Dan Hunter’s first restaurant will hopefully be his last: Brae in Birregurra is here for a good time, and a long time.
Normally, it’s a big deal when a restaurant bakes their own bread. And so it should be: for that extra little bit of effort, you can taste the difference immediately. Fresh-baked bread communicates something important – that this person cares about having you for lunch.
Dan Hunter goes one step further. Actually, he goes about forty steps further. At Brae in Birregurra, one of this country’s genuine culinary treasures, yeah, Hunter bakes bread. He bakes bread in an oven built by the legendary Alan Scott, a masterpiece of masonry that radiates heat across its half-spherical arc, leaving the loaf evenly-cooked and caramel-brown. Just writing about the stuff is torture, let alone smelling it as it cools on racks, or breaking apart a crisp and resistant piece with your own two hands, watching the glossy webbing of the crumb stretch and tear, smearing a piece with cultured butter.
Before he bakes the bread he ferments it, like many bakers do. What most of them don’t is mill their flour from fresh wheat, releasing the oils and esters that are normally oxidised before they ever reach the oven. He and his team sifts the freshly-milled flour by hand - a task described with an expletive – around 25 kilos per day.
What almost nobody does is grow their own wheat. It’s a crazy, ridiculous thing to do. It’s subsistence-farming kinda stuff, a practice that’s gone the way of the horse and buggy, the way of letter writing and repairing clothes. But Dan Hunter does it. At Brae, there’s ten acres of wheat waving in the breeze - three different varieties, and occasionally a spelt.
Why make things intentionally difficult? Why do this sort of thing when there’s perfectly good Wonder White down the shop? Masochism? Hubris? Paranoia? Maybe: “I’m fearful of where a product comes from. If the best product in the world needs to travel 10,000km to get to your door, it isn’t the best product in the world anymore,” explains Hunter. “If you’re at Brae, you know the wheat comes from 40 metres away.”
The real explanation is – of course – a little more complicated. But it gets to the heart of what Brae is all about. Six years ago, Hunter and his partner Julianne Bagnato, packed up and left Dunkeld, where he was head chef at the Royal Mail. It was a great job. But Hunter needed something more. “In the scheme of a whole lifetime, it wasn’t really that long ago in our life that Jules and I said we’d never own a restaurant,” recalls Hunter. “But the deeper we got into it, it was almost like there’s actually no option. I can’t continue to work at the highest level and do something whole-heartedly and with complete attention to detail without complete control - of both the positive and the negative. I just don’t think you can work for someone and give wholeheartedly to your guest. You’ll always make a compromise somewhere. And right now we don’t make any compromise. And we haven’t made a compromise for six years.”
Clearly, the concept of integrity is key. When Hunter says his menu is ‘produce-driven’, there ain’t no ifs or buts. The menu at Brae rolls with the seasons, and much of what’s on the plate is grown in the orchards or in the ground just outside the door. “What’s a produce-driven menu? It’s about understanding your product. It’s about understanding innately what you’re doing, and who’s involved in it, and what’s the process involved in it, and how did it get to the table?,” he asks. “You get fed so much bullshit in restaurants. A produce-driven cafe on Chapel Street? Not a real thing. A produce-driven wine bar in Carlton serving food to share using quality ingredients? It’s not really produce-driven, it’s just that you’re not buying shit. Produce-driven, with understanding, is something that requires work, it takes time, and it’s a human endeavour. It’s about human relationships. And when you do that, you should be proud of that stuff. That’s integrity, you know? You’re bringing something to the table that’s real.”
Being genuinely produce-driven in the hard sense of the the term requires two things. The first is a lot of planning. While we were all very excited by Brae when it first opened, the truth is that in year one, it was never going to be at its best. The 250 fruit trees are only just coming into their own, and these farmers are only just starting to get a feel for the land.
“A lot of really long-term stuff has been put in place, and I guess over the next 10-15 years you’ll start to see them become really mature and stable,” he Hunter explains. “A lot of restaurants aren’t set up for the long-game. They’re set up to capitalise and get out. This is hopefully a much slower burn.”
The other key ingredient is versatility. Serving a menu that’s genuinely dictated by the seasons means that – shock horror – you can’t serve everything all the time. “You never know the food you’re going to serve, and you don’t know what’s coming around the corner, because you dig through things and you discover things along the way. You adapt if it suits you, and you push it away if it doesn’t, and we’ve done that,” explains Hunter. “But we had a very clear idea of the type of restaurant we wanted to be, of the feelings we wanted people to have when they came here. That meant the property and landscape, and the connection to outside, and to be part of a community, and to work closely with people around us, and to cook a cuisine that was truly of the place, not just in a PR statement.”
And, for Hunter, that connection can only come from having a true and deep and long-lasting relationship with the things that he’s serving. Like bread. Hunter understands his bread – or understands it as much as is possible. “Developing a deep understanding of what appears to be a very simple process, and still all the time, every day, learning something new about it, and then adding on the layer of looking after a 10 acre block of growing grain, it’s just a very all-encompassing project. It has a lot of value for me personally,” he says. “That bread you eat at Brae everyday, we’ve considered all those things. We’ve been involved in that process, from start to finish.”
That said, there are other parts of the process that make less sense. Serving good food, well, that’s easy: “Any single thing we do on the table has only one single directive involved and that is pleasure,” explains Hunter. “Our whole entire being is to provide pleasure.”
But why a simple loaf of bread would be the doorway to such heights of enjoyment, well, that remains a mystery. Even Hunter can’t quite explain its appeal. “Ive been baking bread every day for about twelve years and I just…” he goes quiet for a minute. “I just really fucking like it.”