In chef language, to be ‘in the weeds,’ roughly translates as ‘having a horrible time in the middle of service’. But at his new regional restaurant, Brae, Dan Hunter has given the phrase a more literal meaning. “The chefs started three weeks ago, and the first week they were here, four of them did nothing else for ten hours a day for five days in a row, except just pull weeds out,” laughs Hunter. “They literally weeded everything, even the olive grove, on their hands and knees.”
Cruel and unusual, perhaps, but the chefs couldn’t claim they didn’t know what they were in for. Hunter is Australia’s leading proponent of regional dining, celebrated for transforming Dunkeld’s Royal Mail Hotel from a practically unknown pub four hours outside of Melbourne to a widely renowned culinary Graceland. No small part of the restaurant’s success was Hunter’s insistence that he grow as much of the Royal Mail’s fresh fruit and vegetables as possible in his own garden, behind the kitchen.
It’s a philosophy the chef adopted when he returned to Australia from a stint as head chef at Mugaritz, a highly-regarded restaurant in Spain’s Basque Country. There, he worked closely with suppliers and local growers, but felt that kind of relationship was a missing connection in Melbourne. “When I got back to Australia and went to market I thought, this stuff is shithouse. What are you going to do with it?” says Hunter. “When I went out to Dunkeld I decided that if I was going to have the kind of restaurant I wanted to have, we had to have produce.”
So, when Hunter decided to establish his own restaurant, land for a substantial garden was top priority. He found the perfect spot in Birregurra, a tiny town in the Otway hinterland, a little over an hour-and-a-half hour’s drive from Melbourne.
Unlike the Royal Mail, Brae is exclusively about food. Together with his partners, Howard McCorkell and Damien Newton-Brown (the guys behind the renovated State Library, St Kilda Pier Kiosk and Heide Gallery) Hunter enlisted James Legge, principal of Six Degrees Architects, to design an intimate dining space on the hillside. What might appear as a typical farmhouse from outside reveals a slick contemporary space within, crafted from dark wood and hand-forged black steel. Brae’s walls are some of the best-dressed anywhere in Victoria, with artists like Todd Hunter, Steven Asquith and Gregory Hodge competing with what’s naturally a pretty great view.
Once the home of George Biron and Diane Garrett’s homely restaurant and cooking school, Sunnybrae, the 30-acre property has four bursting dams, an established orchard with stonefruit, pistachios, elderberries and a grove of a hundred olive trees. In the future, Hunter hopes to run a small head of cattle, and he’s investigating heirloom wheat varieties for milling in the kitchen. There’s also plenty of room for some serious fruit and veg.
Hunter believes that apart from freshness, growing produce himself allows him to serve items that simply aren’t commercially available. “Growing alpine strawberries, you never see them in the marketplace because they don’t travel. They don’t pack. They don’t store. It’s impossible,” he says. “But here, you can pick things at six o’clock and serve them at seven o’clock.”
And he does. Hunter’s menus capitalise on his ability to walk into his garden and grab something for dinner that night. “Although sections are planned quite a while ahead, there are always sections of the menu for whimsy, just from the day,” he says. “You choose something because you can and because it’s there. Without that daily inspiration, you feel a bit hollow.”
This allows - or obliges - the menu to change daily. When Broadsheet visited, Hunter’s set menu featured beef tendon and native pepperberry; wallaby, flax, lemon myrtle and wattle; grass-fed wagyu with grilled lettuce; charred radicchio and duck offal; and an uncomplicated but finessed dish of parsnip and apple.
Hunter believes his cooking style has altered through contact with the land. “It’s funny, because being on property and working in the garden every day, the food could possibly be more rustic than it used to be,” he explains. “It’s no less refined, but it’s more relaxed. The layering of flavours, which is very much a trademark of mine, is still there. But you need to be able to evolve as well.”
The most rustic of those farmhouse techniques is cooking with wood fire and smoke, which he’s doing on a charcoal griller and a masonry bread oven. It’s an addition to Hunter’s palate that draws a line between Royal Mail and Brae. “We live in an age in which we use temperature controls, we use digital thermometers, we use water baths that are set to within a point of a degree,” he says. “But to have coexisting within that wood and coal and all those type of things, it gives the project some credibility, and some grounded earthiness which I think is really important when you’re on a property like this.”
That sense of “grounded earthiness” is what Hunter hopes to impart to Brae’s diners. By asking people to travel into regional Victoria, the chef hopes they might set aside some of their received notions about restaurants and remember that they really are in his home. “People need to have that bit of a drive, get away a bit, and people tend to relax. They’re often more open to the food they’ll eat,” he says. “I just want to have a space where people forget about their day to day stuff, even if it’s just for a couple of hours. We have a space that allows that to happen.”
Brae serves dinner Thursday to Sunday from 6.30pm to 8.30pm, and lunch Friday to Monday from 12pm to 2pm. Set menus are $180pp, with another $120 for matched wines. While the restaurant only opened for business last Sunday, Hunter advises there’s already pretty strong demand for tables - so be prepared to plan your trip to Birregurra well in advance.
4285 Cape Otway Road, Birregurra
(03) 5236 2226