, they’ve got more pressures than I had as a kid.
Who is the biggest legend you’ve ever worked with? Travis Harvey from OzHarvest.
Is he sitting there with you now? Haha no, no man. This dude was Peter Kuruvita’s prep chef – Peter from Flying Fish. Travis did the whole TV show. He could work anywhere in the world but he chooses not to, he chooses to work for OzHarvest.
Who would be the biggest dickhead you’ve ever worked with? There’s a f*cking heap of them bro, and they come in all different forms; different colours, creeds, male, female, there’s a lot of them. And there’s a lot of people out there that are riding on the cultural thing, we’re laying the foundations and they’re ripping them off. I’m getting closer to exposing all of them.
I heard that you started a law degree after you finished the HSC? I was playing in a band – a punk band – up in Newcastle. Silverchair used to support us! We’d back up Fini Scad and Shihad, shit like that. We did that for a few months and got asked by Sony to do a demo – record five songs and send it back to them. And my two mates who I was playing in the band with got this beautiful keyboardist and they fought over her, that’s when I went, “F*ck this, I’m selling my drumkit and I’m f*cking leaving.” I got my scholarship in Newcastle, tried to move it to Lismore, then I had to take my second elective because music was full, so I had to take law. I studied law all the way through school, I wanted to be a world Indigenous lawyer to sustain and make sure that these lands and these stories were all significantly safe. That’s what I wanted to get into, for everyone, not just our culture and the tribes, but also for the non-Indigenous as well, because they wouldn’t understand, and understanding is the foundation of everything – education.
Do you still have an interest in law now? I enjoy f*cking shit up with movements and having a point. I’ve been restricted for a while because I’ve been locked in that f*cking chef world but there are a lot of things out there that need to be changed. Australia needs a f*cking shake up, to wake up.
You’re obviously interested in politics; what other issues are you passionate about? Mainly just finding ways to make people come together a lot better. Food’s just one thing – food’s reconciliation on a plate for me. I can put the emu and the kangaroo on the plate on Australia Day, give it to you, then you’re going to ask me a question and we can go through that same conversation, and that conversation’s going to lead you to your questions, and why’s this shit happening? And then you’ll have a better understanding of why I can’t find my family on the other side. It’s just about asking people questions. Yeah, they’ve got their own answers, but if they really deeply look back into it, we were all sent here. My Irish family was sent here, downtrodden. The whole of Australia forgets that there’s a lot of us who were just f*cking convicts, they stole bread just to keep their family alive. It’s pretty evil, hey, what’s happening in Australia. I’ll go overseas and look back in on it like a fish bowl and think, “Everyone rants and raves about South Africa?!” Wake the f*ck up! Look what’s happening here. The Muslim culture’s not a bad culture, there’s bad people everywhere.
I’ve been to the Middle East, parts of it are awesome… They’re lovely people, so sharing. The media restrict themselves to do what they have to do, report the agendas that the politicians are pushing, they’re trying to be kosher with everything, you know. But really, at the end of the day, Australia was built by immigrants and downtrodden people. And we’re together in this. The Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme was built by Polish, Chinese and every downtrodden race, doing it for next to nothing, getting paid shit. The roads, the railways, everything; the whole infrastructure of Australia. That asset of being an Aussie is lost, we don’t help each other any more.
The continual erosion of equality of opportunity and the entrenchment of wealth is certainly concerning… Back in the day, when your neighbour was struggling, you locked arms and you made sure both families got through it. That shit doesn’t happen as much anymore. I get to cook for all these big wigs, but I love to do this charity work part-time as well because I’ve got all this corporate stuff going on. I do a pop-up with Darren Middleton from Powderfinger, we call it Tuning Fork. Darren’s on the same page, he wants change. Darren was going to be a chef and I was playing in a band, so it seems we swapped roles! Powderfinger became huge – I really don’t know why he played in that f*cking band and didn’t become a chef!
What was your band called? Black Apple. My bass player picked the name. He said, “It’s got be an Indigenous food,” so we named the band after an Indigenous fruit.
Any chance of a reunion tour? I’m down here in Hobart at the moment and I’m seeing my mate Dolphin, he was the guitarist. We both used to sing, all three of us actually. We’d all sing, scream, whatever. But yeah, we want to finish the album. I wrote a couple of songs and then sent them across to Dolphin here in Hobart, then he’ll be working on it, he’ll send something back across… it’s a bit of a process, you know? When you don’t live in the same area, that’s how you have to build the songs.
What big events have you got coming up? I’ll be hosting a dinner at Taste of Kakadu in May, and crafting a unique grassroots menu especially for a sumptuous four-course dinner at the Croc (Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel). I want to meet the community; white, black or brindle, it doesn’t matter. I want to see and experience the region, I want to ask elders that food question, learn what’s been passed down through our stories, knowledge and tradition, but mainly I just want to get up there and meet some good people. It’s going to be f*cking fantastic.
Have you spent much time in Kakadu? No man, I haven’t, and I’m excited. I’ve always been told that Kakadu’s the bomb. Every place I go to, I feel like I was supposed to go there. I was always meant to go to Kakadu, that’s the way I look at it.
Can you tell us about your tattoos? I’ve actually just started tattooing myself. A mate I live with in Rose Bay is a tattoo artist and he’s been teaching me. All of my tatts are significant, they all mark a time in my life, different stages. If you get the opportunity to tattoo yourself, mate, it’s mad! I don’t think I’m just a chef, I’m more of an artist than a chef.
In an ideal world, what does the future hold for Clayton Donovan? Everyone being happy and understanding each other’s cultures, in harmony. Now sit down and f*cking eat!