CLAYTON’S earliest memories in the kitchen were watching his mum whip up something delicious, “usually from a Margaret Fulton cookbook, a Mexican or Chinese cookbook — always great food from around the world and different cultures,” says Clayton, Australia’s first and only indigenous hatted chef.
But it was in the scrub nearby at his Aunty Jess’s place on Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung land on the NSW mid-north coast that Clayton got his first taste of the ancient bush food that would help define his career.
“My aunty used to take me out foraging and collecting bush food and that was it! I was connected to a culture that stretches back thousands of years,” he says.
His first mouthful of bush food left such an impression, Clayton ended up naming a restaurant, Jaaning Tree, after it.
“Jaaning is a black wattyl tree and the sap is edible — probably one of the first bush lollies,” says Clayton, 42.
“It’s gooey and golden and it’s slightly sweet with real woody flavour. There’s nothing else quite like the flavours we have here so after I started out [cooking] myself it was a natural thing that bush ingredients would emerge in my food.”
Today’s Australian of the Day spent years honing his craft in some of the best kitchens in Australia and England, including stints as a sous chef and head chef in restaurants including Boscundle Manor and Fowey Hall.
Clayton Donovan, Australia's only hatted indigenous chef pictured at home in Nambucca Heads, NSW. Picture: Lindsay Moller
Returning to Australia, he focused on pop-up restaurants on farms and in country pubs and rural halls along his beloved NSW coast, blending his contemporary international experience with ancient culture.
“Things like Illawarra plums, macadamia nuts, lemon myrtle, finger limes, aniseed myrtle, “ says Clayton.
Word of the pop-ups soon spread.
“We’ve done them at the Australian Museum, then various corporate ones and we’re recently back from doing a pop-up restaurant in the Australian High Commission in New Delhi,” he says.
This year Clayton is hoping to help extend the reach of native food with a cookbook of his own. “We’re getting closer to making an Australian identity with our cuisine after all these years,” says Clayton.
“You never know, it might knock off the lamington and the pavlova! I like the idea of one of the oldest foods in the world becoming one of the newest food trends in the world.”