Celebrated for turning country pub The Royal Mail in Dunkeld into a revered dining destination, chef Dan Hunter is now determined to grow his own regional restaurant Brae, at the foothills of the Otways. It is a sophisticated farmhouse restaurant and working kitchen garden where Hunter and his team deliver food from their patch to your plate. It’s a laborious process, but a fascinating one, so Hunter has kept a journal for us, documenting a typical day at Brae.
It’s a busy Saturday, so an early start. First thing this morning, Damien, my sous chef, turns on the irrigation system – fed from our dams, before making the bread dough for the day. Over the past week there was a serious heatwave, and we really struggled. So to help the garden cope, before it gets too hot, we get as much water as we can into the ground.
Half the chefs (three – we are six in total and two kitchen hands) and the work experience guys spend the first couple of hours picking stuff for the day – veggies, leaves, what’s left of the berries – and pull a few weeds out as they go. Meanwhile, one of our chefs, Tom, lights the fire in the bread oven where I’ll bake the bread at 11am. I head off to Gentle Annie berry farm in the Pennyroyal Valley to pick more berries to supplement our own.
Shane, one of the kitchen hands, dumps yesterday’s green waste onto the compost. The chefs start planting seedlings we’ve been preparing for our autumn crop. Some more difficult root vegetables, such as celeriac, burdock, salsify and parsnip, are in seedling punnets. I get back from the berry farm with a couple of kilos of strawberry, thornless blackberry, brambles, raspberries and blueberries. I jump on the ride-on mower to clean up around the front of the house.
We pick some of the flat yellow beans my father-in-law Mal planted, which have been in my wife Jules’ family for as long as anyone can remember. I’ve certainly never seen them in a market. A lot of zucchinis are producing now. It’s amazing – we’ve actually got too many zucchinis this week.
The chefs head into the kitchen to prep for service. I put the bread in the wood oven for both lunch and dinner – it’s a naturally fermented, whole-wheat sourdough and takes around 45 minutes to bake. Then before we start cooking lunch, a treat for the team: coffee-chocolate-chip cookies baked by chef Trisha this morning.
As the chefs are completing the mise en place, I start tasting every element of every dish. This is a really important part of the day – when things are adjusted or even made again from scratch. This is one of the quality-control steps we take to ensure that everything is tasted by several people before the customers.
There is a staff briefing with all front-of-house and kitchen staff to discuss the menu and any issues from the previous service. The kitchen hands sweep the paths and the courtyard, fold the tea towels that were drying outside and roll up the hoses and sprinklers.
Guests start arriving, so we begin sending out dishes. For lunch today we take some of our abundant zucchinis, slice them very thinly, and blanche them in strips and roll them up like a nori roll with a mixture of potato and local short- fin eel. The beans are being served with grilled lettuce and salt grass lamb from Flinders Island.
It’s a really hot day so we have the kitchen door closed to keep the air con in the dining room. Service is going well but still one or two things have been forgotten from the garden – we’re a few portions short of beans for the lamb dish so a chef goes out to quickly pick what’s needed.
While the kitchen preps for tonight’s service, I sit down for half an hour to plan out what we’re going to plant for autumn and winter. In cooler months we always tend to use fennels, kohlrabi, different brassicas, cabbages and mustards. I make some notes for the gardener, Paul, who’ll be in when the restaurant is closed.
The last lunch guests are leaving and the team sits down to eat a meal. Today it’s a Korean feast cooked by another of our chefs, Sung. Pork belly, pickles, seafood pancakes and rice.
We’re back on with a full house for dinner. The chefs have been picking the leaves of the Japanese pepper tree, which we use in a dish of shortrib braised with Otway shiitake and samphire pepper. Also on the menu today is green juniper, which we’ve been curing and using as a spice, and confiting in a sugar-syrup with lemon verbena for a watermelon dessert.
All the 6.30 tables are late – which is bad, although it helps us to get the last of the prep done before they arrive. I finish up the last of the tasting for the dinner service, we warm the bread using the heat left in the brick oven and fire up the chargrill again. It is still over 30 degrees and the chefs are all pretty hot and bothered. I try to crack some jokes.
Service is in full flight and some welcome cool air is blowing in the back door as the sun sets. It’s these moments that remind us why we’ve moved to work in a country restaurant. Some of the customers leave the dining room to go outside to watch the sunset which, at first, pisses me off because it means we have to slow down the pace of the dishes coming out, but then I realise that it’s this type of experience that makes Brae so unique. Customers start coming into the kitchen to thank the staff. Although they’re tired this reminds them of the value in what they do.
Once we’ve finished service, we put the taps on to give the garden a soaking for a couple of hours. When we’re done cleaning up the kitchen, we go through the bookings, any special menus and produce issues for tomorrow. Before we leave we turn off the taps, then head home to rest before another day.