“A bushfire can burn for months out here,” says the driver, “there’s been one over there smouldering since Christmas.” It’s now March and we’re driving down a long, straight road outside the small country town of Birregurra (population around 750 people), about two-hours drive from Melbourne. Every so often we pass a warning sign for kangaroos: “they’re big, especially the dominant males,” he says, “you really don’t want to hit one.”
Like many hungry food devotees before us, we’re on route to the Brae restaurant, the first solo venture by Australian born chef Dan Hunter: a man who has been collecting food accolades for fun in recent years. (Chef of the Year in both The Age Good Food Guide and Australian Gourmet Traveller magazine, and 87th on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List, 2015).
Brae sits on 30-acres of land, much of it reserved for what Hunter calls an “intensive” vegetable garden; it’s an ultra-modern restaurant encased within an all white wooden building—the sort you’d expect to see on Little House on The Prairie, the porch outside just asking for a rocking chair.
“We moved in 6 months before we opened and straight away we started working on (the garden),” says Hunter, “we planted over 200 fruit trees in that time, and a citrus orchard.”
The farmhouse building, which dates back to the 1860s, is surrounded by these gardens which also include an olive grove, and it’s in this area where much of the inspiration for the restaurant’s food is found. Hunter says Brae grows around 90% of the plant based ingredients found on their menu.
He has solid credentials: six years in charge of the Royal Mail restaurant in Dunkeld, and before that a four years in Spain where he worked as head chef at the Mugaritz restaurant. An impressive CV for someone who says they “fell into” the profession.
“I left high school, didn’t go to university, didn’t do terribly in high school but I wasn’t a scholar, that’s for sure.” While most of his friends graduated and moved to the cities, the expected route of an Australian country boy, he decided to travel.
“India, Central America, Asia. Lived in the UK for a couple of years, went to Mexico.” Any work in restaurants and pubs at this time was purely about earning a buck for the next adventure.
Then in 1997-1998—returning home from one of the notoriously rain-soaked and muddy Glastonbury music festivals, a job advert in a window and a bit of bravado propelled him to the path he’s now on. “I got off the bus in Bath, because it was just too muddy, and I saw a thing in a window for an advert for a second chef at this pub. I went in and applied for this job, and got it. I just told them I could cook - by that stage I’d done about six months of different work in cafes and seen a bit of whatever, but never cooked, didn’t own a knife, nothing.”
Though the pub wasn’t the right place for him—“I was there for about 5 months, it was just out of control. Guys smoking outside, kitchen hand wearing a kilt and an eye patch, real mental,”—the job sparked his curiosity. “I left there, went to the library and stole three books: Country Cookery, Sophie Grigson’s Meat Course, and The Joy of Cooking. I’ve still got them.”
He continued to travel and pick up work in restaurants, even doing a stint cooking at nursing home in England where he says a well known musician would sometimes entertain the guests.“Phil Collins was the neighbour”, he laughs, “he just used to play piano out in the backyard, it was amazing. This private nursing home in Kensington. You’d cook all these amazing meals… but then you’d have to puree 30 of them.”
It took around four-years before Hunter says he finally decided to get serious, returning to Melbourne to start apprenticeships in more classical restaurants. “When I started to do it properly, I was very clear, I knew I really enjoyed being in kitchens.”
He spent the next years learning as much as he could, reading those books he had stolen in his rebellious twenties and working with some of the greats. “I didn’t do any of my own food for years and years, I think that the process these days to want to be the head chef is too short.”
It was 2007 when he took the head chef job at the Royal Mail, helping to build one of Australia’s best restaurants, and in 2013 he finally opened Brae. A place where tasting menus reflect the garden, native Australian produce and the haul of fresh catch coming from the sea which sits just 30 minutes away.
A bowl of warm tomatoes with Davidson plums pop in the mouth, accompanied by a chilled crustacean broth—light, tangy and refreshing. There’s Calamari in a clear stock surrounded by black lip abalone, broccoli and blue mackerel. Eggplant cuddled up to Saltgrass lamb and sweet onion juice.
Dishes respect the place and many come peppered with a bitter hit of native ingredients: lemon aspen, quandong, Davidson plums. They’re not pushed to the extreme, never the lead, just sparingly used to add an extra layer, sharpness or balance. “These type of ingredients are great as pick me ups on your palette,” says Hunter.
“I still love to puree,” says Hunter and it’s perhaps those months he spent pureeing foods in the nursing home that helped inspire the most delicious surprise on his current menu. Iced Oyster: a dish that’s made by removing the oyster from its shell and mixing the brine with a cultured milk-based ice cream. The seriously rich ice cream is then scooped back inside the oyster shell and covered with a mix of dried sea lettuce, crystallised sherry vinegar and the dried and powdered oyster flesh. A textural treat, an umami hit and a fresh smack of the sea.
“I want the cuisine that you eat here, particularly as an international, to be something that you could travel for. You know, you don’t often go to Italy to each French food…I want people to come here and think - shit, I’m in Australia. This is not just another meal where you could be anywhere in the world.”
For now, Hunter says he’s happy with the infrastructure they’ve built at the restaurant in just a few years: worm based sewage treatment, rain catching systems to feed showers in their new onsite accommodation, growth of the gardens, and the early beginnings of a seed crop growing program. “We got our hands on some heirloom wheat seeds called red fife,” he smiles, “it’s hard to get them in Australia.”
“We’re just a baby,” is how Hunter sees the restaurant and now he wants more space to focus on the food: “I think from a creative point of view we need more time to spend in the kitchen, to develop dishes and that affinity we have with the area.”