Diary of Dan Hunter: Brae owner-chef shares his restaurant reflections

Dan Hunter at Brae, Birregurra.
Dan Hunter at Brae, Birregurra. Photo: Eddie Jim

Snapshot of a chef on a mission to take his food from the vegetable garden of his country restaurant to the world.

January 16th – Friday

Some strange weather again – lots of wind for this time of year, so all the rain from earlier in the week has basically dried up. Ducks back on today and they're not the best we've seen – aged 10 days but in a weird spot between too fatty and not dry enough, with a flavour that hasn't developed the right length yet. Hopefully they'll improve over the next few days.

A duck dish at Brae.
A duck dish at Brae. Photo: Supplied

Used lots of zucchini and squash flowers for the snacks, stuffing the prawn and tamarind mix inside them. Mussels came in – Sea Bounty down at Portarlington – nice and plump and really good flavour, although the couple I tasted today were a bit tough. Working on a dish of charred beet broth with mussels that we've been throwing about.

Was fortunate to go out on one of the boats a couple of years ago with Ben Shewry and a few others and realised after some instruction from the guys on the boat that the typical commercial kitchen method of opening mussels by dumping them into a pot that's almost buckling it's so hot is completely detrimental to the quality of the mussels, and just bringing them to a gentle simmer slowly, completely submerged in water, is far more appropriate to maintaining their plump texture and water content.

We've opened them that way ever since, pulling them out of the slowly heating liquid one by one as they open and removing the beards then, when they release them without a struggle.

A staff member picking ingredients from the kitchen garden.
A staff member picking ingredients from the kitchen garden. Photo: Colin Page

February 12th – Thursday

Finally met up with Don Lidgerwood today to discuss the possibility of a grain crop (probably spelt and maybe red wheat) on lot one of the property, and also on the newly subdivided block. He's had a bit of success in recent years growing various heirloom wheat crops on his property two kilometres away, and he and George Biron actually had a pretty good result from a crop several years ago before we bought the place. It's been on the agenda since we took over, so it's great to get the ball rolling.

As the bread has been a real focus in the kitchen, and with our intention of expanding production to have a retail food store, I've been really keen to grow the grain we use on site and possibly sell a good organically grown heirloom wheat to any artisanal bakers out there in Melbourne, or closer, who may be interested.

Apparently Don has a stone mill he hasn't fired up yet and although he's milling quite finely at the moment he did seem keen on my intention of milling whole wheat for our bread. If all goes to plan we should sow the first crop within a couple of months and grow it slowly over winter for a spring/summer harvest.

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February 13th and 14th – Friday and Saturday

Hot morning with a massive dry storm blowing in lightning strikes around lunchtime to a half-full restaurant, causing the power to go out for 2½ hours. No aircon, no extraction fans, no music, no water (as we're on water pumps) – so no toilets flushing. Luckily we have rain water stored in large 25-litre jugs for drinking in the dining room and lucky we're cooking most things outside on the barbecue or in the masonry oven. No one really seemed to mind, thankfully, but it was a real bastard!

Following that, though, we did get 45 millimetres of rain over the next 15 hours or so, which is incredible for this time of year. Unfortunately it won't do much to the dam's level, but it was nice to see the garden standing tall today and a flick of green through the paddocks. There has been significant vegie planting over the last week and a bit, so the rain will be put to good use.

February 17th, 18th and 19th – Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday

Works continue! It's sort of relentless at the moment and I do wonder sometimes how it must be to just rent a building in the city and have a restaurant?

Dan Hunter describes his food as rustic and grounded.
Dan Hunter describes his food as rustic and grounded. Photo: Colin Page

Had several tradies here the last three days over our weekend (bobcat operators and landscapers, in fact), dealing with the shitty driveway we inherited and putting in walking paths for people to get around the property – oh, and what I call the "weed eradication programme" of removing some more of the plants/shrubs and small trees that provide absolutely nothing aesthetically to the property and have no positive effect on the landscape or nature (six truckloads this time). It's nice, however, to see the place slowly taking shape and opening out some longer views towards different parts of the property and surrounding hills. I reckon five years from now I'll be starting to feel like we are getting somewhere!

Unfortunately, as with all land improvement works, nothing goes 100 per cent to plan and each time you remove something or work on an area there's the feeling that, rather than improve a space, you've just left a gaping hole that you need to mend.

I know we've made massive improvements in creating a much more relevant landscape but it's not easy always to see it, especially when there are trucks and bobcats tearing up and down the drive 15 minutes before customers are supposed to arrive and about half a day after they're supposed to be finished.

Brae. Recipes and stories from the restaurant.
Brae. Recipes and stories from the restaurant. 

This is an edited extract from Brae. Recipes and stories from the restaurant by Dan Hunter published by Phaidon.