2017 will go down as a big year for chef Dan Hunter. His debut cookbook, which shares a name with his lauded Australia restaurant, Brae, finally hit shelves after years of work. Brae the restaurant — located 90 minutes outside Melbourne in Birregurra, Victoria — also had a debut of sorts: on the World’s 50 Best list, that is, ranking at number 44 after previously landing only on the so-called long list (the top 100).
“It just worked out that by some perfect situation we got on the 50 Best and then a week later my book came out,” the chef says with a laugh. “I don’t work in PR, but I’m sure that sounds pretty good.”
Earlier this year, Hunter took some time away from Brae and its 30-acre farm to embark on a book tour, where Eater sat down with the chef to talk about the 50 Best reservation bump, the role of tourism boards in awards, and the challenges of running a restaurant with an attached hotel and farm. The takeaway: It’s a ton of work for Hunter and his small team, but ultimately worth it. “To be able to just have the curtain open and look across a paddock, across a property, across the hillside,” Hunter says of his property, “it’s quite calming.”
Have you seen an impact in business since moving from the World’s 50 Best long list to the top 50?
Dan Hunter: Yeah, of course. You see an absolute increase in the level of interest from international guests [and] international media. ... We’ve always taken bookings a maximum of six months in advance and... now [the restaurant is] full for six months.
You hear stories of when people land at #1 or in the top five and the website breaks. We thankfully have been working in a way that a lot of our bookings are already online, we don’t have to take lots of phone calls. Generally we have about 500 visits a day to our website; the day after that announcement, it was about 16,000. It’s a lot, but then it drops off again: It’s hype, it’s a story, everyone’s interested, and then it goes back to normal. We’ve noticed the [advance] bookings; people are trying to get in much further in advance than they had in the past, which has actually made us reconsider that length of booking time. We will be reducing it next year to three months [from six months].
In the States, there are restaurants that actively campaign to be on the 50 Best list — with events and stuff like that. Is that something you were thinking about at all?
We’ve never hosted events and we’ve never wanted to do that. I think in a very honest sense, Tourism Australia has helped in raising awareness. Noma did a pop-up in Sydney that brought a lot of people to Australia who might not have seen it [otherwise]. And of course this year the 50 Best was in Australia.
But the funny thing is, a lot of people who I spoke to during the 50 Best — a lot of chefs, people from the States and Europe — were actually saying, “I feel like an asshole for not knowing how good Melbourne was.” It’s not a place you go to transit to somewhere else; Australia is the end of the line in terms of travel. ... It’s the furthest away, so I think without some commitment from our governments to promote food and wine, it may always be an unknown.
I know what we deliver every day to our customers raises attention and therefore warrants our place on that list. It’s quite different than just going and eating in a city restaurant; it’s a lot more about the place. We’re not inviting media to come and visit, we don’t employ a PR company, we don’t do any of that stuff. We just go to work, and my wife and I run the business. It’s a family business.
So after book tour, what’s next on your agenda?
To go home, be with my friends in the kitchen and on the floor and do what we do. My personal aspirations lie in the restaurant. We don’t have ambitions of doing some other project or anything like that.
I’ve also got 30 acres of land to look after... For Australia it’s small, funnily enough, but it is land. The restaurant, the carpark, our garden shed, the accommodations, our food orchards, olive groves, and gardens — plus the water that we capture to water those things — that all sits on about 13 acres. Then we’ve got 10 acres [of] grazing paddock, where we have some sheep. We’re still deciding what to do on that paddock, but we’re trying to manage it in a way so that it’s healthy. Then there’s six acres, which is separate, where we’re planting trees and trying to make a nice place to live in the future.
Just the areas that the customers see from the dining room: It takes about nine hours to mow the lawns [in that space] for that week. I used to do that for the first two years — plus run the restaurant. I’d finish lunch service and go mow the lawns for an hour and a half and then come back and do dinner; it was pretty crazy.
It seems like more and more restaurants are exploring adding accommodations, like Brae has. What do you see as the pros and cons?
From a customer point of view, I don’t think there is a bad side. We built the nicest accommodation I’ve seen in Australia — it’s not linked to a five-star hotel chain. It’s only six rooms, only 12 guests a day can stay there. So I really feel like if you have lunch at the restaurant and then stay overnight, it’s one of the great, great hospitality experiences in Australia at the moment, hopefully the world. We leave people alone — we go home at night and close the gate, and they’re on the property by themselves and people really love that feeling of trust. ...
It’s a business, it’s gotta pay for itself, but we’re not getting rich off this thing. It has humble results, but the feeling that we get by knowing that people have had those experiences at the property — it’s worth more, in a corny way.
The drawback is the extra work. When you run a restaurant, you’re in the room with people, so any problem you can pick up immediately. And there’s a level of conviviality; most people are understanding of things, we try and do the most for them, there’s some level of agreement. When people take their clothes off and they close the door, they change; now it’s all their space. I think people want things to be how they like it when they close the door, and that can be challenging. But for that reason... we really designed the space and all the detail that’s in the room based on any problem that could arise.
Interview was edited for length and clarity.