When it comes to hospitality, you can't beat Mark James. His warm, charming nature and million dollar smile puts you at ease the moment you meet him. He took time out recently from his busy schedule to talk to Calder Western about his popular restaurant Donkey in Kyneton, his love of music, travel and the secret to real fried chicken.
Can you tell me a little about yourself and how Donkey came about?
A long time ago, in the '80s, I found that I had an affinity for hospitality and so, to the detriment of any other career, I have been in the industry pretty much ever since.
I am married to my best friend, and business partner, the beautiful Kelly, and we have two boys, who are both lovely...but a little bit naughty. [Laughs]
In the early 2000s, on a holiday from managing a pub in Richmond, where Kelly and I met while working together, I traveled across the United States. It was then that I discovered roadside BBQ, real fried chicken, and Pabst Blue Ribbon.
It was on this trip that the idea for Donkey was born.
I have to ask but what is real fried chicken? How does America make it better?
Firstly, the chicken gets cut up into nine pieces, then it gets brined in a bath for two hours at sixty degrees and then marinated for 18-24 hours. Some people use buttermilk, while some use a lemony, salty, spicy mix. We use the latter. Then it gets coated for the first time in a complex flour mix and then, before cooking, it gets coated a second time. Then fried to exactly seventy degrees. This makes sure the chicken stays moist but not greasy.
Real fried chicken is a labour of love!
What were some of your favourite places in the States you visited?
Austin, Texas for the music, Memphis for the food, Graceland and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, San Fransisco and Santa Barbara because they are charming. Bisbee, Arizona. It is built-in and around an old copper mine and it just has a good feel.
How did the name "Donkey" originate? How is it associated with the chicken image of the logo?
When trying to think of a name we were going through different permutations of the word “chicken”, trying to be clever. Anyhow, Kelly was looking out of our kitchen window and saw our two donkeys and said: "Let's call it Donkey!" Being the wise man I am, I replied “Yes!” [Laughs]
The chicken is there because we sell fried chicken. Simple but very effective ... AND everyone remembers it! (Laughs)
What have been some of the challenges in running Donkey?
Apart from dealing with the local council planning department, just getting things going and making enough money to pay the bills.
What advice can you offer someone thinking of starting their own business?
A solid business plan is EVERYTHING! And don't be afraid to ask questions.
What is your favourite aspect of running your own restaurant?
Everything is a reflection of me and Kelly. If you have a good business model or plan, which we do, and if you work hard, then you have a good chance of succeeding.
What were you doing before you set out to create Donkey?
Before Donkey, I was the front of house manager at Mr Carsisi in Piper Street and ten years ago, Kelly and I used to own the Morning Star hotel in Williamstown. I have been working in hospitality for a long time.
Considering you have been in the hospitality industry for a long time you must have dealt with some difficult customers?
Customers can be an endless source of amusement: "This peppered veal is too peppery!"; "This french onion soup is too oniony!"; "Is the single piece of chicken three pieces?" Huh? Say that back again slowly?
I’ll ask, "Did you enjoy that?" They will respond with "Not really, I don't really like chicken!" Well, one: our fried chicken is amazing! And two, don't order chicken if you don't like it!! [Laughs]
Saturday lunch, already busy - we seat forty. Some people arrive and asks: "Do you have a table for nineteen people?" and then be shocked that we don’t!
How would you describe the interior space of Donkey. What vibe are you going for?
The restaurant is our interpretation of an American diner, without being cheesy - no chrome or red and white leather. It is all exposed brick and timber, very warm. The walls are filled with an eclectic mix of pictures.
The “eclectic mix of pictures” feature a lot of musical artists. Has music been a big influence in your life?
For as long as I can remember I have loved music! I don't know where it came from, my family wasn't particularly musical. (Laughs)
Can you tell me a little about the band you sang in? Did you, or do you, secretly harbour ambitions to become a rock star?
With a love for music, I was naturally attracted to similar minded people. From this, a band seemed a natural progression. We were simply mates playing together. It was an excuse to get out of the house, into a studio and play and talk about music and drink beer. It was good fun! We only ever got out of the studio once, then a couple of guys moved, and it lost momentum.
Don't worry about what other people are thinking. Travel as much as you can. Don't spend ALL your money on beer.
What bands are you into?
The best live acts in the world are …
What artists are currently on high rotation?
Are there any local bands that you recommend people get out and see?
Favourite book or TV show of all time?
What are some of your favourite websites?
You have a big, vibrant personality! Have you always been larger than life?
The potential was always there. It gets bigger as I get older! I think it comes from a touch of narcissism. (Laughs)
What advice would you give a young Mark?
Don't worry about what other people are thinking. Travel as much as you can. Don't spend ALL your money on beer. (Laughs)
What are a couple of things that we should know about you?
I would love to write a book one day. I love a bit of true crime action.
What is your favourite food?
Apart from fried chicken, a good steak.
Are you coffee or tea man?
You are well travelled. What destinations do you hope to visit?
The American east coast and Japan.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Kelly and I still don't get much spare time. I love to go out for lunch. I also like to read, listen to music or a good true-crime podcast or documentary.
Can I ask what prompted your move from Melbourne to regional Victoria? Was it the lure of country living?
Kelly had wanted to move to the country for years and we had scouted around the whole state but always ending up back in Kyneton. I had resisted for ages, for no real reason that I can think of.
Anyhow, ten years ago I signed a twelve-month lease on a rental property in the heart of town. Within six months we had bought three acres, in Drummond, ten minutes out of town. The whole area is charming: the people are lovely, the air is clean and, in Kyneton alone, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to dining options.
Like any true converts, Kelly and I love the area and we couldn't fathom moving back to Melbourne.
What places would you recommend people visit while in town?
If you could invite three people over to dinner, living or not, who would they be and why?