Chef Clayton Donovan is standing behind me, a white jug in one hand, a spoon in the other. He’s wearing a tweed beret and I glimpse a Dead Kennedys t-shirt under his black apron as he leans over and spreads a smoked oyster and nori aioli onto the side of my plate. It’s the accompaniment to his Citrus-cured Hiramasa Kingfish entree with a salad of thinly sliced fennel, cucumber, pandanus, beetroot-stained couscous and macadamia nuts.
He slashes a mark through the middle of the aioli, making a cheeky remark as he moves onto the next plate.
There are 80 of us at the inaugural bEATS Festival Long Table Dinner in Taree and we’ve been asked to wait until he’s sauced every plate before we eat.
Donovan is Australia’s only indigenous hatted chef and it’s clear from the twinkle in his impish eyes he’s enjoying this theatrical flourish.
Before we sat down at the long table inside the MidCoast Council Chambers, a cleverly repurposed hardware building now called Yalawanyi Ganya (which means sitting/meeting place), we’d been welcomed by the local Biripi people with a few evocative dances. They helped set the scene for Donovan’s sumptuous four course dinner featuring native and local foods.
Platters of Stones local Sydney rock oysters topped with Near River finger lime caviar and bunya nut were handed around during the dances followed by pickled Mother Fungus gourmet mushrooms and wattle seed labneh accompanied by glasses of Great Lakes Sparkling Lily and Coastal Brewing Company’s sensational wheat beer.
Not only is it the first dinner to be held inside the spacious council chambers, it’s also the first bEATS Festival on the mid coast of NSW. Promoted as a celebration of community and culture through food, music and art, the festival pulls together a number of popular local events including the Great Lakes Food Trail, TasteFest on the Manning, Lakeside Festival, the new Tanks Art Trail as well as local produce markets and exhibitions.
“It’s ironic our funding came through the Regional Tourism Bushfire Recovery grant program given that we’re now deluged,” says Donna Ballard who is sitting beside me. It was Donna who applied for the grant together with Sharon Bultitude, manager of the Barrington Coast Tourism Board. “We were determined to include a respectful indigenous event and to showcase local produce. This region is pumping above its weight. So many produce markets have sprung up over the past decade it’s become the market garden of Sydney and Newcastle.”
Shared plates of double braised Barrawong Gaian Farm duck with aniseed myrtle and slow-roasted Yeo Farm lamb with pepperberry and lemon myrtle accompanied by seasonal vegetables are served for the main course. The combination of the rich tender duck with a Great Lakes Sparkling Shiraz is inspired.
For dessert, there’s a sublime vanilla, strawberry gum and white chocolate mousse served with Old Inn Road Verdelho Frizzante followed by a lively chat from Donovan.
He’s removed his beret to reveal a mullet haircut with shaved sides. A big fan of heavy metal bands, he talks about how he brought himself up from the age of 12 on the north coast of NSW, wanted to be a drummer, loved skateboarding and local girls and decided “to go into cooking to pay for it all and because some guy in a kitchen said I was alright”.
When just four years old, a love of good food and eating was inculcated when his Aunty Jess introduced him to the bush foods at Nambucca Heads, among them the jaaning tree (a wattle tree with sweet sap), herbs, bush carrots, parsnips and plants that healed.
Decades later he opened his own restaurant Jaaning Tree at Nambucca Heads (which won four Chef Hats in the Good Food Guide over four consecutive years) and starred in his own television show Wild Kitchen which ran for 11 episodes in 2014 on ABCTV. He now spends time teaching school kids in remote communities about native foods and running Tuning Fork pop-ups with Darren Middleton, former drummer with Powderfinger where they cook, play and have a lot of fun bringing people and culture together through food and music and Donovan tells stories about what Indigenous food and culture mean to him.
One of the guests asks about the celery curls on the entree plate.
“You gotta peel it first, then put it in iced water” he says, waving his tattooed arms around (I find out later that he owns his own tattoo gun). “It’s what happens when you hang out with too many people enthused about food.”
He generously thanks the team of high school volunteers who helped prepare the meal six kilometres away at Chatham High School.
“I don’t call them kids,” he says. “I call them the future.”
He calls out bullies in the kitchen and mentions the attitude of heavy metal group, Slipknot, towards their fans. “They just love you, they don’t judge”.
And then he persuades one of the older guests to get up from his seat and yodel.
The table erupts in laughter, a fitting end to an evening in which local people and producers are the stars, and which has been all about, to use Donovan’s word, sharing.
The following morning, my daughter and I set off to explore the Great Lakes Food Trail, starting with a scrumptious breakfast at Bent on Food in Wingham, 10 minutes up the road. Owner Donna Carrier coordinated the Long Table Dinner and is a driving force in the region bringing producers, farmers, chefs, artists and musicians together. She opened the award-winning Bent on Food 17 years ago, owns a lifestyle store and plans to open a tapas-style oyster and cocktail bar at the Manning River Rowing Club mid- year. She’s hoping Donovan will be involved.
We take a quick look around Wingham, checking out the impressive Memorial Hall and funky collectable and antique stores then drive to Great Lakes Paddocks through the misty lush green hinterland. As we drive onto the property, we notice a number of grass-fed Angus cattle staring at us through the drizzle. Owners Steve Attkins and Robyn Piper moved here from the city 22 years ago and also grow olives, finger limes and grapes from which they make a variety of excellent Great Lakes wines. They offer a terrific Wine & Cheese Flight which includes a selection of 3 wines and 3 cheeses (the Camobyne Bluembert is a stunner) for $15 per person.
We’re pushed for time and set off for Yeo Farm at Bulahdelah where Andrew and Em Yeo run a pasture raised lamb operation. Unfortunately it’s closed due to the deluge. We return to the trail and drive to Bungwahl Hall on Lakes Way where a number of local producers and bakers including Palms Artisan Baker, Old Inn Road wines, Yeo Farm lamb and Josant’s Kitchen Maltese Pastries sell their produce.
Our last stop is at the Coastal Brewing Company in Forster where I’ve arranged to catch up with Donovan to talk to him about his future plans. He’s knocking back a schooner or two while a couple of photographers take videos and pix for local press and social media. Owner Helen Black offers him a tasting flight of fresh craft beers, all made on site.
“The names of our beers are linked to the natural beauty of the Barrington Coast area,” Helen tells us.
So far I’ve learnt that he’ll be designing the menu for the winners of the Sydney Peace Prize at Carriageworks in Sydney on November 19th. This year the winners are the group of indigenous people who wrote the Uluru Statement From The Heart.
“I reckon we should ask David (Helen’s husband) to make a Red Centre beer for the dinner,” he quips.
And then he goes walkabout, returning half an hour later, eager to show us a video he’s taken on his iPhone of a rock band jamming in the nearby industrial estate.
“Remember, I’m the chef who was playing in a band” he grins “And Darren was going to be a chef, so it seems we swapped roles.”