He may be one of Australia's top chefs, but Dan Hunter says he owes his career to three cookbooks he "borrowed, long term" from a library in Bath, England in 1997. The purloined books "are still above my stove today" says Hunter, who leaves Dunkeld's Royal Mail Hotel on Sunday after six years to open his own place.
Though he's bound by a confidentiality agreement, Hunter told a cooking class audience at Queensland's Hamilton Island last weekend it was time for him to go out on his own, confirming his new project "will be a restaurant in regional Victoria", with accommodation, which he hoped would be operating by the end of this year. “I want to have something where you go and you're immersed in it for a day or so," he said, "It's a full experience. I think there is room for that in Australia."
Having taken The Royal Mail to three-hat status in The Age Good Food Guide, and being named Chef of The Year by the 2012 Guide, Hunter told the audience at Great Barrier Feast his career had a much humbler start - because he stopped to take a bath in Bath, England. Returning from England's Glastonbury Music Festival covered in mud in his early twenties, Hunter told the audience, he'd decided to take a break in Bath to clean up.
When he spotted a local pub's ad seeking a cook, Hunter applied, telling them he was a chef despite the fact he'd worked mainly as a dishwasher. "I got the job”, Hunter recalls, and then went to the local library, borrowed three books, and gave himself a crash course in cookery before starting work. Those "borrowed" books were: a Leith's Cookbook, Sophie Grigson's Meat Course and Joy of Cooking.
Speaking after the Hamilton Island event, Hunter, who announced his resignation from The Royal Mail Hotel in June, says he's going to "ramp it up" with a new venture of his own.
He says there is room for another "high-end dining restaurant" and a focus on house-grown produce in regional Victoria.
"I'm going to continue on the path I've put myself on. I don't intend at this stage of my career to open something at a lower level. I plan to open something at a higher level," he said. "I'm not going to go four hours from Melbourne and build a 400 seat restaurant, it has to be something close to Melbourne, a bit smaller."
"There are some good vibes in regional Victoria at the moment, there's lots happening and people between 35 and 55 doing cool things. It's not Hicksville any more," Hunter said, "There is a mentality that everything creative and good comes from the city, and I think that has turned around a little bit."
The "space and chill factor" of regional Victoria appeals to the chef, who is married with a two-year-old daughter. "It's a good place for me to be at this time in my life. There's a certain calm you can get. It's a stressful job, we work incredibly hard, there are a lot of things to manage."
The new restaurant will include some accommodation, "not a hotel, but a few rooms" said Hunter. “It won't be a hotel with a restaurant, but a restaurant with rooms. It's a good business model.”
A kitchen garden will be central to the new venture, as it is at The Royal Mail Hotel. "The kitchen garden is how I work. It's not that I want to spend all day in the garden, but once you use that quality of product it's difficult to go back. It doesn't matter what people say, it's a better quality."
At The Royal Mail Hotel, the kitchen garden required labour, but food costs were reduced "dramatically", he says.
The chef dismisses claims that high-end, small restaurants cannot succeed in Australia. "The general market discussions about more laborious restaurants that require a lot of detail is that there is no room for it. There is probably not room for 150, but there is room for three or four. And I would certainly consider that I am amongst the three or four."
Hunter made his name at the two Michelin-starred Mugaritz in Spain's San Sebastian, and successfully transferred its forward-thinking, nature-based cuisine to Victoria's Dunkeld.
The chef says he has been "a little bit unfocused for a couple of years". At the Royal Mail Hotel he has overseen a restaurant with two menus and 10 courses, a bistro with a full a la carte menu, plus conferences and about 25 weddings each year.
His preference is to focus on restaurant food; a creative outlet with a technicality to the cooking. "I am known as a chef who focuses on produce, but the restaurant is also one of the most technical in the country." Hunter says his new project will allow him to focus on what he loves doing.
The new restaurant will be quite rustic, Hunter said. "Formality can come in different ways, it doesn't have to be condescending ... This place will be more human, with a sense of humour, and I hope it's a generous place. These are values that exist for me in Mugaritz, but also many of the top restaurants run by people in their late 30s and 40s."
"I want to create a place for people to enjoy themselves and be surprised and laugh. But at the same time there will be the technicality and the produce, because that's what we do. That's my outlet."
Kate Gibbs and Janne Apelgren were guests of Great Barrier Feast, Hamilton Island.