BIRREGURRA, AUSTRALIA (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - In a perfect culinary universe, all chefs would have their own farms. They would grow and harvest their own produce, and know other friendly farmers down the road who will supply them with other vegetables they need, and the occasional happy, pasture-raised lamb, pork or beef.
Sometimes, a neighbour or two will show up with figs and olive oil - surpluses from their own home gardens. And these chefs would work with motivated staff to serve beautifully composed dishes every night to guests lucky enough to snag a reservation, especially now that they are on the World's Best 50 Restaurants list.
If he is not already in his perfect universe, Dan Hunter is pretty close in his three-year-old restaurant Brae, set in an undulating 12 hectares of organic farmland up in Birregurra, Victoria - just one-and-a-half-hour's drive from Melbourne.
If it was hard to get a reservation before, it is worse now that Brae recently breached the World's Best 50 list at 44th spot. Together with Ben Shewry's Attica (No. 32), they are the only two Aussie restaurants on that list.
Even if the recent accolades mean extra pressure, Chef Hunter's real pride and joy comes from Brae - his first self-owned restaurant after a career of working for other people including Mugaritz in Spain and the highly acclaimed Royal Mail in Dunkeld, Victoria. He runs it with his wife Julianne and two friends-turned-partners. Together they have turned Brae into not just one of Australia's best restaurants, but also one of the most upscale boutique properties, with six super-luxury villas priced upwards of A$600 (S$622) a night.
Even if you do not like his food, Chef Hunter quips, he is sure you will love the self-contained apartments - stylish lairs outfitted in slate and marble, with organic cotton sheets, customised cocktails, a curated collection of vinyl records and vintage turntable. Should you feel peckish, there are lavish snacks on hand made by the restaurant, and a full Continental breakfast in the fridge including cold cuts, yoghurt, muesli and amazing sourdough bread. In the morning, freshly baked pastries and the morning newspaper are hung outside the door.
It is all part of the hospitality experience that he and his team strive to create for visitors who come for more than just a meal. "We spend a lot of time considering our guests' pleasure. It's a nod to maple leaf country hospitality and how you would feel in a farmhouse." So don't expect a statement-driven, chef-knows-best kind of attitude from the down-to-earth, approachable yet formidably-skilled chef who's driven simply by purity of product and living a life free of chemicals and pesticides.
In fact, he cannot imagine cooking in the city now, after 12 years of working outside of it. "It's not like we're country people," he explains. "We have a lot of friends in the city and we run a very contemporary restaurant. I just work in a manner that you can't do in the city. A lot of it is the result of my being out there in that (farm) environment."
That is why he does not buy the spiel of city chefs who claim to have farms growing food for them. "They don't spend time touching the food; it's still delivered by their supplier - except they know them by name."
His cooking philosophy, in contrast, is determined mostly by what he can grow.
"My primary interest at Brae is to use excellent products. That's number one. Then it's how much of that excellent product we can grow ourselves. Each year, we work out what grows best on our property, and get rid of what doesn't. We may have less variety but we get better quantity and quality."
But do not let any chef tell you he grows 100 per cent of his produce, he says. It is impossible. "We don't grow everything, although this past summer we grew about 95 per cent because it was a mild summer." Still, he does not grow onions or other vegetables such as carrots, artichokes or brassicas because there is a certified organic farm nearby which does it. "We grow things that don't travel well, or that we can't get from the marketplace, or that I can't buy organic at a good price."
The result is that everything at Brae is 100 per cent organic, and the menu product-driven but also technique-oriented in a way that is not obvious when you are eating it. A meal in its quietly elegant yet welcoming dining room is polished, poised and inventive. Every dish bursts with flavour whether it is a deceptively simple tart filled with the sweetest, freshest peas or the tart, refreshing crunch of pickled cucumbers sprinkled with an ant mixture that tastes surprisingly like dukkah. A platter of pebbles camouflages creamy, sticky chewy oyster ice cream packed into a half-shell and smothered with powdered seaweed, while cubes of raw squid are assembled with emu berries, wild cabbage and fermented daikon for a raw, Outback taste. He does amazing things with parsnips and apples, and plump local duck is teamed up with jammy stewed quandong and edible flowers piled with a bit of sweet cream. It is a menu that pushes flavour boundaries yet still stays firmly rooted to reality.
Chef Hunter says his food is a lot more reductive than it was when he was at Royal Mail. "There's less going on. It's more about the product." He also points out how his long-term regulars who have eaten at both Royal Mail and Brae "have commented how much happier I seem and how warm the customer experience is". He couldn't agree more. "When my wife and I came back from Spain, we said we didn't want to own our own restaurant. But after working for a year we said, 'we need to own our own restaurant'. You can't work for people. You just can't. When you work at the level we do, you can't be asking for someone else's opinion all the time. You need to have the freedom to focus on your own."
Of course, it helps when your vision brings people to your restaurant and if something like the World's 50 means that "you don't have to worry about your income for the next year, that's a very positive thing".
But if you think it is going to make him rest on his laurels, think again. "The prize doesn't mean you've won. It means, 'Get back to work. Think you've been working hard for the past 20 years? You have no idea!' "