Tony Tan grew up in a restaurant family in Malaysia. He came to Australia in the late 1970s to finish university. But he got side-tracked and ended up running restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney, the landmark Shakahari and Tatler’s among them.
A decade later, not content with cooking as his only creative expression, Tan took time out to complete his university education. Then fate took a turn and he was selected to be one of the hosts of the SBS show The Food Lovers’ Guide to Australia. From there, he transitioned into teaching at his Unlimited Cuisine Company in Toorak and writing as well as leading food tours around the world.
Now he’s a resident of Trentham, and a poultry-owner to boot. His new cooking school is taking off, and he’s excited to share his passion for a region that is not only packed with great producers and winemakers but it has given him the opportunity to explore his Asian food heritage through the lens of seasonality. “Growing my own veggies has always been my dream,” he says. “Baby steps!”
Here’s what Tan gets up to when he’s not tending the crops.
In the mornings you’ll find me feeding my chooks with grains and chopped French sorrel or bok choy from my veggie garden and gathering their eggs fresh before the crows get at them. Then it’s inspecting my tropical and semi-tropical plants (lemongrass, tea bushes and osmanthus among them) for grubs and snails in the greenhouse before picking some tomatoes and chillies, perhaps, for an omelette for lunch.
My local is RedBeard Bakery. I love the organic sourdough breads and pastries they bake in their 130-year-old wood-fired Scotch oven. It’s one of the few bakeries where you know every slice of bread you eat is not only flavoursome, but also made with passion because baker John Reid, who sadly passed away recently, believed in providing the community with breads using only Australian ingredients and unusual flours sourced from family-owned flour mills.
My defining food moment in Trentham was finding pine mushrooms and slippery jacks peeping through the damp ground of a friend’s garden when I first moved here a couple of years ago. Being Chinese, I’ve always had a love affair with mushrooms, so I consider myself to be extremely lucky to have landed in a region that yields these amazing fungi in autumn. Since then, I’ve also discovered a truffle farm not far from town. Imagine the endless possibilities one can make with these seasonal gems – mushroom dumplings, hot pots, bao and plenty more.
I know I’m in the Trentham region when I drive pass the tiny village of Tylden. For some reason my spirit soars when I whizz past Black Angus cattle and sheep grazing the hills. Perhaps there’s a spiritual explanation or connection – Chinese market gardeners lived in the region during the gold rush, after all. And I know I have come home.
The best new thing I’ve found is saffron growing not too far from me. Trentham Fields was established by Christine Rawson-Harris and produces small-batch, high quality saffron. I first discovered it in an organic food store called Ruby Goose and since then I have used it regularly in my Indian-inspired pilafs and whenever I poach pears. If you’re lucky enough to be invited to Christine’s farm in autumn, the field of purple crocus with saffron stamens is a sight to behold. Pure magic.
When I want to push the boat out on a meal, I make a beeline for Du Fermier in the heart of Trentham. An icon in Central Victoria, owner Annie Smithers is an exceptional chef, and her love of the land and the food she produces from her kitchen garden are inspiring. While I’m in awe of her impeccable cooking, it is her no-nonsense approach to minimal waste and seasonality that gets me every time I have the good fortune of dining there. So if you manage to score a table, expect seamless service and warmth made all the more exceptional by front-of-house manager Bronwyn Kabboord. Then sit back and leave it to chef Annie to charm you with her provincial French menu.
When I want to dazzle friends from out of town, I like to grab a side of pork belly from Matthias Prange, the amiable German butcher of Burnbrook Fields to make char siu, dumplings and knock up a gado-gado salad with local spuds. I pack all these good things into a basket with some prosecco from Vinea Marson for a picnic on the beautiful grounds of the Wombat Hill Botanic Gardens in Daylesford. Snag a spot overlooking the township and out to the countryside for a taste of paradise.
There’s no better value around here than having drinks at the Cosmopolitan, a pub with so much atmosphere you’ll think you’ve stepped into the 19th century. In winter, the log fire by the bar is the place to hunker down on the comfy sofas. In summer, the garden, laid out under sprawling elms, is the perfect spot to chill over a pint and a pizza from the wood-fired oven.
When I want to drink something local, my first choice is the wines from Cobaw Ridge from the Macedon Ranges. Established by Alan and Nelly Cooper in the 1980s, this biodynamic winery produces some of the most exciting wines in the region and its lagrein, a lesser-known Italian grape variety from the north of Italy, has a cult following. I fell in love with it back in 2017 and I’ve been a convert ever since. Aside from this broody, voluptuous drop, I also love the Il Pinko, the rosé they make with syrah.
My favourite place to stock up on supplies is Watts Fresh in Kyneton. There’s nothing quite like it in the region. A top-notch greengrocer offering everything from local spuds to Asian greens to exotic fruits plus an amazing deli chock-full of amazing cheeses and cold meats, it’s here that I find the likes of galangal and okra that are so essential to my style of cooking.
If I could change one thing about eating and drinking here it would be to find even more great places to eat and drink. There again, being a newbie in the region, I’m still discovering new places in Kyneton, Woodend, Hepburn Springs and Daylesford. If I can recommend just two more of my favourite watering holes in Daylesford, it’d have to be Winespeake and Bar Merenda, which are as good as any in the big cities. The former is a wine store and deli, the love child of Jen Latta and her husband Owen, winemaker at Latta Vino and Eastern Peake. Merenda, meanwhile, is a new bar helmed by Andy Ainsworth with his partner Clare O’Flynn. Both venues offer extraordinary wines made by passionate winemakers from the region and beyond who have an ethos that is all about small-scale production, healthy vineyard management without the use of pesticides and minimal intervention in the production. Luckily for me, I can drop into Winespeake for their legendary toasted sandwich and a tipple by day and tuck into a decent dinner with a top-notch Burgundy at Bar Merenda by night.
But the one thing I hope never changes in this part of the world is the clean country air, the tight-knit community where locals always have time for a cuppa and the passionate producers in the region – some of them are Matt Donnelly and Jo Corrigan from Force of Nature Company. Two former chefs and restaurateurs turned foragers and primary producers, they service some of the country’s top restaurants with superb fennel pollen, heirloom tomatoes and zucchini flowers. There’s also Sandor Istella, an organic farmer who grows some spectacular mushrooms including the lion’s mane fungi which he sells at the farmers markets in the region (okay, that wasn’t one thing).
The Tony Tan Cooking School, Trentham, tonytan.com.au