Dan Hunter talks to MFWF’s Pat Nourse about a decade at the top of the Victorian restaurant scene

This December marks 10 years since Dan Hunter and Julianne Bagnato opened Brae in Birregurra. Its first menu ran from snacks of beef tendon with pepperberry, and shortfin eel with sea urchin and zucchini, through charred radicchio with duck offal, saltgrass lamb with sea lettuce, and on to the parsnip and apple dessert that’s still with us today.

Hunter and Bagnato were no strangers to the world of restaurants, having brought The Royal Mail in Dunkeld to international acclaim during their tenure, and Hunter had made his bones at Mugaritz, one of the most creatively demanding restaurants in Europe. But this was different – this was the first place they were opening for themselves. In fact, it was the first opening Hunter had done full stop.

They also chose to do things the hard way (of course), renovating the building the restaurant was in, and replanting its grounds to produce food for the kitchen. But despite these challenges, not to mention the odd compost fire, they made it happen and they made it work. Today Brae stands among the very finest Australia has to offer, an example of things done right, and of big-picture, long-term thinking paying off right down to the finest detail in the dining room and on the plate.

Here’s Dan Hunter, looking at what it took to get here – and what comes next.

When was your first service? What do you remember about it?
The first one was, Saturday, 7 December,2013, opening for 12 or 14 friends. Our first service for paying guests was the following day. I didn’t get much sleep those few days. On the Friday evening before, me and Damien Neylon, who was our opening sous chef and long-time head chef, cooked the proposed opening menu for the rest of the team. Some of that went okay, some didn’t.

I had this idea for the parsnip and apple dessert that just didn’t materialise. We were under pressure, a timeline closing in, and probably being a little over ambitious. I’d never opened a restaurant, let alone one where it was a full reno of both building and grounds, and my time leading up to this moment was really taken up with trying to be across everything that was going on with the whole project.

Anyway, we pulled the last desert from the team presentation, didn’t serve it and then went home quite late, a little deflated and a lot worried about what we would do for a dessert to close out the menu. I had thought the parsnip skin would sit on a plate, open side up, holding some delicious thing and everyone would clap. In the morning we came in and I just turned the parsnip over and shaved freeze dried apple all over it – and that was that was that. We were in the game.

When you have a second to stand back and look at the place, what do you see now, 10 years down the track?
A considered landscape, lots of plants and trees, a place of effortless detail. I think nature has a way of always telling the truth and hopefully when guests come onto the property they’re taken by the result of a decade of attention and care.

What’s changed?
Most things. I couldn’t even begin to cover all of that in a few sentences. But, apart from the development of our cuisine, the facility and grounds and our agricultural abilities, I think we’ve improved as people, as an organisation, and become a better place to work and perform. A place that’s at once more professional and more refined in our approach, but also more accepting and more willing and able to help our team to develop and grow rather than (me) just expecting and demanding a very high and particular standard.

When you first took over at what was then Sunnybrae, you said you wanted Brae to be a place where your guests could immerse themselves in “a full experience”. How do you think you’ve gone with that goal?
I think we’re there. I think it takes about seven years to start to feel like the work you put in or the vision you had is taking shape. Especially with nature – trees, orchards and a property, et cetera. It takes time to observe how people use a space and then to action change and watch it develop.

Where should people walk, what’s the best way to get from A to B giving the best outlook, how can a walk around a garden put the pieces together for a dish that was eaten earlier at a table inside? Does everything speak with the same tone?

With a building and a renovation, you can do everything at the start and then, from the moment you start to inhabit the space and use it, it starts deteriorating. With land it’s the opposite. You start with an idea, some plantings and you watch them grow and as the landscape takes shape and you observe its impact you can add more – but it’s really hard to see what it will be until it fills out and grows.

Also, with land, if you don’t start quickly, as soon as you get the opportunity, you may never get to fully appreciate the results of the work within your own lifetime or at least within the time you’re able to be in that place. Shaping nature is a slow burn.

I think the financial commitment, to continually reinvest in the same project, to keep putting icing on the cake, and the commitment we’ve also made to continually improving the ecology of both the land we’re on and the culture within our business, has had a major benefit to how it feels to be a guest at Brae.

What else was on the mood board for Brae when you and Jules were talking about it in 2013? What landed and what didn’t?
Honestly, we pretty much ended up in what we consider to be the perfect place for this type of restaurant and for us also as a family. And we’ve been happy to watch something grow so organically with no certain end game in sight.

Was there anything you wish you’d allotted more time to, looking at it in hindsight?
I think it’s easy to simply wish you had more money, to have afforded more things. We are who we are because of a whole life to date. How far back do you go and to what detail do you look at that past? I try to look forward.

What about the things you worried about at the time that didn’t actually really matter in the end?
Probably when the compost caught fire at around midnight during the first week or so that we were open. We were new to town, didn’t really know anyone yet, and after calling 000 in a panic, nine CFA trucks, utes and vans turned up, put the fire out, introduced themselves, drank a few stubbies, gave me a lecture about ‘bloody compost and organics’ causing fires, wished me all the best and then all took off into the night.

Any advice for a young couple like the Hunter-Bagnatos of 10 years ago looking to do their own thing in country Victoria?
Do your homework. Write realistic business plans. Be prepared to work like a mofo. Restaurants are for recreation.

What’ve been the best bits of these 10 years of Brae?
Connecting with our guests – particularly with our many, many repeat and multi-repeat guests. Personal growth. An opportunity to play on a world stage – giving both Australian and international guests a world-class restaurant experience on a back road in Birregurra and watching our team members develop and grow professionally, and now especially seeing many of them go on to do nice things for themselves. I hope there is some feeling out there that Brae is a place where it’s possible to learn to play with impeccably high standards.

What will things look like when Brae turns 20?
I hope there’s still a place for restaurants of detail, care and craft and that there are restaurants out there full of people pushing our industry forward into places we haven’t been yet. I hope the latest trees we planted this year are 10 years older.

Brae, 4285 Cape Otway Rd, Birregurra, Vic, (03) 3 5236 2226, braerestaurant.com