Lunch with Alla Wolf-Tasker
Since her childhood, Alla Wolf-Tasker has appreciated the importance of genuine hospitality. Photo: James Boddington
THE Russian dacha, or summer house, is a seasonal escape from the pressures of urban life. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev wrote about dachas, of course, and Alla Wolf-Tasker, with her Russian heritage, has long romanticised them - even now, decades after her parents bought one for £500. Not in Russia, mind, but near Daylesford's lovely lake.
The enormous bunch of herbs, leafy stalks and fragrant blooms she arrives with at Brooks restaurant has been freshly picked from the gardens at Lake House at Daylesford, where Wolf-Tasker presides over the much-loved kitchens and dining rooms. When she and her husband, Allan, bought the property in 1980, just down the hill from the dacha (actually a miner's cottage), it was a neglected paddock with a few gorse bushes, rusty car wrecks and land eroded by mining. In 1984, four years of hard work later, Lake House opened. Now, the kitchen gardens are resplendent and stringy barks tower over the place.
The explosion of herbs and flowers in Wolf-Tasker's arms - including lemon balm, wild rhubarb, herb-robert and valerian - is for the French-born chef at Brooks, Nicolas Poelaert, whom Wolf-Tasker once had the privilege to assess for a chef prize, which he won. During the judging she went anonymously - in a wig - to his restaurant, Embrasse, to sample the food. She chortles at the memory.
Meli of vegetables with 11 purees. Photo: James Boddington
Today she is herself and Poelaert is honoured to see her and accept the oversized posy. The rest of the staff seem to know Wolf-Tasker, too, and before long, without ordering one, her favourite drink arrives: an Americana. Then we order the food, and Poelaert starts cooking.
Wolf-Tasker is a leading light of the culinary world whose commitment, intelligence and inspirational approach have earned her enormous respect and popularity - all bolstered by her exuberant, warm personality. To hear the story of Lake House is to marvel at her determination to do something singular; everyone, she says, warned her and Allan against it.
''I came back from overseas - in Australia, food was pretty dreadful at the time - and I was enamoured with the whole idea of a 'destination' restaurant in the country,'' she says. ''But, of course, I hadn't worked out why no one was really doing it here. It was always in the back of my mind. Allan was the fortuitous thing: he was creative, an artist, but acquiescent - so when I said, 'Darling, I want to have a country restaurant', he said, 'Yes, why not?'. If we had have examined the 'why nots', they would have put us off forever.''
Roasted Bundarra pork. Photo: James Boddington
There was no trace then of the sort of small-scale producers who today supply the Lake House kitchen with seasonal, often organic or biodynamic, produce. Wolf-Tasker has spent a long time helping build up that culture, but it didn't take off until the tree-changers started arriving around Daylesford and its surrounds, setting themselves up as berry-growers, artisan bread-makers or goat's cheese makers.
She names some of the many producers she now has regular contact with around her district and it's clear she not only does good business with them but that she actively supports and encourages that wonderful culture of growing and eating locally sourced, seasonal food; the culture, she says, of the butcher-baker-candlestick-maker as opposed to large-scale industrial farming and anonymous supermarket convenience.
When she and Allan opened Lake House, the first people who came through the doors wanted steak and three veg, toasted sandwiches and Devonshire tea. ''And I had … let me see … shiraz-glazed squab at $24, fixed price. Everyone said we were lunatics and doomed to fail. We had Allan standing at the foot of the stairs in his bow tie. It was just insane.''
The dream, though, took hold and it has not only survived, but thrived - an inspiration, surely, to new places such as Brooks, with which we are both very impressed. She is in her element as the food starts arriving, though she laments having to eat and talk. On one platter is Poelaert's now-famous meli of vegetables - surely one of the most gorgeously arranged dishes ever to grace a table, with its 11 vibrant purees, scattering of petals, and richly coloured array of vegetables and herbs. We also feast on roasted Bundarra pork, snapper (with beets, onion, wasabi, honey and crunchy unripe strawberries) and a heady, colourful salad of mixed heirloom tomatoes with cucumbers.
Wolf-Tasker appreciates the hard work in all this. While she remains executive chef at Lake House, she no longer does the 15-hour days she was inured to for so many years: living up the hill away from her restaurant (where they used to live) has given the Wolf-Taskers some space, physically and emotionally, and Allan, she says, happily retreats to his studio to paint. The restaurant and its surrounding buildings - guest house and conference centre among them - have had five or so refurbishments over the years and it has grown like a village, now having 110 staff. Remarkably, despite attractive offers, it has remained in the Wolf-Taskers' capable hands, along with their newer venture, Wombat Hill House.
One of the wonderful things about all this is that a patina of history has settled on Lake House. Wolf-Tasker's own memories of spending weekends with her parents at their dacha - gardening, mushrooming, bottling and foraging in the forest - are part of that. ''All the things we do at Lake House, I did that with mum,'' she says. ''Mum never came back from a walk in the countryside without things like wild fennel, wild garlic or medicinal stuff, like valerian.''
Her parents' Russian friends would pile through the door, bringing pickles, cheese and smoked goods. ''There was constant eating and drinking. The best times of my childhood were all about sharing and hospitality. And then, at end of the night, there'd be poetry recitations, someone would bring out the mandolin, there'd be weeping over the homeland. The cathartic nature of those gatherings was why no one needed any therapy.''
And today, the wonderful food at Brooks means we can't squeeze in dessert. Not, that is, until we are brought, unbidden, a small platter of rich petits fours. As Wolf-Tasker well knows, hospitality is at the heart of things.
■ Lake House's annual regional producers day is on Sunday, February 10, 10am-4pm, $5, lakehouse.com.au