Any food-loving international traveler making the journey to Australia will doubtless hit the city of Melbourne, but those in the know will venture slightly further, 90 minutes’ drive outside the city to experience the iconic Lake House in Daylesford.
It has won countless awards, including more than 70 highly-coveted chef’s hats from the Good Food Guide for its brilliant cuisine which defines "local" in ways that most restaurants could only dream, while its elegant accommodation is one of the jewels in the crown of Luxury Lodges of Australia. It also tells the story of its co-founder, the irrepressible, dynamic and inspirational Alla Wolf-Tasker.
Her own multiple accolades have included winning two Living Legend awards and the Outstanding Contribution to Australian Food. But you get the impression, meeting her in person, that industry and peer recognition are the last things that drive her. Especially when she smiles and says: “I think they’re giving me a legend award because they’re so pleased I'm still alive!”
A culinary journey 40 years long
Instead, it’s an insatiable drive to move food forward, to continue extolling the virtues of local, sustainable production that she first championed more than 40 years ago when next to no one was doing likewise.
Her culinary journey was forged in France where she learnt about a sense of place that, in time, would come to define her: “The thing that resonated with me so much in French regional high-end restaurants in the Seventies was developing the sense of place. Whereas here in Australia and in other parts of the world people were celebrating their wealth and gastronomic knowledge by having things sent over from halfway around the world or from another season, such as strawberries in winter, to show the world how sophisticated you were.”
It's a theme she comes back to, how food production has changed for the worst: “Globalisation has been good for some things but not so good for food. If I was offered an organic peach from Mexico and a non-organic peach from the down the road, from someone I could have a chat to, I would choose the local one anyway. People drive around in very expensive cars and sometimes they know more about the oil they put in their car than the food they feed themselves and their kids. It's just such a wake-up call.”
"Eat better, but less"
She continues in a similar vein, explaining the importance of valuing the food despite some obsessions completely at odds with what she grew up with: “A French blue-collar worker would tell you very proudly that they saved up for some Normandy lamb for a special anniversary. My dad used to do the shopping at the market. They didn't have much money but would bring back one small, very beautiful piece of meat and both sit and look at it, exclaim over it and talk about how they’re going to cook it. So, I think to eat better meat, but less.”
As such an industry icon, she is often asked about the difficulties she faced as a woman working in the business, especially at a time when female chefs were much rarer than they are today. She explains how hospitality has always been hard and based on unsociable hours, but adds: “You have to go in with your eyes open. You don't decide to do landscape gardening and then say, ‘I don't like the rain’ or ‘I don’t like the cold’. You aimed for it. But we do have to tell people that it is unsociable hours and that there’s a different camaraderie operating. So, can it be more difficult for women? It depends on the woman and what they want in life.”
Alla Wolf-Tasker's family
Wolf-Tasker’s projects and vision remain ambitious. She and her husband are overseeing the renaissance of a farm a few miles down the road, to eventually supply Lake House with even more of a bounty of local produce. She is working on building up an Institute of Gastronomy and Good Food with the hope that it will be “a game-changer for food, wine and agricultural tourism, training, and education in Australia.”
There’s also her role as a judge for the Delicious Produce Awards which allow her to champion those who rarely get in the spotlight: “Producers are the unsung heroes of the food world. They are the ones that really do need the leg-up and the celebrity status because, without them, we would be cooking with a lot of rubbish. They're really incredible and very, very hardworking, a huge boost for the local community. At a time when wanting to know where your food has come from is becoming more and more important, their role has never been more critical.”
Wolf-Tasker’s seemingly endless energy and drive will doubtless mean she continues to drive forward further new projects. The farm is one of many on her crowded plate at the moment, but you can’t help but think that it’ll only cement her status as one of Australia’s foremost champions of good food, both by supporting it and serving it.