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Going native

Sunita Sue Leng
Sunita Sue Leng • 6 min read
Going native
Sydney chef Clayton Wells elevates modern Australian food to beyond the barbecue with his inventive culinary voice and indigenous produce at Blackwattle.
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Sydney chef Clayton Wells elevates modern Australian food to beyond the barbecue with his inventive culinary voice and indigenous produce at Blackwattle.

Australian chef Clayton Wells likes foraging in the wet markets of Singapore, a favourite being Tekka Market in Little India. There, he discovered jackfruit and ginger flower, ingredients new to him. After some experimenting, both have now popped up on the menu at his new restaurant, Blackwattle, in Singapore. The jackfruit stars in its own right as a custard on the à la carte menu, while ginger flower accompanies a coconut sorbet on the tasting menu.

Letting ingredients, even unfamiliar ones, dictate what he serves is how Wells is putting his stamp on the crowded fine-dining scene. That, as well as a knack for balancing flavours, has brought originality and adventure to the plate and sparked a wave of accolades for the 35-year-old Sydneysider, such as Hottest Chef of 2016 from The Weekend Australian Magazine.

Just two years after opening his first restaurant, Automata, in Sydney, Wells has brought his brand of elevated Aussie cooking to Singapore, thanks to a long-standing relationship with local hotelier and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng. That dates back to 2010 when Wells was helming Viajante restaurant at Town Hall Hotel in London, which is owned by Loh’s Unlisted Collection group.

Although Viajante earned a Michelin star in its first year, the restaurant shuttered and Wells returned to Sydney to help open Momofuku Seiobo, the first restaurant outside of the US by colourful Momofuku founder David Chang. Soon after, Loh began refurbishing the Old Clare Hotel in Sydney and offered Wells the chance to open his first solo restaurant at the inner city hotel.

Automata quickly won fans for its ever-changing, ingredient-inspired fare in a polished industrial setting. That same aesthetic has been recreated in a shophouse on Amoy Street. Blackwattle, named for the acacia trees native to Australia, is all dark slate walls with a dollop of testosterone — from the soundtrack that alternates between hip hop, rap and rock music to the tattoos on Wells, head chef Joeri Timmermans and Eddy, the restaurant manager.

Up close, Wells is laidback and unaffected. The bespectacled chef commands his crew with affable calm and, unlike his Momofuku mentor Chang, there is no profanity in his kitchen. Today, he is patiently introducing the media to indigenous ingredients from the Australian bush and coast that he is infusing into the menu in conjunction with Australia Day on Jan 26.

Native Australian ingredients are being worked into the menu

These include bush tomato, which looks like a shrivelled caramel-coloured currant. However, it surprises on the palate with its peppery aftertaste and packs a punch in vitamin C. For an appetiser, Wells has combined bush tomato with crème fraiche to produce a lush puree to drizzle on a rice keropok.

Then, there is quandong, a small, deep-red wild peach found in the central deserts and southern areas of Australia. Very tangy and high in antioxidants, it is used by Wells as a substitute for vinegar. In a main course of beef, the scarlet, sour juice of the quandong works well with a Wagyu tri-tip, which is perfectly charred on the outside and fork-tender pink on the inside. Rounding up the dish was grilled saltbush, a hardy plant that grows close to the desert and has large, flat leaves with a slight salinity to them.

Other greens that stand out for their salty and acidic taste are the crystal ice plant, whose leaves and stems are covered by sparkly reservoirs of fluid. With its tiny red buds, the coastal green, which thrives along the shores of South Australia, is a delight to behold. Related to the crystal ice plant is sea blite, a native sea fern that grows in salty mudflats and saline estuaries.

The coastal greens are used in a dish with steamed Ling, a white fish from New South Wales related to cod but firmer in texture. The slight fishiness of the Ling is removed by a well-chosen combo of fermented daikon and gently poached desert limes, which are tiny green-yellow spheres with a refreshing citrusy taste. Found mostly in southwest Queensland and western New South Wales, desert limes have been growing in popularity owing to their intense tangy and slightly bitter flavour and lack of peel.

Wells (left) and head chef Timmermans hope to offer something different to Singapore’s fantastic dining scene

Dessert was a showcase of native fruit. Barley ice cream found harmony with muntries, also known as native cranberries or emu apples. Small and round, muntries taste like a cross between apple and strawberry. Found in the arid areas of South Australia, they are a long-standing favourite of the aboriginal community. They have also been found to contain up to four times the amount of antioxidants of blueberries. Also in the mix were riberries, an arresting purple fruit with traces of cinnamon and clove on the tongue. Providing an acidic kick was lemon aspen, a berry bland in colour but big on taste.

Unfortunately, much of this native bush tucker is foraged and not yet commercially grown. So, whether it pops up at Blackwattle depends on Wells getting his hands on such indigenous fare and working it into the menu. In the meantime, he aims to offer “something different” to -Singapore’s “fantastic” dining scene. “It’s one of the biggest reasons we are here,” he says. It also helps that he has family here, through his partner, as well as good Aussie chef friends such as Rishi Naleendra from Cheek by Jowl, Sam Aisbett from Whitegrass and Dave Pynt from Burnt Ends.

He has also been educating his palate with native ingredients from Singapore and singles out the first time he tasted buah keluak. The black nut had been whipped into an ice cream by Michelin-starred chef Malcolm Lee of Peranakan restaurant Candlenut. “It was one of the most delicious ice creams I’d ever eaten,” he recalls with a tone of reverence. It is probably only a matter of time before candlenut, sourced from a wet market here, finds its way into the constantly evolving interpretation of Australian gastronomy that Wells is dishing up.

Sunita Sue Leng, formerly an associate editor at The Edge Singapore, usually finds inspiration after a glass of wine

This article appeared in Issue 817 (Feb 12) of The Edge Singapore.

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