On the road with Victoria by Farmer's Daughters chef Alejandro Saravia

Paddock to plate: Chef Alejandro Saravia outside his new restaurant Victoria by Farmer's Daughters.
Paddock to plate: Chef Alejandro Saravia outside his new restaurant Victoria by Farmer's Daughters. Photo: Wayne Taylor

From urban-cool bars in Ballarat to trout fishing in Gippsland, chef Alejandro Saravia takes Good Food on a tour of some of his favourite places and producers.

Willie Nelson's On the Road Again warbles over the car stereo. Peru-born, passionately Melbourne-based chef Alejandro Saravia pans his iPhone from the steering-wheel badge of the loaned Lexus hybrid to the dash-screen Google map revealing his planned route from Melbourne to Ballarat for an Instagram story.

For followers of the peripatetic chef, it's a familiar post. Saravia has been hitting the highways, byways and back roads of country Victoria routinely for the past several years, mostly in Gippsland.

In fact, the vast stretches of the state's east were virtually his backyard before the launch last year of Farmer's Daughters, his region-exclusive paddock-to-plate multi-level restaurant in Melbourne's CBD.

Now his focus has widened to consume the entire state with the launch on Thursday of Victoria by Farmer's Daughters, overlooking the Yarra River, at Federation Square (on the spot the controversial Apple flagship store was to be built).

"Victoria by Farmer's Daughters presents a new style of sourcing food," explains Saravia. "It'll be like a small embassy of all the regions of Victoria in Melbourne, just as Farmer's Daughters is a small embassy of Gippsland."

I just can't imagine someone not falling in love with regional Victoria.

Alejandro Saravia

While the restaurant will draw on a cornucopia of produce from across Victoria, it will also stage three-month residencies twice a year, initially showcasing single regions at a time, headlining guest chefs, winemakers and producers.

Ahead of the opening, Saravia is taking me on a four-day road trip that includes his restaurant's first residency, Ballarat and the Pyrenees, before looping back to Gippsland to check out where his Victorian food journey began.

He's keen to introduce me to the producers, growers and farmers supplying his restaurants: salt-of-the-earth folk he comfortably calls friends, although he talks about them with such affection, at times they seem more like family. "The stories behind these people and places are incredible," he says, flashing his trademark grin.

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As we exchange city traffic snarls for the open road, Saravia explains he is following the same process of discovery he adopted in Gippsland, a model not unlike that of European chefs: hit the farmers' markets, meet local traders, taste and buy their produce.

"You get the town gossip, places to visit," he says. "As soon as people know I'm a chef, everyone has a friend who's a farmer or producer."

He has spent the past six months getting to know Ballarat and its surrounds but – having carved the state up into a dozen regions – has initiated forays into other areas, including Geelong and the Bellarine, Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and the Murray.

"To offer a farm-to-table regional experience in Melbourne, you need to travel a lot to build the relationships," he says.

Day 1: Ballarat bound

We're tracking north along the Calder Highway, taking a detour via Castlemaine for our first rendezvous: Oakwood Smallgoods, located at The Mill, a hub boasting several artisanal businesses.

It's on our itinerary for one simple reason: German-born butcher Ralf Fink. Entering his shop is like wandering into a meat-lover's wonderland. Displays and dry-ageing cabinets are stocked with charcuterie made following old-time methods and recipes that the German-accredited " fleischermeister" sums up as "meat, spices, tradition".

Fink shows us where his meats are cured, brined and smoked before offering a selection of cold cuts: his flagship jambon blanc and Black Forest ham, capocollo, mortadella, debreciner and leberkase.

"Once people taste my products, they're like, 'Wow'," says Fink, nodding his head. "I call it the bobble-head reaction."

Quick aside: if time permits, hit The Mill's other artisans, including a coffee roaster, sourdough baker, cheesemaker, chocolatier and craft brewer.

We head east to Summerfield Wines on the Stawell-Avoca Road, nestled in the Pyrenees ranges at Moonambel. While the Summerfield family has been making wine here since the 1970s, Saravia is more interested in owner Mark Summerfield's lamb and pork.

The fourth-generation farmer shows us his 73-hectare vineyard and farm (18 under vine), where he raises Berkshire pigs and Australian White sheep, a selective breed with delicately flavoured meat Summerfield calls " the wagyu of sheep".

While his meat isn't sold direct-to-public, it's available slow-cooked on wood-fired pizza from the soon-to-be-expanded cellar-door restaurant, where it perfectly partners Summerfield's wines.

"He's providing all the lamb exclusively to us," says Saravia, indicating the type of relationships and exclusive arrangements he's trying to foster.

On the road, there's plenty of time for banter. Saravia is knowledgeable, articulate and seemingly never short of a word, which makes for easy company. Talk ranges far and wide about food and restaurants, growing up in Peru and family.

It provides a chance to learn more about the chef who burst onto Melbourne's dining scene eight years ago with his Peruvian diner, Pastuso – in partnership with the San Telmo Group (since dissolved) – after making a name for himself in Sydney with Morena, another Peruvian restaurant launched in 2011, inspired by the success of Frank Camorra's MoVida.

I learn, too, that Saravia – of Spanish and Italian heritage – left Peru in 2003 for Barcelona to cook before heading to Paris and, later, an eight-month stint at Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck in the UK. He only ventured to Australia for some respite from the global financial crisis in Europe, where he was cooking at the Michelin-starred Les Ambassadeurs in Paris.

But he also opens up about family, learning as a young boy the art of hospitality at his grandmother's, and how he looks forward to taking his own young boys, Lucas and Gonzalo, on these road trips.

Before hitting Ballarat, we make a final call at Eastern Peake Vineyard, where owner Norm Latta welcomes us. It's another chance for Saravia to show me one of his by-chance discoveries: the winery's Latta Vino label, a range of natural wines with names like Rattlesnake and Wild West, made by Latta's son and winemaker, Owen.

Eastern Peake Vineyard, owner Norm Latta with chef Alejandro Saravia who is about to open Victoria restaurant in Federation Square.

Eastern Peake Vineyard winemaker Owen Latta with Saravia. Photo: Jana Langhorst

Day 2: Ballarat Bounty

Waking to brittle-blue skies and crisp air the following morning, we have our first chance to explore Ballarat's city centre, as it readies for the first weekend of the two-week Heritage Festival, an annual celebration of the city's golden days. You can't go far without spying some gorgeous relic reminding you of them – our luxury boutique stay, The Provincial Hotel, circa 1909, a perfect example.

Saravia is eager to show me the city's hipster heart, populated with restaurants, bars, cafes and occasional street art. "It's like inner Melbourne," he says. He's right. Many places look as if they could've been lifted from Carlton, Brunswick, Fitzroy or Collingwood.

He singles out restaurants like modern Italian diner Ragazzone, Meigas, which serves "the best Spanish in the country" (we dine in both), and modern Asian Moon & Mountain.

Cafes such as Fika for coffee and "the best egg-and-bacon roll I've had in a long time", Johnny Alloo and 1816 Bakehouse.

Aunty Jacks brewery. Images for 10 reasons to visit Ballarat feature for Good Food March 2021. Images supplied to writer Carrie Hutchinson. Single use only.

Ballarat rewpub Aunty Jacks. Photo: Supplied

And bars like Comfort of Strangers and Renard, where we wind down with a nightcap cocktail. But there are so many more cool little places, like eclectic brewpub Aunty Jacks, Mitchell Harris Wines' urban cellar door and hair salon-cocktail bar Style Bar.

Toting takeaway coffee from The Provincial's European-inspired restaurant, Lola, we're off to The Mushroom Connection, a last-minute inclusion, and Kilderkin Distillery before heading to lunch at The Shared Table.

As with other producers, this isn't Saravia's first visit to the mushroom farm, run by Jason Crosbie. He was here recently, shooting with a film crew for programs he's making on Ballarat and Gippsland, to air on the Nine Network, something he plans to continue as he explores each region.

Crosbie shows us some of the 10 varieties of exotic mushies – pink and blue oysters, lion's mane, pioppino and king browns – he's cultivating in his purpose-built facility, mainly for restaurants and the wholesale market.

With each producer we see, I gain better insight into how the chef ticks. He's generous, easy-going and personable. It's how he connects, builds contacts.

Kilderkin Distillery, Mount Pleasant, Victoria

Larrikin gins at Kilderkin Distillery. Photo: Bueno Design

When we reach our next stop, Mount Pleasant's Kilderkin Distillery, makers of Larrikin Gin, the cogs are already turning. He's thinking collaborations.

As Saravia says: "They're a way of activating a region, spreading the word about what people are doing and encouraging Melburnians to visit."

While the distillery's whisky and rum are still in production, there's no shortage of gins to sample – eight in all, including seasonal and special releases – and a couple of liqueurs.

Next, we visit The Shared Table, a gorgeous architect-designed restaurant at Buninyong. The restaurant promotes "dine without decision", a monthly set menu embracing – according to owner Dianne Ray – "what's best (and) available".

Often this is fresh produce gifted by locals such as the local fireman, who drops off warrigal greens and finger limes (used for our appetiser of scallop tartare in ponzu jelly).

Or friends and customers growing glass corn (which piques Saravia's interest), persimmons, quinces, rhubarb (turned into a sauce for our braised lamb main) and figs for our dessert compote and creme chiboust. "It's part of the supporting community," Ray says.

Impressed, Saravia is keen to enlist Ray – a 40-year nursing veteran and mother of four before transitioning to restaurateur – for the Ballarat residency: she comes up with the dishes, he'll help with the prep and, returning the favour, he'll cook a dinner in her restaurant.

Day 3: Going Gippsland

We're up early to make the three-hour trek to Gippsland. If we began our trip with On the Road Again, then surely day three should fire up with John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads. There's a noticeable shift in both landscape and mood as we exchange Victoria's Central Highlands for Gippsland's rolling green hills, lush from bursts of rain.

Stretching from Melbourne's outskirts to the NSW border, this is Saravia's adopted home turf. It's the fertile ground from which he literally grew his 80 Collins eatery, originally planned to run as a calendar of activities and events in Gippsland.

"The eucalypts along the road remind me of driving from the Lima coast to the Andean Sierra," he says wistfully. "First time I came here, I couldn't believe Victoria had such beautiful geography."

We drop in on one of Saravia's favourite farm gates, I Love Farms, an unmanned roadside shed at Delburn started by the Germano family as a fundraiser for victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Using an honour system, the family sells its own vegetables – cauliflower, broccoli and potatoes – but locally sources other fresh produce. "I'm hoping to turn this into a cafe," says Maria Germano.

In_Search_Of_Gippsland Rachel Needoba from the Butterfly Factory in Yarragon, West Gippsland with chef Alejandro Saravia.

Saravia with Rachel Needoba from the Butterfly Factory in Yarragon. Photo: Jana Langhorst

As we head to lunch at Wild Dog Winery restaurant Hogget Kitchen, on the outskirts of Warragul, our stop prompts Saravia to reel off some of the 50-or-so producers (not counting the dozens of winemakers) who supply Farmer's Daughters, including Butterfly Factory, Mirboo North Blueberries and Cherry Tree Organics.

At Hogget Kitchen (pictured, right), we join Saravia's business partner, David Jones (one of five investors in the Farmer's Daughters group), who runs the Meeniyan Garlic Festival, and Farmer's Daughters head chef David Boyle. But, more than a lunch spot, it's also where Saravia met the restaurant's winemaker-owners Bill Downie and Pat Sullivan, as well as head chef Trevor Perkins, who were instrumental in helping him with introductions.

The restaurant is easy to overstay, with its bucolic outlook of the vineyard and distant Strzelecki Ranges and provenance-forward tasting menu, with dishes like nose-to-tail lamb croquettes with black garlic, confit Noojee trout and Butterfly Factory Chamela cheese and feijoa cake. We do.

Plans to visit Loch are sadly abandoned. But Loch, sitting at the gateway to Gippsland, shouldn't be missed. There's Loch Distillery, providores Udder and Hoe, and Olive at Loch restaurant.

Nor should you skip charming nearby towns such as Korumburra, Meeniyan and Fish Creek.

But with Gippsland, you need to give yourself time, something Saravia stresses. People and places are spread out, making the region challenging to explore. There's at least an hour, for instance, between each of the producers we visit.

Day 4: Gippy The Great

Our last day begins with breakfast over a campfire with Justin Jenkins from Fleet Wines, who helped introduce Saravia to winemakers across the region. "He's been part of the Farmer's Daughters family since day zero," says Saravia.

Propped on a hill outside Leongatha overlooking his young vineyard and winery-under-construction, Jenkins outlines his vision and approach to winemaking.

"I'm helping to grow an understanding of Gippsland," he says. "By bringing a sense of place to our own wines we're helping to give context to the rest of the region."

With journey's end in sight, we head to our last producer, Alpine Trout Farm, at Noojee in the Mount Baw Baw foothills. But not before hanging a massive dogleg to Eaglehawk Creek Farm Produce, another favourite roadside farm gate at Glengarry North, selling organic pork (including pigs' trotters and ears).

Pulling up to the trout farm, owned by the Batarilo family, you feel transported into some kind of pastoral idyll. The backdrop is a glorious smudge of dark bush rising steeply behind the farm buildings and ponds: 58 in all, filled mainly with rainbow trout, but also golden trout and salmon.

Three ponds – each teeming with 2000 fish – are reserved for visitors. So hooking one is like … well, shooting fish in a barrel. You only need drop a line to get a bite. I do, almost immediately.

"I just can't imagine someone not falling in love with regional Victoria," Saravia says.

The homeward trip encourages Saravia, ever the forward thinker, to speak about the road ahead. Even before the businessman-chef launches his latest venture, he opens up on his three-year plan.

Included is a second Farmer's Daughters, this time in Gippsland, as a way of giving back, and more Victoria restaurants, possibly interstate or overseas in a city like Singapore. He hasn't ruled out another Peruvian eatery, either.

"I'm already working on plans because the scale of the projects is way bigger," he says, as the sky fades to black and the curtain falls on our time away.

Paul Best travelled with the assistance of Visit Victoria; on the road photos supplied by Victoria by Farmer's Daughters