Hunter and collector: Dan Hunter on his rise from pot scrubber to leading chef

Myffy Rigby
Dan Hunter in the garden at Brae. 'We never claim to be self-sufficient. It's a fallacy.'
Dan Hunter in the garden at Brae. 'We never claim to be self-sufficient. It's a fallacy.' Photo: Eddie Jim

When Dan Hunter didn't get an invitation to the awards night of this year's World's 50 Best Restaurants, held in Spain in June, he thought that was the end of Brae. "I was like, 'How do I tell my staff this? And what's going to happen to my business? We're f---ed now'."

No invitation meant the restaurant had fallen out of the top 50 on the list, often called "the Oscars of the food world".

The previous year, the awards ceremony had been held in Melbourne in 2017, bringing a coterie of international of chefs, restaurateurs and journalists Down Under. There was no better time for Australian restaurants to show off on a global stage.

The dining room at Brae.
The dining room at Brae. Photo: Eddie Jim

Followers of the list assumed the restaurant, in the tiny town of Birregurra (population 828) would be a shoo-in for a high ranking when this year's list was released. Instead, Brae came in at 58.

But slipping outside the top 50 hasn't been the catastrophe Hunter feared. Saturday lunch at the restaurant is booked solid for the next four months.

Not bad for a guy who left school in year 12 and spent a few years floating from one banal job to the next, ambition-free and not particularly worried about it.

'I just decided at one point, 'Well, OK. I will do this seriously. At the next level'.
'I just decided at one point, 'Well, OK. I will do this seriously. At the next level'. Photo: Eddie Jim

It wasn't until he was living in Britain with his girlfriend (now wife and business partner), Julianne Bagnato, that he started thinking beyond scrubbing out pots and pans in the backs of pubs. "I just decided at one point, 'Well, OK. I will do this seriously. At the next level'."

He pursued it aggressively, eventually landing at Melbourne restaurant Langton's, working under Philippe Mouchel and the late Jeremy Strode. This is where he credits really learning how to cook. You wouldn't call Hunter's career acceleration from there a fluke. "No," he says, "but you pick the right door."

That door was Mugaritz in San Sebastian. Andoni Luis Aduriz's experimental Michelin-starred restaurant was relatively unknown when Hunter arrived for work experience in 2005. He was soon hired as a chef de partie, before being promoted to head chef after just a year, "faster than any person ever in the whole history of that place".

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During the two years he spent at Mugaritz, the restaurant received two Michelin stars and was placed in the top 10 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list. It became a restaurant young chefs from around the world were competing to work at. [At Mugaritz] "it's young kids that can just f---ing run. It's the same as Noma," says Hunter. "The labour force is single, under 25, and can work all day, party and come back to work, and when they're done, [you] get the next lot in. And that's the truth, you know? They all have a good time. They get something extraordinary out of it."

But after two years, Hunter wanted out. "As a head chef at Mugaritz, I was on $28,000 a year. And that was the year we got the second star, got in the top 10 for the first time."

The pressure of the kitchen, the low pay and the constant anxiety about making a mistake was putting a strain on his relationship. The pair decided to come home.

It wasn't easy. Mugaritz was relatively unheard of in Australia in 2007, Hunter's resume was fairly light-on, and he was broke. He took a job at Fenix under executive chef Raymond Capaldi. But it wasn't a great fit, and Hunter chose to walk within three months of taking the head chef position.

"It was the worst thing. So I was unemployed and had a bit of a breakdown. I just sat on the couch for three days saying, 'F---'."

But then the phone rang. A place called the Royal Mail wanted to start a luxury hotel, with an adjoining restaurant, in the township of Dunkeld, almost four hours' drive from Melbourne. The next thing Hunter knew, he was being driven to the Western District in a Porsche for a job interview. He went along, did the site inspection, and did not leave feeling all that confident.

At the time, he felt unemployable – he'd been out of Australia for four years, nobody knew him. But he was offered and accepted the job, and immediately set about putting in vegetable gardens and cooking a menu of Mugaritz-inspired dishes.

"It was the most gruesome start-from-scratch you could ever imagine. We served the pub food out of the same kitchen. I was plating some beautiful vegetable dish and I look over and there's a guy just shovelling chips on the top of a parma. On the same pass. And I remember thinking, 'What the f--- are you doing here?' It was pretty demoralising."

But soon enough, the Royal Mail started gaining attention, winning hats and awards. The late Anthony Bourdain visited while filming an Australian episode of No Reservations. He described Dunkeld as "the arse end of Nowheresville" but raved about the food. He told Hunter he wanted to roll around nude in his vegetable patch. Hunter shrugged off the compliment. "We knew after one year that this thing was going nowhere."

Despite that, he and his wife stayed managing the Royal Mail for six years, turning it into a three-hat destination. But from the first year in, they spent every spare hour looking for a restaurant site. One they would own and run themselves. "I didn't want to go and work for someone else," he says. "I don't really care what lots of chefs say about the owners who look after them. You're a commodity. You're still just a number in a spreadsheet. If you don't do the job, the restaurant still has to function."

Eventually, they found a site. It ticked every box – it was close to the ocean, it was part of a close community, and had plenty of surrounding land for farming, including an established vegetable garden and wood oven out the back. It was called Sunnybrae, previously run by George Biron and Diane Garrett, in Birregurra. And it was a long way from Dunkeld.

The newly renamed Brae opened in December 2013. It took him about a year to shake the last of Mugaritz and the Royal Mail out of his system, and his menu.

"I was so burnt by the whole Dunkeld experience, and I just wanted to wash it all away. Being at Brae was the first time as a cook that I actually stopped and went, 'Where am I? Who am I? What's the food that represents this place day to day?'"

Today, the menu is a sort of twilight reflection of what's growing outside – an otherworldly series of dishes that can veer from challenging to comforting without an obvious change in gears along the way. Any Mugaritz holdovers have long since vanished.

Over the past five years, the gardens have turned from gnarly shrubs and spindly vines to lush rows of heritage vegetables, punctuated by fruit trees, greenhouses and dams.

From his time in Spain, to his years at the Royal Mail, Hunter has come to know what he wants and what he needs from the land. "I think we probably grow fewer [vegetable] varieties each year, but much better quality and quantity. And we don't destroy the garden when we do it."

There's no crying over the baby radishes and fondling the rare peas here, though. It's hard yakka looking after a 12-hectare organic farm. They employ three part-time horticulturalists, and they're now looking to hire a farmer.

"The overheads on the entire production are enormous," Hunter says.

It's an ongoing project and despite the uncertainty of relying on growing your own, he remains sanguine. "I don't know. It's just been so long now that we don't have huge failures. But we can't predict weather so we struggle at times. We might have a season failure where we don't get what we require in the quantity we need. But if worst comes to worst and something fails, I can go out and buy it from someone else, and still earn an income.

"We never claim to be self-sufficient. It's a fallacy. I don't even know why restaurants claim to do that because it's just bullshit."

For Hunter, community is critical. "I think that's really important when you live in a small town, that you're visible. Particularly if you've got a restaurant that is bringing a lot of people in, we make sure that other people understand that we're part of the community. I just figure that when you talk about sustainability, it should be sustainability of your local environment, your local town and your local economy."

Quickfire corner

Music to cook to Because Julianne did all the [on-site accommodation] with the records, we have quite a few Miles Davis albums. And, of late, I must say, when I'm at home and just want to chill, I've been listening to Miles Davis. And it's been very nice.

After-midnight snack I eat a lot of cereal at night – Weetbix or Cornflakes with honey. One bowl of cereal is enough to just get me over the line to go to sleep.

Indispensable kitchen tool My fish knife is probably my favourite thing to hold at work and use. I feel as though I'm doing my best work when I've got that.

Formative food moment It was a trip to Mexico. Every day completely rewired my appreciation of the depth of food inside a culture. And the importance and relevance. I never really understood it up until that point. Julianne's family used to freak me out because they're southern Italian and everything's centred around food. I was like, "I don't understand why it's such a big deal."

Secret ninja skill I can play tennis pretty well. I've been coaching in the off-season.