If you’ve ever watched Chef’s Table on Netflix or dined at one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, you understand the dedication it takes to operate at this level. We’re talking 16-hour days for months or years at a time.
Now throw an 80,000-word cookbook into the mix.
Such is the load that Dan Hunter has been carrying for the past two years. As his three-year old restaurant Brae has ascended the ranks of the 50 Best, from 87th in 2015, to 65th in 2016, to 44th this year, he’s also been recording 62 recipes and reflecting on his career for Brae. The book comes out on May 1.
“It was a pretty long, long task,” Hunter says. “[Writing] isn’t my chosen profession and certainly not my skill set and the restaurant’s extremely busy.
“In that time when I agreed – or rather, signed the contract to do the book – the restaurant sort of exploded … in terms of going from not being full every day, to being full every day.”
Maybe this protracted writing period was for the best. Most of the recipes in the book are beyond home cooks, thanks to obscure ingredients, technical preparation, or both. It shares this in common with cookbooks from Noma, Fäviken, El Bulli and Mugaritz, which publisher Phaidon has previously released.
But you don’t really buy these books to make the recipes. In Brae, they only take up three-quarters of the book anyway. The first section contains a wonderfully raw account of Hunter’s journey thus far, from washing dishes in a pub in Ascot Vale, Melbourne (“Now, this job was a bitch”), to blagging his way into his first chef role in Bath, England, and later cooking at high-end restaurants in Melbourne and Spain. It’s evident that it was written over some time, with plenty of thought.
“In a funny sense, [that section of the book is] basically unedited,” Hunter says. “There was a never any, ‘We think you should say this’ or ‘Can you elaborate on this?’ I just wrote it from start to finish over time.”
This part also holds a detailed account on what it took to get Brae open; some thoughts on the challenge of running a garden; a copy of the garden blueprints; and a diary that spans several months of Brae’s day-to-day operations.
As with its predecessors, the book is much more about peering behind the magician’s curtain and into the magician’s mind than it is about replicating his or her complex tricks.
That idea continues in the recipe section, which is best read after visiting Brae. Knowing how the tricks are done doesn’t diminish their impressiveness – if anything, it enhances them.
Here’s a sample from the famous Iced Oyster dish: “Gently heat the mixture to 25 degrees and add the milk powder, stirring constantly so that it does not fall to the bottom of the pan. Continue warming the mixture to 35 degrees and add the rest of the caster sugar, the dextrose and the trimoline.”
The crazy thing is, a lot of these dishes didn’t even exist when Hunter was approached to do the book, seven months after opening the restaurant.
“At that stage it was like, ‘Shit, you better get organised because we don’t even have 60 dishes so far in this restaurant!’” Hunter says. “There were blocks where I’d be thinking, ‘I hope we get there because I’m not feeling very creative at the moment, and there’s not a lot of new food going on the menu.’”
But again, this added pressure had unexpected benefits.
“I probably haven’t dedicated enough formal time to creativity in the past. People who don’t work in creative fields don’t understand that creativity needs to be structured sometimes, or all the time. It’s not something that’s airy-fairy and you just do things when you feel like it – it’s a results-based situation.
“We want to evolve the restaurant. We want to evolve the way we work and ideas and concepts, but if you don’t actually sit down and work on those things strategically, they’re just ideas, aren’t they? They’re not actually concepts, they’re just things that float in your head.
“[Writing the book] was enjoyable and it helped me to look at what we do from a very close perspective. There was a professional benefit in that – to really question what we do and whether we should continue to do things that way. I wouldn’t be doing it again tomorrow. But I wouldn’t say that I wouldn’t do it again at some point.”
Brae will be released on May 1 and is available to buy on Phaidon’s website.
Dan Hunter is touring Australia to promote Brae. He will appear at the following restaurants to cook his recipes and discuss the writing process. Bookings can be made through each restaurant.
Cutler & Co, May 1, 6.30pm.
Magill Estate, May 3, 6.30pm.
Quay, May 9, 6.30pm. $450
Urbane, May 10, 6.30pm.
Nick Connellan dined at Brae as a guest of Phaidon.