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Dan Hunter on Opening His Australian Destination Brae

Photo: Brae

In early December, former Mugaritz head chef Dan Hunter opened his first-ever restaurant, Brae, in the Australian country just outside of Melbourne. He had spent the previous six years building a name for himself in his home country — and winning all kinds of accolades — at Dunkeld's Royal Mail Hotel. That success proved to Australians that it was possible to have a fine dining destination restaurant outside of a major city, a reputation that the hotly anticipated Brae is carrying on in its early weeks: The Australian has already dubbed it "a new benchmark for Australian cooking and restaurant craft."

In the following interview, Hunter talks about the road to opening Brae and a career path in which he has eschewed the mainstream — whether that meant working in Spain when it was at the cutting-edge of cooking, or taking a job at a relatively unknown restaurant in the Australian countryside. He also talks about how to create and maintain a destination restaurant outside of a city, and why it's difficult for even a restaurant with significant garden space to ever be entirely self-sufficient.

For people who might not know, can you talk a little bit about how you got into cooking?
I actually got into cooking quite late compared to my peers. I traveled a bit when I was in my late teens, early 20s and didn't get into cooking really until about 22 or 23 maybe. It was purely because I was working as a kitchen hand, washing dishes and trying to save money to travel more. I liked the kitchen environment and was living in England for a little bit just working at a very low level in like a pub kitchen. And then just decided along the way that I wanted to take it more seriously. When I returned to Australia in my early 20s, I decided to do an apprenticeship. So I got into it late, but when I started the apprenticeship I took it quite seriously because I felt like I found something I wanted to do.

Where did you do your apprenticeship?
In Melbourne at two different restaurants. One is a restaurant not that well known, it's just a small seafood restaurant. And the other was a restaurant called Langton's which is shut now, but at the time was one of the best restaurants in Melbourne. That was my first entry into a large kitchen team doing pretty focused cooking. I'd never worked at that level before, so that was a big eye-opener for me. Post there, I worked another year in Melbourne in another small restaurant in a small team which was also pretty good, and from there went to Spain for four years.

[Photo: Brae]

What took you to Spain?
Really to cook. My wife and I had traveled quite a few years earlier in Central America and Mexico, and we just started to get interested in the Spanish language. She's from an Italian family and has an Italian passport, so I had an EU passport. After we got married, we wanted to combine learning Spanish and a stage as well. This was about 2002, that's when the whole news about what was going on in Spain was breaking in Australia. It probably started to be well-known in Europe before that, but in Australia we get information a bit later sometimes. Everyone was talking about Ferran Adrià and elBulli and places like that.

It seemed like most non-mainstream cooking was happening in Spain. I was interested in the non-mainstream.

I just thought what was interesting about it is that because of the restrictions for Australians to live and work in other countries, everyone [in cooking] ends up going to London. There's this whole school of chefs which has been trained [by] a handful of people, and so the food is quite similar. I just didn't want to follow that path. I guess at the time Spain seemed like where the most non-mainstream cooking was happening, and I was interested in the non-mainstream. So we followed that path.

It wasn't long before we left that I found out about Andoni [Luis Aduriz] and Mugaritz and decided before leaving that that was where I would like to end up if possible. I spent two years in Barcelona working in a restaurant called Caelis, a one-star Catalan-French kitchen. I was there more to start to learn the language, but the whole time had my thoughts on Mugaritz. I organized the stage and went and did a three-month stage. At the end of it, they offered me a chef de partie role, and then I stayed there for two years.

I'd never really thought about how everyone trained in London. Can you talk a little more about that?
To be fair, I think things have changed slightly now. At the time, we had a thing going on in Australia which was known as the Brit Pack. A lot of English chefs came out to Australia in the 90s probably seeking a better style of living and a better quality of life. And any chef who worked for them was sort of picking up that style and then going back to London themselves to work.

If I was going to be cooking, I wanted to do something that was new and exciting.

So we just had this period of time where, for me who was just getting into cooking, I just thought everything was the same. There was no variation. The cooking was quite traditional; there wasn't anything that was modern in the sense that it had never happened before. It was just a modern take on old recipes. That to me was fairly boring, to be honest. More than anything, it seemed like if I was going to be cooking, I wanted to do something that was new and exciting. And Spain at that point was really charging through and doing some things which hadn't been seen. Maybe much in the same way that is happening in Denmark at the moment. Just leading the world to a new place.

[Photo: Brae]

And what brought you back to Australia after that?
I was at Mugaritz for two years, and at the end of the first year, the manager of the restaurant at the time said to me, "Have you considered maybe being the head chef next year?" And I was just like, "Are you crazy? My Spanish is pretty poor and I also sort of don't think I'm ready for this." I just pushed it away at the time. They got someone externally to come in and that really didn't work out. I was the sous chef at the time, and I was in a position where it was really expensive living in San Sebastian. We'd been away for three years at this point, and we were getting a bit sick of it, to be honest. We were planning on coming back to Australia.

I went to a meeting with [the restaurant manager] to resign and before I resigned, he said to me, "Andoni wants you to be the head chef." I was like, "Shoot. That's not how I planned this conversation to go." So I went home to my wife Julianne and she was like, "Oh damn. I guess we have to stay." So then we stayed for the next year.

But coming home, I guess it was just time. Spain is an amazing place culturally. It's a bit difficult place economically. And we were sort of early 30s and looking in the future to have a small family and things like that. And I guess at some point wanted to run a business. So in hindsight — and even at the time — I probably would have liked to stay for at least one more year in that position and really make the most of it, but just nothing more than timing is the reason we came home.

Why did you wait another six years after striking out on your own? It seems someone who was head chef at Mugaritz could have come back and opened up his own place right off the bat.
Well, there's always the thing called money. I came back to Australia in 2007, and at that point Mugaritz just got the second Michelin star, just started getting to the top ten in the world in the San Pellegrino list. But it really wasn't that widely known. People didn't really understand what that meant that I was there doing that. It was a few years later [that] it clicked that that was important or a big deal. People probably wouldn't have valued [it] enough to invest in that sort of project.

So I decided when I came back I needed to make a name for a few years and also find my own style and the way I want to work. I think the six years that I was doing that in Dunkeld at the Royal Mail has allowed me to grow as a cook and find what I want to do. And in the meantime, to be honest, it took three years to find this property [where we started Brae]. My wife and I put a circle around Melbourne that was about no further than 150 or 160 kilometers from the middle of the city, and we just explored that whole area for years. It took a long time to find a site that we actually felt was right. So it was a bit frustrating at times as well because I was probably ready to do this a couple of years ago.

And so you definitely wanted to be outside of the city?

It feels right to be working surrounded by the produce that you use.

Yeah. Even Mugaritz was the same situation where it's only 15 minutes from San Sebastian. It's in a 200,000-person city so that's almost like a country town in Australia. And it's out in farmland, so you do feel quite detached. I just felt like it's appropriate for me. It feels right to be working surrounded by the produce that you use, growing produce when you can, and just being away from the intensity of the city and all the clutter that goes with being in the city. Even some of the great experiences I've had in other restaurants around the world have nearly always been somewhere out of the city.

And the more I work in that way, the less I can imagine being in the city just relying on public transport to get to work and waiting for supplies to turn up with produce which may not be to your liking and all those types of situations. And always looking over your shoulder at the restaurant up the road. So it's a little bit idealistic, but I think if you don't create the things you want to do, you just end up doing the things you don't want to do.

[Photo: Brae]

How do you calibrate your plans for a restaurant when you're opening up outside of the city, but I imagine you're still counting on some of those urban residents to be part of your clientele?
You think they're all your clientele, that's the thing. I live in a town now that's got 600 or so people. Even if they all came once, which they won't, 600 customers isn't going to bankroll a business. So what you have to recognize is that you need to get people to travel to your place to make it work.

Luckily, I've felt very supported by the restaurant industry in Australia in general. After they stopped thinking that I was crazy for going to Dunkeld in the middle of nowhere, I think people have been very respectful of the fact that we have chosen that as what we want to do and stuck to it. We haven't ever diluted it. I've never started cooking country food because I'm in the country. The reason I'm in the country is because I like to be free of the city so to speak. I also like to be surrounded by produce, but that doesn't mean that we're country hicks. The restaurant and the food has always been quite contemporary, the service is still very contemporary, the decor is very contemporary. So we still have a strong connection with our guests and an urban mindset, but just in a rural area.

I think that's a misconception that all things that are great and creative start in the city.

That's one of the intriguing things. Sometimes people think when they come to the country [that] they're not going to get something as good as they can get in the city. I think that's a misconception that all things that are great and creative start in the city. That's been one of the charms that has kept us a little bit in the forefront of people's minds because people are still having very modern, contemporary, thoughtful, thought-provoking experiences that they don't normally associate with being in a country area. But it is still difficult. We don't have the foot traffic. So one thing you have to do is you have to make sure you're constantly on your toes and updating and keeping it fresh so people will travel.

Well how long did it take you at Dunkeld for it to change from people thinking that you were crazy to obviously being successful out there?
(laughs) Thankfully it was quick. I started on the first of August in 2007 there, and in that year we did win several awards straight away. I think a lot of smaller country restaurants have had the ability to open up in those last six years because of how bizarre it seemed that a restaurant like that could exist three hours from the city. Some smaller operators might not have had the courage in the past to open a small restaurant out of the city. A lot more have opened in that time than probably any time before. That's been a really positive thing is that the food has moved out of the cities in Australia.

Absolutely. And how did the concept of Brae come together?
We wanted to have a restaurant where we were surrounded at least partly by the food that we could grow. This property, it's 30 acres, and about four or five acres of that is under garden. We have vegetable gardens and olive groves and fruit orchards. So I guess the concept is that over time we'll start to develop the property to have some animals hopefully and put a small amount of accommodations and just try to build almost like an oasis of rare and hard-to-find ingredients, heirloom vegetables, and heritage animals. But at the core of that have our restaurant that's both modern and contemporary and uses those products.

[Photo: Brae]

Is the idea to be entirely self-supported?
Well, once you start to get involved in those things you realize how difficult that is. That's years and years and years of work to get to that level. The space that you need to grow food for a restaurant that's busy is enormous. And to manage that land to make sure that you don't just destroy it by over-producing it requires a massive amount of money and time and planning. But, having said that, we do have a good amount of space. We certainly do have the endeavor to want to do that, but we're also realistic enough to know that we have a very, very cold wet Winter, and there's no possible way in a very, very cold, wet Winter without proper polytunnels and heating that you can grow the food that a restaurant requires.

It's very nourishing for chefs to grow food from start to finish.

I think it's very easy for restaurants and people to talk about how much they grow without any real understanding of agriculture. And once you actually get involved in a property you realize, hang on a minute, this is really difficult. But it's also really enjoyable to be able to grow food from start to finish. I think that's always the aim for me to be able to do that. It's very nourishing for chefs that work in that manner, and it's very exciting for the customers to eat that food because quite often it tastes incredible because it's been cared for from start to finish and it hasn't traveled. There is a difference in that quality of food.

Yeah I bet it's a great extra feeling of ownership.
Oh yeah, absolutely. I just like to be in charge of the processes, to be honest. That's one of the reasons why we started the garden when I went to Dunkeld. The distribution chains in Australia of fruit and vegetables aren't that amazing. The markets that are in the biggest cities tend to get all the food. If you want to have a restaurant of the nature and quality that I want to have, essentially we just decided that we needed to do it ourselves.

Absolutely. Well and finally, now that you've been open for five weeks, how have those weeks gone for you? How was the opening?
Great. We did a soft opening for friends and family on Saturday and then we opened to the general public on Sunday the 9th of December. So far so good. We haven't had any real problems yet. We did a pretty significant renovation of the whole building. We kept the exterior of the old building, but we gutted the inside completely and rebuilt it. So you expect to find a couple of problems along the way, minor things, but essentially I feel as though it's gone quite well.

We've just changed maybe two or three dishes that we opened with. It's funny because I said to my manager Simon the other day that it feels like six months ago that we opened. The menu, although it's so much the same, it's improved so much in that period of time and the service has improved so much. I felt in the first week that it wasn't anywhere near the level where I wanted it to be because the six months before that I was more worried about what the builders were doing and what chairs we were going to buy. Then I got to about two weeks away from opening and thought, "Oh dear me. People are coming for the menu, aren't they? I'd better start to organize that."

I remember one day just weeding a garden bed of asparagus for like nine hours and only getting halfway through it and thinking, well, there's another 25 garden beds in this garden. What have I done? This is the worst idea in the world. But it feels much better now already. I'm really happy with the way we started. But I think one thing about working at the level that we want to work at is that you need to be happy but at the same time always a little bit unhappy or dissatisfied so you can make improvements.

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4285 Cape Otway Road, Birregurra, Victoria, Australia

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