Get Back to Nature with Dan Hunter at Brae

Chef Dan Hunter has won every prize there is since opening his restaurant Brae, set in a 30-acre farm, in Birregurra, Victoria, Australia. Originally trained under the legendary Andoni Luis Aduriz at the gastronomic phenomenon Mugaritz (2005-2007) before returning to Australia to develop his first intensive organic kitchen garden program at Dunkeld’s Royal Mail Hotel. Laying the foundation for the farm-to-table approach at Brae. At Brae, Dan Hunter has created an ecosystem: gently toiling the land and serving up natural, modern, cross-cultural cooking that has seen him named Top Chef at The Australian Financial Review in 2016 and 2017, amongst many other accolades. His debut book, Brae: Recipes and Stories from the Restaurant, was published by Phaidon Press in 2017.

Aspire Lifestyles: Who has influenced your cooking style or philosophy?

Chef Dan Hunter: Cuisines and cooks that place ingredient and location at front and center are always an influence as are growers and agriculturalists who work in a regenerative way to produce foods that are both delicious and environmentally sound.

AL: What do you want the world to know about the cuisine of your country and the cuisine of your restaurant?

Chef DH: That we exist in a part of the world rich with environmental and cultural diversity and indigenous history approaching our ingredients and cuisines with the headspace of a modern, open and multicultural society.

AL: What is your favorite dish from childhood and do you prefer your version or the version of the family member who originally made it?

Chef DH:  Roast chicken or the combination of chocolate and lemon ice cream eaten side by side. I wouldn’t mind eating the childhood versions but I’m also pretty happy with my own.

AL: What is the most important value you teach your kitchen team?

Chef DH: That every ingredient is important and that we are cooking for other people not just numbers at a table.

AL: As the COVID pandemic has forced the industry to change on so many levels – what was the most important detail or aspect of service / experience for you that you wanted to keep the same upon reopening? What were the main things you felt you needed to change / adapt?

Chef DH: To be able to welcome guests into the dining room and really look after them in a very warm and genuine way, actually connecting with them in a way that allowed them to understand that we rely on their support and to treat them as if they were old friends was something we really wanted to transmit.

AL: We’ve noticed some chefs are supporting food banks, feeding those in need and truly taking an incredibly challenging time and finding ways to adapt and give back. Considering this focus, do you think the culinary industry will ever go back to the way it was?

Chef DH: No, we will never return to whatever we had before – certainly not in this generation but perhaps there’s lots of opportunity within that. I see a real chance for a much closer and less transactional style of service. This would certainly suit us.

AL: Knowing how difficult it is to pivot and change operations to include a take-out option, was this something that your team did and what did you learn from it?

Chef DH: It has been difficult and in Victoria in particular the difficulty was compounded by closing, changing what we do to keep the team employed and to generate some type of income. We reopened and in just two weeks had to close again. The second closure was far more difficult from a motivational point of view.

AL:  Being reopen, how do you feel the pandemic / Covid has changed the mindset of your diners and how are you & your team managing these changes?

Chef DH: Unfortunately, we are not quite there yet.

AL: Knowing the vital role that local producers and farms/markets play in the success of a restaurant, was there anything that you did during the closures to support these purveyors? I know that many shifted models to create boxes of produce and sold them around their towns and communities. Has there been a change in how you obtain your ingredients upon reopening?

Chef DH: We have a few key producers that we work with closely and so while we are operating on a take home basis, we are mindful of maintaining close contact and supporting them through continuing to purchase from them and promote them through our take home options. As much as they rely on us, we also need them to be around when we are ready to reopen.

AL: What kind of meals were you making personally and for your family / friends during quarantine?

Chef DH: All types – lots off multi course things we would not usually eat at home and lots of cakes and pastries. We have a 9 year-old daughter who has a sweet tooth (as do I) so we take that into consideration

AL: As a Chef at a top restaurant, you likely always go at a very fast pace. Did you enjoy the “downtime” of quarantine and what did you do to fill your time?

Chef DH: I have actually and it’s been nice to get a proper night’s sleep. I’ve been reading more than usual and exercising – between cooking and eating.

AL: What are your thoughts on virtual experiences? Be it a consultative cooking tutorial or masterclasses that are offered? What would your biggest need be to be a part of or facilitate that type of experience? What would your biggest deterrent be for not doing / participating in this type of experience?

Chef DH: I’m ok with them. I guess the experience at Brae has always been about being on the property so anything we would do would need to be able to incorporate the outdoors experience of being on our farm.