Following the recent launch of his cookbook Brae: Recipes and Stories from the Restaurant, the lauded Australian chef tells Don Mendoza why farm-to-table cooking is deliciously hard
Chef Dan Hunter gets candid about the hardearned rewards of farm-to-table cooking
If a chef ever needs reminding that cooking with a conscience is a choice and a blessing, they only need to look at the recent success that former Mugaritz head chef Dan Hunter’s been having. Hunter made the decision to move back to Australia and eventually opened his own restaurant, Brae, in 2013—though not in the food capital that is Melbourne, but on a 30-acre farm located 135km southwest of the city, in Birregurra.
In his debut cookbook, Brae: Recipes and Stories from the Restaurant, he shares how he felt like he “had gone away to travel and party”—leading to an important decision about what he wanted to do. His move was far more than a sentient push to source more sustainably; it was a deep-rooted commitment to cultivating a personal style of cuisine that’s both progressive and sincere.
To be sure, natural, modern, cross-cultural cooking and the seemingly idealistic notion of sustainable consumption have taken over the wonderment of molecular gastronomy in inspiring today’s best places to dine. But having your own farm and working within your geographical means is far from a glamorous notion.
“It’s all a choice,” posits Hunter. “People often say to me, ‘Oh, you are so lucky!’ Well, there’s no luck involved. I made a decision
many years ago that I wanted to work in this way. Is it a chef ’s dream? Is it a chef ’s dream to have to worry if it’s going to rain next week, because your vegetables are going to die? Is it a chef ’s dream to have to mow the lawn before dinner service because the guys who were meant to do it didn’t turn up?”
It’s not a perfect world, he adds. “In the bigger scheme of things, I think it’s disgusting—the way that many restaurants around the world operate, that many people buy shit food and that supermarkets waste food. But I didn’t really set out with all of that in mind at the start. It’s something that I’ve always appreciated—to work in a way that is gentle to your environment. And cooking from your local surrounds is not really that far an extension from that ethos.”
So it’s the utopian proposition for every chef, certainly, but also a reminder that we all have a part to play in this delicate ecosystem. Hunter tells us more:
A lot has been said about how the food at Brae is rooted in seasonality and what’s grown on the property, backed by a focus on purity. How would you describe your cooking style?
It’s a difficult concept to elaborate on—essentially, we grow food and let it speak [in the dish]. In a funny sense, it’s not about trying to dominate the ingredients; I think professional cooking was always about how a cook most dominates his ingredients. But we try to pair things together that have big flavours but are lighter in body—i think our food is quite delicate at times.
Some dishes, though, like the snack of prawn tartare, have a bit of an Asian touch through the use of fish sauce and tamarind.
But tamarind grows in Australia—and fish sauce is true to Sicily. I think cultures often claim foods as their own. And it’s funny, because there are regions in Australia that are identical to climates in this part of the world [Southeast Asia].
You’ve shared in your cookbook how you liked that people were “refreshingly” being themselves when you first worked in a kitchen as a dishwasher. How much of yourself today is evident in the dishes you create?
Very much. In this environment, it might be hard to convey that, but if you see me in my house, it’s much easier. I think I’m a very open, transparent person and our business is very much like that as well.
When did the kid who “didn’t particularly like vegetables” fall in love with them?
When I started growing them about 12 years ago! When you’re a child, your taste buds change from day to day. I’ve got a six-year-old daughter— yesterday she loved broccoli and tomorrow she hates it. But, really, my love for the plant world and things that aren’t necessarily protein-driven, it come from an appreciation of growing them and the way you can work as a cook when you work closely with a garden—the types of dishes you’re able to construct when your garden is just there. It’s a very exciting and dynamic way to work.
But cooking at this level also entails a high level of precision and dedication.
I think one of my positive attributes is that I can maintain that level of concentration and multitask. I think it’s common to many people who work in this profession at a certain level. It’s not that you find it easy, because I have to work on it as well. All of us continue to refine what we do and we find it difficult, but we enjoy it. I’ve been in this for 20plus years and I still find it hard, but I enjoy that fact. I get some stimulation from that.