Dan Hunter, Chef Owner, Brae

The  Staff Canteen

Dan Hunter, who is considered a pioneer of modern Australian food, is the chef owner of Brae which is at number 44 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

Located in the countryside outside Melbourne, Dan has transformed a rustic farmhouse into an award-winning restaurant and one of Australia's most exciting dining destinations. Brae is surrounded by 30 acres which is used for onsite organic vegetable and fruit production. This produce, as well as that from local, sustainable farmers is used to offer a unique, contemporary cuisine built around an immense respect for nature and seasonality.

Dan who was previously head chef at Mugaritz, saw Brae awarded the number one spot on the 2017 Australian Financial Review Top 100 Restaurants, he was also named 2016 Chef of the Year in both The Age Good Food Guide and Australian Gourmet Traveller Magazine; and awarded Top Chef in Australia’s Top Restaurants Awards 2016.

The Staff Canteen spoke to Dan about his new book, his time working for Andoni Luis Aduriz at Mugaritz and how ten years ago growing specific ingredients for the restaurant was a unique concept in Australia.

Brae
Brae 

Talk us through your new book, Brae: Recipes and Stories from the Restaurant.

There’s a lot of written detail in there about how the restaurant came to be and a bit of a back story about me and how came to be the person in charge of the restaurant. Certain parts focus on what we consider to be specialities or projects we are working on so the kitchen garden and the bread oven we have.

There are 65 dishes in there with recipes, they have all been served in the restaurant since we opened. I was very conscious that I didn’t want to bring in recipes from other points in my career, I wanted it to all be relevant to Brae and what we do there. The book is almost a snapshot in time, and anything we created over the past two years which we were happy to keep we documented and put it in the book.

And now it’s published what’s it like to finally see it all in print?

It’s great, the restaurant itself is not that old and cookbooks by chefs are often looking back at a catalogue of a life time of work but this book, I started talking with the publishers about it just eight months after we opened. So we didn’t even have 65 recipes at the time!

>>> WIN: A signed copy of Brae: Recipes and Stories from the Restaurant by Dan Hunter

What about readers, what are you hoping they will take from it?

The biggest objective is to give people a sense of place – where we are in the world and what exactly we do. We work with our immediate environment so we want people to understand what it’s like to grow food and run a restaurant – the true back story of the day to day reality of what it’s like to run that sort of business. It’s not glossed over, the recipes are the same as we use in the kitchen and the writing at times is quite raw and blunt. I wanted a document that was truthful, open and quite transparent about what we do and I think we achieved that.

You’ve worked all over the world as a chef, but what first drew you to the industry?

Dan Hunter chicken trufle sandwich
chicken truffle sandwich

I got into cooking quite late, I wasn’t brought up in a family where food was the be all and end all of family life. I was working in a kitchen washing dishes which I did for quite a while but I really enjoyed the comradery of being in the kitchen. I enjoyed the dynamic of people coming in and the relationships which were quickly formed between front of house staff and the customers. I was quite mesmerised by it. Once I realised it was something I could do as a career I took it very seriously from that point.

You were head chef at Mugaritz, what did you take from that experience?

It’s a very creative place and anything goes basically! Anything you had learnt cooking in other kitchens sometimes was irrelevant in that environment because they had their own way of doing things. I really liked the commitment of doing things their own way, and one of the things I took from it was that you should decide what you want to do in terms of your restaurant or your cooking and pursue that without being too concerned about what else is going on in the world or other trends.

Find what appeals to you and do that and set your own standards within that for your restaurant and the team. Eventually it will become something which people really appreciate and it’s really important now to have your own identity.
I didn’t learn to cook at Mugaritz but it gave me the ability to step back and look at the food I wanted to cook and pursue that.

>>> Related: Andoni Luis Aduriz, Mugaritz, Spain

You spent six years at Dunkeld’s Royal Mail Hotel, you began growing your own ingredients, was this a unique approach in Australia at the time?

quote dan hunterI think at that level, certainly people have had gardens before, but something which was growing such specific, difficult to find ingredients and handling them in a way which was completely organic. And having chefs working in a way that they would pick during the day and then serve those things – at that scale it certainly was unique at the time. It was ten years ago and I’d just returned from Spain where I’d been working closely with small farms and having things grown specifically for our needs.

When I came back to Melbourne I wondered how I could have a gastronomic restaurant without what I thought was the quality that I needed. So I got into growing so I could have those things which weren’t in the market place. Over the past ten years I’ve become so involved in doing that, that now there is no other option for me. A lot of things have changed in that time and more restaurants are more connected now with farmers. The quality and the variety of some produce has really improved.

You got three hats at Dunkleld and have received a number of awards with your own restaurant, are accolades important to you and would you like to see a Michelin Guide in Australia?

I’m not sure we need another guide! Restaurant awards are certainly extremely beneficial for your business and they draw

Dan Hunter
Dan Hunter

attention to what you do and it’s really fantastic in that sense. But word of mouth is very strong too and we focus mainly on our customers day to day and making sure they are really satisfied. The funny thing about awards is they are for work you have already done, they are 12 months later, they are a great pat on the back for the team and they identify what you do which you think is good but you’ve got to keep evolving and moving forward.

What’s your key to success?

My wife has said to me she’s never met anyone with so much energy and I do have an energy and focus for what we do. I enjoy the detail and the fact there is a lot going on and there is a lot to look after.

Tell us about your restaurant Brae, it’s been open 4 years – why did you decide you were ready to open your own place, how has it evolved in that time?

When you work long term in this industry you need to have your own expression. I always thought at some point I’d need to be in charge of all the detail and when you offer an experience which is quite personal it’s important the whole business from top to bottom is working in a synergy.

Brae has evolved quite rapidly, we always had intentions of hopefully being considered among the best restaurants globally and certainly in Australia. We put ourselves out there as a small, core team of six in the kitchen and for the first year we just got on with it. We used to kill ourselves doing eight services a week but in that first year we won Restaurant of the Year in our local food guide and from there we got recognition from The World’s 50 Best.
Now we do 45 customers which is capacity and we have around 22 staff working; we built accommodation after 18 months - it’s become quite a different business quite quickly and it’s been great to see.

Talk us through how your own cooking style has evolved and ingredients you enjoy working with.

Dan Hunter blood pistachio
blood pistachio 

My cooking style has been the same for a long time, it’s always focused a little bit on technique but more on product. I think what has really evolved is the garden, ten years ago we planted everything without realising it’s not all applicable to what you do. Overtime we have grown less quality of variety and focused more on quality. We understand better what works well with our cuisine, and when I say reduce the quantity this year we grew 32 different types of tomato but in terms of beans we only grow one variety now from Italy which is incredible and I’ve never seen them in the market place in Australia. So we are trying to grow really specialised stuff which really suits what we do. From November last year to May we’ve managed to supply I’d say 90 percent of the vegetables we use on the menu.

How easy has it been to find your own style and niche?

It takes time, its not like it happens overnight. Overtime growing ingredients has become a key factor in the way I work, even just being in the garden and with nature I find I’m much more creative. There’s more appreciation of the product when you harvest it every day and there’s more appreciation from the customer when they can see a garden outside the window growing the ingredients which are on the menu.

What dish on your menu best reflects your cooking style?

They all do. There are dishes which may be more technical or less seasonally driven but intertwined through those are dishes of the day using ingredients you might not think go together. Because you eat them in the garden together they present themselves and you have an amazing moment were you realise they do go. A great example is in the book, it’s fresh young broad beans and strawberries with green almonds with a dressing made by infusing sheep’s yoghurt whey with fig leaves. It happened because I walked through the garden tasting things in a sequence I would never have imagined if I was sat at home thinking of dishes. It’s spontaneous and a buzz doing a dish like that.

What are your future plans for Brae?

Obviously I want the food to continue to evolve, I don’t want it to just be done and dusted. I’d like to have more organised time for creativity so I’m looking for ways to make that a reality. I’d like to improve and expand the agricultural side and make the property a really beautiful place to be in its own right, not just the dining room.

*Brae Recipes and Stories from the Restaurant by Dan Hunter is published by Phaidon, photography by Colin Page

>>> Read more in The Staff Canteen Meets series here

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 22nd June 2017

Dan Hunter, Chef Owner, Brae