Dan Hunter Brings Brae Restaurant Home for Dinner

A month after his restaurant Brae surged to number 44 in the World’s 50 Best list; chef Dan Hunter will launch his book about the globally-lauded regional Victorian restaurant with a special evening at Magill Estate.

Hunter has been one of this country’s most applauded chefs for near on 10 years after he transformed The Royal Mail to become the country’s go-to destination restaurant following many years cooking at elite restaurants in Spain. The Mail was just the start of Hunter’s regional Victoria chef crown. After leaving the Dunkeld restaurant, Hunter and his wife Julienne found a farm in Birregurra, 130 kilometres southwest of Melbourne in the Otway hinterland.

The rustic restaurant, which largely uses produce from the 30 acre property, has won every Australian restaurant award you can throw at it and entered the top 100 of the World’s 50 Best back in 2015 (87) before coming in at number 65 the following year. But this year, it took a giant step to crack the top 50 at number 44 and join Ben Shewry’s Attica as the only Australian restaurant in the top 50.

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Hot on the heels of this accomplishment, Hunter will release his first cookbook Brae: Recipes and Stories from the Restaurant through the prestigious Phaidon imprint, which is responsible for the books NOMA, ElBulli 2005-2011 and Massimo Bottura’s Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef. Side-by-side, these two achievements mean that the world’s media is now quite interested in this rural Victorian chef.

“It’s great to have all these things happening at once, but you’ve got to be able to physically cope and deal with them,” Hunter laughs. “We’ve just been closed for a week over Easter, which was a very welcome little break. It’s a lot to happen at once, it wasn’t planned that way. Obviously you can’t predict when you’re going to get in the 50 Best, and my book was a bit overdue, but in the PR world they’re probably rubbing their hands together,” he laughs.

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Indeed. This is publicity you can’t buy. But Hunter doesn’t want to change too much about Brae now they are on The List.

“I said to the staff; it’s all external stuff, it’s not stuff that we have to fully deal with. What got us on that list is just us doing what we do day-to-day.”

Hunter has been on Phaidon’s radar for a while. He was tapped on the shoulder to write this book in December 2014, a mere eight months after opening Brae.

“They were looking at 50 to 65 dishes [for the book] and I was like, ‘shit, we’ve only been open for eight months, I better get on with it’,” he laughs. He finally completed the monograph two years later, with the hardcover book a collection of recipes from Brae as well as essays from Hunter about his journey to Brae as well as the restaurant’s hyper-local philosophy.

“All the dishes were done in those first three years of the restaurant,” he says. “It was almost like a diary in a sense; we were documenting things as they came along rather than reflecting.”

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An intriguing aspect to the book is that the recipes are the exact ones used in the restaurant.

“Some people have asked: ‘is this a book that can be used at home? To be honest, it’s not a cookbook aimed at a specific level of cook but the truth is that the recipes are the exact ones we use in the kitchen to the milligram. I haven’t diluted them in any way. Having said that, our style of cooking is very natural at times and there are a lot of elements to a lot of dishes that can be applied to any type of cooking.”

There is a section dedicated to gardening as Hunter says his creativity is directly related to working in the garden and the “opportunities that arise when you work so closely with seasons and seasonality”.

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“We have much more opportunity to utilise so much more of certain plants that you’d never see in a market place; a range of products of a quality that a simple home gardener can have if they are committed to it. Things like strawberries, the texture of a strawberry in the marketplace in Australia today is that of an apple, and strawberries should melt on your palate. They’re not things that can be transportable but unfortunately all of these products have been modified in a certain way to make it from country to market, and we [Brae] don’t work like that. Of course, we do buy some products from outside the restaurant but a lot of the really interesting dishes we do are opportunistic in a sense. Surround yourself with products; be in the right place at the right time and things can come out of that. That’s one of the key philosophies about the way we work.”

Hunter will launch his book at Magill Estate with its executive chef Scott Huggins.

“We met in Singapore about eight or nine years ago actually and we’ve remained friends ever since,” Hunter says of Huggins. “We just want to show off some of the things we usually serve at the start of the menu at Brae.”

Brae: Recipes and Stories from the Restaurant (Phaidon) launch
Magill Estate Restaurant, 78 Penfold Road Magill
Wednesday, May 3, 6.30pm

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