It’s a bright beautiful day out here in the vast undulating fields of Birregurra. Except that the cold blistering winds are threatening to give me hypothermia. The vivid countryside makes for picturesque postcards to send home. Vibrant greens, splashes of colour everywhere, fruiting citrus trees with bright yellow lemons and tangerines peeking coyly beneath the leaves, fluffy well-fed chickens clucking — the delightful pastoral view of the Australian rural life is breathtaking.
Just about an hour and a half away from cosmopolitan Melbourne, the landscape gradually shifts from that of tall buildings and densely populated areas to vast green pastures and a large population of sheep dotting the periphery. Welcome to Birregurra (population 688), a town where sheep and endless green fields dominate the scenery while the people take a backseat. Renowned for its fertile arable soil, the area produces some of the best beef, lamb and certified grass seed in the country.
A lanky man in a windbreaker strides up to us with a smile. “I’m Dan Hunter, head chef and owner of Brae,” he introduces himself. We’re at Brae, a contemporary Australian restaurant in Birregurra with six luxury guest suites set on 30 productive acres of land. It is home to vegetable plots, olive grove, fruit orchards, bee hives and chickens, among other things. It’s a veritable farm complete with a revamped old weatherboard farmhouse-turned-restaurant that showcases farm to dining at its finest.
It’s a concept which seems to have worked like a charm for Hunter and his team of staff; Brae has racked up critical plaudits including being ranked no. 44 in the ‘World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ rankings and named no. 1 restaurant in Australian Financial Review’s Top 100 Restaurants. Not bad for a restaurant which only started three and half years ago.
“The weather changed a bit last night so it’s a little cold,” says Hunter mildly as he observes me shrinking a little under my not-quite-warm clothes. The winds are strong this morning but Hunter looks unfazed. “A l...little?” I repeat incredulously, my teeth chattering. “It’ll warm up soon enough,” he promises, adding: “But first, let me show you around.”
Brae-ing About Sustainability
“Show us around?” I was hoping to cosy up next to a fireplace within a well heated building to sample whatever Brae has to offer. But Hunter is having none of that. “There’s so much to talk about,” he adds, as he walks ahead, pointing out the poufy chickens I caught sight of earlier. The chooks (Australian-speak for chicken) are the prettiest, happiest-looking livestock I’ve ever clapped eyes on.
“We get eggs for the kitchen each day,” he says, before explaining that he uses them for pest and weed control as well. “Whenever we harvest from the gardens, we fence it off and bring in the chickens to get at the plants, bugs and weeds.” All the edible soft greens that come from the kitchen goes to feed the chickens, while the harder greens go to a composting system.
“There’s really not much waste that comes out of this property; only about six green bins of rubbish leaves here each week to be recycled. That’s remarkable for a restaurant that’s full every single service, serving up to around 1,100 customers a month,” he adds.
Waving his hand at a big white tank-like ‘construction’ near the restaurant, Hunter explains that it’s their rainwater harvesting tank meant for the restaurant. “We serve our customers rainwater. We don’t buy bottled water and everything is harvested on site,” he shares, adding that there’s a filtered rainwater system in the dining room that serves both sparkling and still rainwater. “Most of the weather rolls in from the south west all the way from Antarctica, crossing no industry before it gets here. It’s very pure and clean. In the kitchen, all the stocks or basically any food that’s water-based use rainwater.”
Leading the way to the composting heap, Hunter points to two heaps of compost before revealing that in the last six months, they were completely green vegetables. “The pile was a lot bigger, but then it gets broken down to soil which is like liquid gold for the garden.” He explains how the compost is sent to the worm farm. “Worms love this! They eat the compost and excrete down, making a pure mix that together with compost are spread out in the gardens as fertiliser.” Lifting his hands to show us just how big the kitchen’s composting bins are compared to the rubbish bin, he adds with grin: “Our compost bins are a whole lot bigger, definitely!”
So chickens are used not only for eggs, but also for weed control. There’s a vegetable garden, a fruit orchard, an olive grove and a considerable amount of indigenous Australian foods grown on site. Then of course, rainwater is the drink of choice for the restaurant and composting is done religiously. It seems fundamental to Hunter that the farm operates with pure organic practices. “The property has been 100 per cent organic for almost four years,” he declares, pride in his voice.
“We’re all very much aware of the state of the planet,” adds Hunter, his tone turning serious. “It’s unsurprising that these days most customers would consider sustainability as something that’s important. What’s more, if you’re working alongside nature or using it as a tool, then it’s of utmost importance that you take care of it.”
Much to Brae About
Hunter works hard at Brae with a constantly-evolving menu, to conjure a feast using unique resources at his disposal. The restaurant is at the centre of an organic and sustainable farmland that’s been set up to experiment with cultivating new varietals of everything from berries to aubergines, all selected for taste. The second resource is of course, Hunter’s commitment to wasting nothing at all, a state of mind that allows for all kinds of possibilities.
And possibilities are something he’s keen on exploring on a plate. It’s definitely something Hunter’s known for. The 41-year-old who started fairly late in the kitchen, confides that he never actually harboured any dreams of being a cook. “I started as a kitchen hand washing dishes to save money for travel,” he confides wryly. Travelling a lot in his early 20s and going to countries where the food culture was very strong got him interested in the importance of food in different cultures. This led him finally to starting his apprenticeship to cook, at the late age of 24.
He hasn’t looked back since. Following stints overseas, Hunter’s achievements include being head chef at Spain’s legendary Mugaritz before subsequently making his mark during his six years at Dunkeld’s Royal Mail Hotel. He was named 2016 chef of the year by both The Age Good Food Guide and Australian Gourmet Traveller.
Along with his fellow chefs, Hunter is part of a movement to explore Australian indigenous ingredients and to develop a “strong, recognisable Australian cuisine”. “If you ask anyone, especially an Australian, what’s Australian food — no one can answer it,” he admits. Australia is still a remarkably young country but as Hunter puts it: “We have an old culture, and a whole array of indigenous ingredients that’s yet to be explored or fully utilised in a restaurant.”
For this reason, diners will find a host of ingredients on the menu at Brae that they may never have heard of. There are lemon myrtles, yam daisies or as I’m later served that cold spring — two remarkable bites consisting of roast scallops (all the way from Julong, New South Wales) on toast with herbs freshly plucked from the garden, and saltgrass lamb with eggplant marinated in chocolate. “This is lamb that grazes close to the ocean and eats indigenous grasses that taste a little bit like salt,” he explains.
It’s the kind of food served in a bright airy space that brings you that much closer to nature and spring. Walking around Brae in the cold morning with Hunter, you somehow feel that all that he has been saying make perfect sense. But it’s the food he serves later that clinches his arguments about organic farming, being a locavore and the taste of undeniable uniqueness that’s quintessentially Brae.
I tell him that. Nodding, he says: “We use ingredients that we grow intensively on our property. What’s available in the market is really a lot different from what’s available here. So people feel like they’re really eating this landscape they’re in. We want you to look at the plate and immediately connect it with the season you’re in. We try and ensure that we have all of those ingredients at different times of the year so our diners feel like they’re eating the concept of time and place.” A quick pause and he adds: “It’s not just about the great ingredients; it’s about the experience you have while eating as well.”
The stoic head chef has undoubtedly the curious palate of a hedonist. What’s more, he’s cheerfully blazing on a one-man mission not only to serve some of the best-tasting food in Australia, but also to change the way Australia farms and eats forever. “As a chef, to be flexible is important. Nature doesn’t give you perfect produce but you’ve got to look beyond the imperfections to see the beauty and perfection in what nature gifts us.”
And with that, he bids us goodbye. It’s still cold but the view of the gardens Hunter has cultivated around the property makes me imagine how they will bloom and flourish in the years ahead. And how the produce he reaps will be arranged on a plate as a joyous celebration of food and nature working gloriously together.