An award-winning regional chef is ready to stamp his mark on another small Victorian town, writes Anthony Dennis.
I’ve just sat down to dinner with Dan Hunter, the acclaimed Australian regional chef, at, where else, but the Royal Mail Hotel. But wait. It’s not that Royal Mail Hotel, the one at Dunkeld near the Grampians mountain range in central Victoria; the one at which Hunter gobbled up every national and state culinary award for best country chef and restaurant, along with second helpings of international recognition.
No, this is another Royal Mail Hotel, Birregurra (population 740), a tranquil, easy-to-miss village tucked away in the south-west of the state near Colac, just on the other side of the Otway Ranges running parallel to the Great Ocean Road. Of course, the classic pub food at the tastefully tarted-up Royal Mail Hotel on Birregurra’s Main Street is no Good Food Guide threat. Nor is it a rival to the soon-to-be-opened Brae, the sequel to Hunter’s three-hatted Royal Mail restaurant.
I’ve travelled to Birregurra from Melbourne for a few days to gain a sense of the place in the months before Hunter’s new restaurant, Brae, opens. I’d sampled Hunter’s exquisite Royal Mail degustation menu, replete with skilfully complex yet delicately beautiful dishes, on a few occasions over the years, becoming acquainted with the chef – and with how he managed via his cooking to put Dunkeld – once as relatively obscure as Birregurra – on the map. This bloke clearly has a thing for hamlets.
Now for the first time in six years, Hunter is temporarily without a restaurant, having earlier this year quit the Royal Mail, owned by Melbourne millionaire Allan Myers. Hunter has taken over George Biron’s Sunnybrae, a long-time Good Food Guide fixture, situated on a rise just out of Birregurra. The new restaurant, at the time of writing, was due to open next weekend, likely making it one of Australia’s hottest new restaurants for 2014.
Hunter’s fans could be forgiven for thinking that his next move, on leaving the three-hatted Royal Mail, would be to open an urban restaurant.
But Hunter, who grew up in Victoria’s East Gippsland, is a country boy who developed his skills and reputation as a chef at Spain’s renowned two Michelin-star rated Mugaritz, in the hinterland outside that charmed regional city of San Sebastian.
The stars are in alignment for ‘‘Birre’’, as the locals refer to it.
Hunter’s arrival, with wife Julianne Bagnato and two-year-old daughter, Ivy, has coincided with the reopening of the town’s own aforementioned Royal Mail Hotel – style-wise a New York cut above your average country pub – as well as the launch of Harvest, a bed and breakfast happily short on chintz and long on taste.
Birre’s new attraction, Brae (it means a bank or hillside), is due to open tomorrow week starting with lunch. If Hunter’s form at the Royal Mail (Dunkeld) is any indication, Birre, being much closer to Melbourne than the Grampians, is going to be the perfect day trip or overnight outing for Melburnian foodies and a fine excuse for a weekend away or longer for Sydneysiders and other interstaters.
For Hunter, the opening of the restaurant marks an important moment in his life personally and professionally. In contrast to the Royal Mail in Dunkeld, where the chef had no formal investment in the business, Brae is a partnership with Howard McCorkell and Damien Newton-Brown, owners of the McCorkell Brown Group.
‘‘I’ll be 40 when this new place opens,’’ says Hunter. ‘‘This is all about being a business owner. For the past few years I’ve been saying that I’ve got to own my own restaurant by the time I turn 40.
‘‘My [wife] reckons if I hadn’t have said that I could have done it three years ago. But we never thought we’d find the right place. It isn’t a huge space, but it’s a nice space. It’s a farmhouse and it’s still going to be a farmhouse but with some modern touches. I want the place to reflect the care and attention taken with the food.’’
When I visit the historic farmhouse – surrounded by gardens that feature all manner of cacti from its Sunnybrae days – which Brae will now call home, it’s still a shell, or least the 1980s’ era addition is, where the restaurant proper will be located. Natural finishes have since been used throughout, with large windows providing views of the extensive gardens.
They include a Hunter signature organic vegetable patch from where the chef will draw many of his ingredients. An olive grove and orchard with stone fruits, citrus, nuts, berries and grapes has been fed with organic matter and mulched. A new home has been built for the imminent arrival of runner ducks.
Unlike Dunkeld, where the only other place to eat after the Royal Mail was a takeaway joint down the street, Birregurra is not short of a few decent places to eat, especially when Sunnybrae was still trading. In addition to the Royal Mail, with its stylish art deco facade, there’s also Birregurra Farm Foods, a rustic provedore-cum-butcher-cum-cafe-cum-restaurant, just a few doors down from the pub, that serves classic city-style thin crust pizza on an al fresco wood-fired oven right on the street.
Hunter plans to eventually build 10 rooms of guest accommodation on the 12-hectare Sunnybrae block. In the meantime, visitors to Birregurra can enjoy Harvest, that new bed & breakfast owned by Fiona Brandscheid and Steve Dawson. The couple can’t believe their luck having launched their new establishment, in a 1930s weatherboard bungalow, in the months before Brae’s opening.
Brandscheid, a graphic designer when not running the B&B, used to cook at Birregurra Farm Foods on Main Street. She makes a mean breakfast with a menu that features Spanish-style baked eggs, gooey goat’s cheese omelette, as well as good old bacon and eggs, as you like them.
After a few days in Birregurra I am sated – and Brae hasn’t even opened yet. But there is time for one last feed with Dan, Julianne and Ivy at Birregurra Farm Foods before I’m off, taking the long, ridiculously scenic way home, straight across the Otways and back to Melbourne along the Great Ocean Road. When I return to Birregurra I’ll be able dine at Brae, provided, that is, I can get a booking. Oh well, there’s always the Royal Mail (the Birregurra one).
Anthony Dennis is Fairfax Media’s national travel editor. He visited Birregurra as a guest of Tourism Victoria.
Birregurra is just under two hours drive south-west of Melbourne off the Princes Highway and 30 minutes from the Great Ocean Road. If you’re travelling from Sydney you can reduce your driving time by flying with Jetstar to Avalon Airport, near Geelong.
Harvest Birregurra Bed & Breakfast, 72 Beal Street, Birregurra, (03) 5236 2464.
Brae, 4285 Cape Otway Road, Birregurra. Online bookings only.