It would be fair to say that God, Brahma or the twists of evolutionary fate that created the Shire of Byron and its surrounds were more than a little benevolent in the abundance department.
To say that the Northern Rivers is quite fertile is tantamount to suggesting the Sahara to be ‘a little bit sandy’. With a sedimentary blanket of rich, volcanic soil, an ideal balance of sunlight and warmth, rainfall and cool, it is a Green Thumb’s paradise, so it is no wonder that the region has a passion bordering on obsession for food – its creation and its enjoyment. Restaurants abound, farmers’ markets proliferate and the hinterland is a patchwork of agricultural exploit. But all that we see and all that we consume is only the very tasty tip of a delicious iceberg of produce.
When Terase Davidson was scanning the NASDAQ, wrestling ‘bears’ and ‘bulls’ and up to her eyes in stockbrokers, a quiet, chef’s life in the Byron Shire could not have been further from her reality. But the former executive assistant to a stockbroking CEO had always had an underlying passion for cuisine at an almost genetic level.
“There are seven chefs in my family. Most of my childhood memories are of being up here in Byron, on the balcony of the Fig Tree, having lunch or dinner,” she recalls of her younger years, pre-power suits and the corporate maelstrom. “My childhood was spent around food, whether in the garden with my grandfather, working in the family restaurant, making curries with my uncle – it’s always been about food.”
Despite spending much of her career in London and Sydney, Byron Bay has always been home from home for Terase, her extended family being long-time locals and restauranteurs.
Terase’s aunt and uncle on her mother’s side moved to Byron back in the ‘70s, establishing the Fig Tree Restaurant and eventually Julian Rocks, now The Eatery. They have since passed the mantle onto their two sons – Terase’s cousins – Che and Jules Devlin, and both have given Terase significant inspiration.
“I lived in London for ten years,” she says of her former life, “but whenever I came back I always had to come up here to Byron to get that feeling of reconnecting. I’d always wanted to work in the kitchen, and after years on the floor in investment banking, I remember ringing Charlie [her uncle] and saying, ‘I’m thinking about retraining to be a chef,’ and he told me to just do it. I took a year out and took an intensive course to get my certificate III. Within three months, I was already running a section in the kitchen of a One Hat restaurant in Sydney, out-cooking people who had been in the industry for ten years.”
When her enthusiasm for food began to outshine the intensity of the kitchen, Terase looked towards her own culinary venture. Despite living on her own in Sydney, she would always create an abundance of food, driven by a love of sharing the flavours and experience with others. She would invite friends over, take dishes to their houses, even donate to Bear Cottage, a palliative care hospice in Manly. The disconnect between the kitchen and the dining room was getting in the way, so Terase developed BYOChair.com.
After chefing for five years, Terase returned to merchant banking, but the need for culinary creation remained. BYOChair.com was, by her own admittance, “a bit of fun, sharing my recipes and having a connection with food because I was working in a corporate environment and needed that outlet. That need to share food and share the experience was probably one of my biggest driving factors.
Named for her mother’s open-door policy with house guests, welcoming anyone and everyone in at meal times but asking them to grab a chair from another part of the house, the project grew exponentially. First, it was just about creating the meals, then friends asked for cooking lessons, someone suggested a market stall for her produce, catering was requested and so on until the venture developed a life of its own.
But this accidental business was not ideal, and when an amicable redundancy ended her career in finance, she looked towards Byron Bay as the home of a new chapter, simply, descriptively, perfectly called ‘Taste’.
“I loved my job [in merchant banking], but I would sit at my desk every day thinking about food; about recipes and cooking classes and how I could possibly create something up here.
“The name ’Taste Byron Bay’ very much said food experiences,” she explains, “but it also gave me the ability to say that it is a taste of what Byron Bay has to offer, so it didn’t necessarily have to be solely about food.”
Taste Byron Bay encapsulates the flavours of the region, both in the culinary sense and in terms of our eclectic, artisanal community. Bringing together these facets – the local farmers’ markets, hinterland agriculture, regional fishermen and butchers, as well as the scenery and culture of the Northern Rivers, Terase takes her guests on a degustation for the eyes and mouths.
For her, as it is with her cousins, Che and Jules at the Fig Tree and The Eatery, fresh is best – in taste, in quality and in nutrition – so it is only right that they should utilise the abundance of the Northern Rivers.
“Mum and dad opened the Fig Tree in the early ‘80s, with it’s own vegetable garden, much as you see it now,” says Che, who has joined us on the lawn of the Fig Tree where we sit, gazing out to the Cape amidst the lush bounty of their kitchen garden. “It’s funny, I was in the restaurant the other day and a couple said to me, ‘we went and saw the vegetable garden, it’s beautiful. It’s really trendy to have a vegetable garden nowadays isn’t it?’ I said, ‘yeah, yeah, I guess so,’ and showed them a picture of my dad back in 1981, in the garden in front of the restaurant!”
Agriculture in the region has been booming for many years, but it is only relatively recently that it has been given just attention. With Taste Byron Bay, Terase expands the Byron experience, seeing the ‘Sun, Sea, Sand’ persona as just one microcosm of a far wider environment.
“The timing has been perfect. In Europe, they really embrace the seasonality of their food, but I think that is only just beginning in Australia. I have developed the idea of what I want to create [with Taste] very clearly and now people want to know the provenance of their food, they want to be able to meet the farmer and have that experience of discovering where their food comes from, and I think Byron is the perfect place for that because, not only does it have some amazing farmers and producers here who have been doing an awesome job for 30 or 40 years, but you can easily connect with those people relatively quickly…they’re all close by.”
There are numerous reasons why Terase regales the benefits of local produce: health, environment, food miles and support of the local economy are just a few. But she is very quick to recoil any finger of judgment, proud of these aspects but promoting her ethos instead as ‘all about the taste’. Ultimately, the entire experience is about the consumer, so to harvest local, seasonal produce for your ingredients will mean a far tastier, richer, more delicious dish to be served.
“Once you’ve sold that idea, all of those other things become a positive by-product – you’re supporting the farmers, you’re supporting sustainability, but you’re not pointing your finger, telling people what they should do. You’re saying, ‘you know what? It tastes better – that’s the only reason you should be doing it.”
Terase has created three very reasonably priced packages catering to a range of ‘tastes’. An organic farm tour connects her guests with the producers, exploring the concept of creating a menu based on seasonal and regional offerings, rather than demanding any product all year round. We are lucky in the Shire to boast several farmers’ markets and Taste takes advantage of this, visiting the New Brighton market on its second tour, sampling the wealth of goodness and enjoying a crash course in baklava with passionate local, Ilias the Greek.
The third tour is pure indulgence. Having been quizzed numerously about the vintage tableware she uses for her catering and cookery schools, Terase has developed a day out that combines antiques shopping with foody flair, culminating in oysters, bubbles and beer at Brunswick Heads. “The day will finish up at Clem’s Cargo in Brunswick Heads. They’re going to set the table in vintageware – beautiful cut glass, fine china and so on. So we’ll have oysters and champagne there, which will allow the guests to have a drink and meander through the shop.”
But this isn’t the culmination of Taste’s offerings. Catering, hen’s weekends, cookery schools, all employing Byron’s diverse ingredients, are also on offer.
“I’ve never wanted to just do something because it’s easy, so it’s taken me a long time to pull all these pieces together. We don’t just go and visit a farm, we visit a farmer that I really believe in, who has the ability to interact with a big group of people and get his message across without preaching. I could just stay by the coast and play on the renowned image of Byron, but what I want to do is take people out into the hinterland and help them discover how stunning it is.”
With such a superb array of producers, farmers and ingredients quite literally on our doorsteps, it is clear to see why Terase has chosen to promote this as an equally attractive aspect of Byron Bay. As many a local will attest, we may be known for our beaches and waves, but the real Byron Bay has so many more flavours to offer.