Ranking high on any Melburnian foodie’s agenda, is a trip to regional gastronomical heaven; Brae. With a strong focus on organically grown produce and respect for food and natural, sustainable production, Brae dishes up a unique offering that stands out in Australia’s food industry. Chef and Owner Dan Hunter has been internationally recognised for producing and creating a cuisine that not only tastes amazing, but follows a philosophy that speaks volumes of the future of food consumption.
With worldwide experience and a deep knowledge of food preparation and creation, Hunter opened up Brae in 2013, taking over, renovating and extending the existing building. ‘I always wanted to be in this region.’ He says, ‘I used to come to Apollo Bay for holidays as a kid.’ As well as having an affinity with the area, Hunter’s most recent six-year stint at the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld enabled him to establish and build relationships with producers west of Melbourne. ‘[There is] a great hub of alternative agriculture in this region, from small berry farms to shiitake growers,’ says Hunter, and while he aims to organically grow the majority of produce on the property, he’s also glad to have set up shop in what he claims to be one of the best regions in Victoria.
‘Brae is easy to get to’, Hunter laughs, ‘It’s literally two left turns from Melbourne, one up Cape Otway Road and one up the driveway.’ The drive from Melbourne takes an hour and a half, but the trip is well worth the mileage (and with swanky new accommodation designed by Six Degrees Architects, you can choose to relax as you digest your degustation, too). The small vegetable garden that existed on the 30 acre property in 2013, has grown to encompass many different types of fruit and vegetables, including over 200 fruit trees of figs, quinces, varieties of Japanese plums, apricots and a lot of citrus, with plans to develop a wheat crop, too. The aim is to grow as much seasonal fruit and veg as possible, and to have first-hand access to organic produce that would otherwise get negatively affected with handling and transportation. ‘I struggle to buy good food in a domestic marketplace that has the same flavour as wholesale organic food, straight from the grower. And it’s just time. It’s the middle man, the handling, the cold storage, all those things shuts everything down.’ Hunter says.
Brae’s practices focus on minimising (and in many cases, eliminating) the amount of refrigeration that happens. ‘There’s amazing fruit that we might pick at 6 o’clock in the evening, and someone’s eating it at 6:30 to 7pm, it’s still full of sunshine. Things like tomatoes are never ever refrigerated’ he states passionately, ‘strawberries, no way. The flavour just disappears. Then you’re working so hard to extract that flavour again.’ With the right foundations for growing, storage and handling, Hunter believes laying the groundwork in advance is reflected in the end result—awesome flavour.
A lot of the produce at Brae is picked the same day that it ends up on your plate, with minimal influence from the Western view on storage of primary products. With exceptions of course, such as meat—which is dry aged longer for secondary flavours to develop, or in the fermentation of black garlic, which is grown, cured, wrapped, then kept at 55 degrees for 30 days.
‘It caramelises and becomes like a black jelly, and it has a taste of balsamic and vanilla. It’s just phenomenal.’ Hunter says, commonly pairing it with pork jowl, or drying it out to make a rich, sweet and savoury garlic powder for dusting. ‘The great skill in this type of cuisine, is understanding the product, the best thing for the product, and making that the priority.’
The menu at Brae is a degustation of the current season. ‘This time of year it’s very floral, very alive, very green, it speaks of time as much as place’, Hunter says, adamant about staying true to seasonality. ‘You won’t see tropical foods on the menu in winter, or hothouse tomatoes from Queensland in July, because it’s not representative of what Brae is. I find it much easier to work within the boundaries of seasonal variation than to buy externally, it doesn’t sit well with me.’
The garden is grown with some key ingredients in mind, but what ripens and when, influences the dishes on offer and fuels the kitchen’s creativity. ’It’s about being open to the gesture of the nature that you’re in.’ Hunter states. Some of the most interesting combinations that Brae has served up, sometimes only exist for a day or two. ‘That opportunity comes across a couple of times a season, but it’s just about being in a spot and open minded, and having an abundance of things around to be able to play with and play off. Because those things can be aroma. They can be a brush against a leaf, or the smell of the way a plant reacts while you’re eating something else.’ A previous unique combination has been super-fragrant white strawberries paired with broad beans, and a stock made out of fig leaves infused into whey from milk, iced down like a granita. ‘It was a really amazing combination of the strawberry and the broad bean which I didn’t imagine. It was a beautiful, refreshing dish that just spoke of a few days.’ Hunter’s excitement over unpredictable seasonal combinations is palpable. ‘Creating a flavour from a couple of ingredients that you think; shit that’s amazing, that’s a dish right there.’
With a kitchen hosting nationalities from across the globe, people travel to work at Brae, and they get an experience they can’t get anywhere else, using ingredients endemic to south east Australia. The dining experience is loosely modelled on how Hunter would host you, were you to dine at his house. From casual drinks and finger food, to sit down vegetables and protein, finishing with simple fruit-based desserts. The environment and presentation at Brae verges on jaw-dropping, but the vibe is relaxed, warm and engaging, with none of the pretension usually associated with such a high-class dining experience. Initial courses are even served without cutlery, encouraging patrons to eat with their hands. ‘We like you to make a mess.’ Hunter says, ‘We often find that by doing that, people that had any form of apprehension start to relax.’
For one to list stand-out dishes, there has to be some. At Brae, all the dishes eclipse modern expectations of flavour, technique and plating by such a grand scale, that to list the ‘stand-outs’, would be to recite the whole menu. Each dish embodies an exciting adventure, an experience truly delightful and immersive for diners. The written menu at Brae lists only a few elements in each dish, rather hoping to surprise and elicit curiosity. One dessert which shattered perceptions of the humble parsnip, was simply titled ‘Parsnip and Apple’ and inspired oohs and aahs from around the restaurant.
As a food writer, I spend a lot of time describing elements on a plate, but I find myself at a loss putting my experience at Brae into words. The entire service staff are very close-mouthed about what diners can expect to sample (until after said sampling), and now that I’ve eaten, consumed, exclaimed and enjoyed the myriad tastes at Brae, I can understand why they don’t want to design or influence expectations.
Dining at Brae is a unique experience, and understanding the effort, care and time that has gone into planning, implementing, and managing the produce, adds an extra level to how impressive the offering is.
If you’re interested in finding out about some of Hunter’s amazing techniques in the kitchen, he will be releasing a cookbook in 2017 representing the restaurant, how it works in its environment, and more about the local region. But if you’d rather sit back and indulge in a foodie fantasy for four hours, then we’ll see you at the dining table.
4285 Cape Otway Road, Birregurra
PH: (03) 5236 2226
Open Thursday dinner, Friday to Saturday lunch and dinner.
Accommodation now available. braerestaurant.com