Grass-roots gastronomy

BraeThe road to Brae has been peppered with challenge and opportunity for chef and owner Dan Hunter. The land now provides the inspiration for his art, where food is the medium, writes Samantha Trenoweth.

I never feel inspired to cook when I’m walking down a street in the city,” says Dan Hunter, one of a number of chefs who have breathed new life into Australian regional dining. “But I do feel creative when I’m walking in the bush or in a garden, which I do every single day. It stimulates me to be more creative.”

And when you have to seduce diners to travel 90 minutes out of Melbourne to sample your fare, creativity is critical. The fact that Hunter is taking bookings from Singapore, Tokyo and New York is testament to that creativity. His restaurant, Brae, is one of the most exciting concepts to appear not only
in regional, but in Australian, dining
in many years.

The road to Brae

A Victorian by birth, Dan grew up in Bairnsdale, Gippsland. He took up the knives later in life, working his way up to head chef at the Michelin-starred restaurant, Mugaritz, in Spain.

Returning to Australia, he spent six years at the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld, in the Grampians. Having taken the restaurant to three hats in the The Age’s Good Food Guide awards, he went on to win Chef of the Year in 2012.

By then Dan knew that he wanted a regional restaurant of his own, and that he wanted to use locally sourced organic produce. He and his wife, Julianne Bagnato, spent four years travelling around Victoria and southern Australia, looking for exactly the right place to fulfil their vision.

They found what they were looking for in the town of Birregurra, in the Otways—130km from Melbourne on the Cape Otway Road. Sunnybrae was an old farmhouse on 30 acres of organic orchards, olive trees and vegetable gardens.

Sunnybrae’s previous owner, George Brion, had established the gardens and a restaurant, but there was a lot of work to be done to create the establishment that would fulfil the couple’s dreams—including a completely new fit-out.

“Not much of the inspiration to create a dish comes from inside the stainless-steel environment that a kitchen is”—Dan Hunter, Brae.

Local wonder

Open for dinner Thursday to Saturday and for lunch Friday to Monday, the bookings have come thick and fast. Dan provides a multiple-course degustation menu with matching wines for 45 diners at a time. The price is $190pp for the unique daily menu, plus $125pp for matched wines.

Almost everything on the menu is sourced from Brae’s organic garden or from local producers. The wine list has been curated using mostly artisanal wines from local vineyards.

The unanimous praise that Brae received within weeks of opening meant that pressure was immediately on to maintain a very high standard of craftsmanship and creativity.

“My medium is food, and what we do has a very strong creative element to it,” he explains. “Having said that, it’s a craft-based industry, and you do spend years and years refining technique to be able to have a creative input on top of that craft. I very much enjoy the craft side of things—doing things over and over again and finding joy in discovering new ways to do the most mundane jobs.

“Not much of the inspiration to create a dish comes from inside the stainless-steel environment that a kitchen is. The ideas come from travel or being with friends or interaction with nature or experiencing other forms of creativity, like painting. All of those things are consumed by me and spat out.”

Food at the centre

Traditions and philosophy are very important at Brae. “We were a pretty simple Anglo family,” Dan says, “but my siblings and I always had to be at the table at a certain time of day. It wasn’t an elaborate thing, but it was an important moment to share the day and talk about things. So, I suppose, one of the reasons I got into cooking was because I liked the idea of creating food to share with friends and relatives.

“Now we cook a menu that is quite drawn out. There are plenty of dishes presented and I hope people take their time to share the meal. A lot of restaurants want people to come in, sit down, eat—then get up and go. And they never see them again. But I have people sit for three or four hours and enjoy each other’s company, enjoy our company, relax and forget about the stresses of their lives.”

He adds that Julianne is from an Italian background and grew up in a household where food was a ritual at every family occasion. “It’s about sharing the space and food being the centre of that,” says Hunter.

“We have core dishes, and then we choose things that might occur to us on the day—something in the garden, or just some little thing that captures that sense of the day really. There’s always an element of surprise in my food.

“We present 16 or 18 dishes over the course of a meal. It’s quite gentle. We want people to leave feeling pleasantly happy, not feeling stuffed.”

Man of the people

The creativity in the kitchen is balanced out by the team morale, and Brae has gathered a diverse, interested and enthusiastic team both in the kitchen and in front of house. It’s as careful a balance of personalities as a dish is a delicate balance of flavours.

Many of the senior staff have worked internationally. Some of the junior staff have come from troubled backgrounds via the Brotherhood of St Lawrence.

Restaurant manager Simon Freeman is an old friend of the Hunters. He worked in Europe at the highest level, developing—in particular—his skills with a wine list. In Australia, Freeman worked at the Royal Mail with Hunter, and around the Margaret River. The other staff come from various walks of life: some locals, some young, aspiring chefs from all over—and then there are old hands, such as sous chef Damian Neylon, who’s worked with Hunter for eight years.

“We are able to offer something in the style of those great international restaurants. That’s what we want to be—the great Australian restaurant,” says Hunter.

“In Europe, I was working in kitchens with 30 chefs under me, and you’re working with 20 waiters and you serve 50 customers. Some restaurants in Europe have 60 chefs and 25 waiters for 40 customers. Of course, you can do really amazing things with that level of staff. We really can’t do those sorts of things over here because of labour costs and so on, and that’s fine, but you do need a certain number of hands for a certain level of quality.”

How does your garden grow?

Brae’s competitive edge is not only in the management and professionalism of its staff or the creativity of the menu, it is also in the sourcing and growing of so much fresh, local, chemical-free produce. These are ingredients as nature intended.

“We’re working towards a biodynamic garden,” says Hunter. “We’re not there yet, but I see the difference when you treat the land
with biodynamic principles. We use basic organic principles. We put a lot of effort into using solar power and water catchment systems. We’re keen to have that a big part of what we do. I want to live in a healthy environment. I want everyone to live in an ecosystem that doesn’t make people sick.

“If you eat food in this restaurant, you can be sure that it’s healthy. We grind our own wheat. We make butter. We make yoghurt. We make ricotta. We don’t use processed foods. We only use produce from ethical producers. As a result, I have full confidence in the food chain.”

Sleep on it

The next stage for Brae begins in the first half of this year with the opening of six guest suites for overnight stays. These suites will each be fitted with a king-sized bed, organic cotton bed linen, star-gazing skylight, sitting area with turntable and record collection, cocktail bar, underfloor heating, large bath and views to the rolling hills of the beautiful Otways.

Although there is some lovely accommodation in Birregurra, Brae’s on-site overnight stays will expand the experience. Dan likens it to a stay with ‘the perfect auntie’ who has paid attention to all the fine details, “including a country breakfast the way it’s supposed to be done”.

Fine dining in the regions

Australian regional fine dining has taken off exponentially in this century. Part of the attraction is fresh local produce and close proximity to the source. Part of it is chefs and restaurateurs like Dan, Simon and Julianne, who are prepared to take up the challenges of opening a regional business and develop restaurants that are in sync with their environments. Moreover, regional restaurants are common in Europe, and well-travelled Australians are now used to the adventure of a trip to the country.

“You only have to look at the last six or seven years to see the way regional dining has taken off,” says Hunter. “I can name 10 regional restaurants that I would be happy to go and eat at that didn’t exist seven years ago.

“People will travel anywhere so long as what you offer them when they arrive is something extraordinary,” he concludes.

“There are so many people getting out of the city to dine. It’s not just about a meal: it’s about having a day out and spending time in a part of the country you wouldn’t usually go to. It’s about surprises.”

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