As high-profile restaurants close in the city, this owner is out to hail the regions.
Chef Alejandro Saravia is standing at the grill in his new city restaurant, Farmer's Daughters, cooking three pieces of striploin. Hefty red gum logs and spindly mountain pepper branches are aflame beneath the bars of the cooktop. Campfire aromas waft through the smart dining room, the mid-level of this three-storey Gippsland-themed eatery, with a ground-floor deli and rooftop bar sandwiching the fine dining restaurant with its hero grill.
The restaurant, which opens this Thursday in the upscale 80 Collins Street development, has been nearly four years in planning but Saravia only got access to the kitchen four days ago. The regional menu he's imagined is now hard up against the reality of cooking on new equipment in an open kitchen. "We're finding the sweet spot for the grill and trying different flavours," he says.
"Mountain pepper is the flavour that represents us," says Saravia. The aroma of burnt branches seeps into grilled dishes, the leaves are ground into a seasoning, and the intensely spicy berries will be sprinkled through the menu, too.
For two years, Saravia has been growing the native shrub on a Gippsland farm, part of the long preparation for a restaurant that will shine a light on the vast Victorian region that extends from Melbourne's fringe eastward for more than 500 kilometres. Most of Gippsland is the land of the Indigenous Gunaikurnai people and it's long been a crucial food bowl for Melbourne.
The Peruvian-born chef found himself drawn again and again to Gippsland when sourcing produce for his city restaurant Pastuso, which opened in 2014. "I tried some amazing grass-fed beef, then my fishmonger kept talking about Lakes Entrance and Mallacoota, and then I heard about Mirboo garlic, and amazing wine, and producers like Butterfly Factory dairy and cheesery that dedicate their lives to specialising in just one thing," he says. Saravia was inspired to host a series of Gippsland-focused meals and the Farmer's Daughters concept started to bloom.
He's now an unpaid ambassador for the region, fuelled by an enthusiasm for connecting more deeply with his adopted home country, and by a belief that produce-centred dining is the future.
"I remember the first menu I ever wrote for a degustation," he says, recalling a modern Peruvian banquet with matched Australian wines.
"I put every single trick I learned in my whole career into that menu because as a young chef you want to show all that you can do. Slowly, you start learning that less is more, you become more about the execution than the wow factor, and that leads more to a focus on ingredients and how they're sourced."
He believes the dining public is taking a similar road.
"One of the positive things that COVID has brought is an appreciation of buying local," he says. "Customers have made a massive flip into valuing local producers, their ingredients and seasonality."
As a restaurateur, he's upending the supply chain, asking farmers what they have available rather than telling them what he wants. He's also a stickler about paying for samples. Many farmers are still recovering from last summer's fires and pandemic-related challenges, some are testing new products, others have logistical challenges in getting goods to market.
Customers have made a massive flip into valuing local producers.
"Every conversation starts with how we can work together, how we can help them," says Saravia. "It's about relationships, not money."
He hopes that eating dishes from the region will encourage diners to get on the road themselves. Baked alpine trout with mountain pepper cream might send people on the road to Baw Baw. A seafood crudo could inspire a trip to Lakes Entrance or Corner Inlet. Tarago olives may prompt a weekend in the rolling green hills of South Gippsland.
"First I want people to know where Gippsland is and experience it in my restaurant, then if I could get 20 per cent of our customers to spend a weekend in the region I think we're winning," says Saravia.
But what about getting customers to the restaurant in the first place? Melbourne's CBD is slowly becoming busier but the restaurant climate is still perilous, evidenced by the closure of restaurants such as Bar Saracen and French Saloon in recent weeks, with the latter becoming an events space.
Saravia stands in his rooftop bar, a wall of native herbs behind him, his face turned upwards to the twin towers of 80 Collins Street, punching optimistically skywards but scantily populated with office workers.
Saravia in the Farmer's Daughters rooftop bar. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui
"We've had a lot of people coming by as we've been setting up, excited that something is happening here," he says. "The city is still recovering but we'll have more local tourism with international travel off the table. And with Melbourne people looking more to the regions, we really hope they will support us."
As the first major opening in the CBD for 2021, it will be a real litmus test of just how much the city has put 2020 behind it.