He’s right now in Bangkok for a master class in how to live on and with the land.

 

Stories on Dan Hunter tend to cover similar ground: the three years he was head chef at Mugaritz in Spain’s Basque Country. The six-year tenure at the Royal Mail Hotel in a sleepy, traffic light-less town that became one of Australia’s most unlikely dining destinations. The equally unexpected success of his sophomore effort, Brae, an eco-conscious restaurant-slash-farm-slash-hotel in regional Victoria that made its debut on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List in 2017. Hunter is proud of these achievements, yet he insists these accolades are only part of his story.

Running a successful, environmentally-responsible hospitality operation anywhere in the world has its challenges. To do so in regional Australia is even harder still, yet team Brae is committed to working with rather than just off the land. For the inaugural Re Food Forum, Hunter will be speaking candidly about the challenges – and rewards – of working with rather against the environment. From rethinking kitchen practices to planting more native species in the garden, here’s a preview of what Hunter will be tackling in Bangkok.

 

Why did you decide to commit Brae to sustainability?

I don’t want to leave a fucking filthy footprint just because I work in a restaurant. There’s a lot of bullshit in the world. For me personally, that’s [being sustainable] never something we wanted to do. I don’t think it’s healthy or possible to live in a small community and not sustain a local economy. Sustainability should be considered greater than the individual.

How do the farms and farmers you work with fit into that sustainable model?

Everyone knows Brae because of what we do as a restaurant, but the stuff Jules [his wife Julie and co-owner of Brae] and I feel most proud about is the way the business operates behind closed doors. I’ve learned a lot about horticulture and agriculture and methods used to grow the types of food and we need in this restaurant and the type of quantities we need them in. In that time, we’ve become much closer to many more suppliers around us and we’ve got much better relationships. People go on and on about having long-term relationships with their suppliers but do they visit them? Do they see them face-to-face? Or do they just put in an email order with them every week? Having a connection with a farmer, being on their farm, encouraging them to try new things, having conversations about what could possibly work and watching their business grow. All those things. It’s been cool seeing that develop over time.

What other ways are you finding to make Brae environmentally friendly?

There are few restaurants in Australia that work as cleanly as we do and with as much of a green focus. The amount of recycling we do. How little rubbish we produce. Collecting rainwater. Using solar energy. All those things. It’s a pretty tight ship we’re running at the moment. A lot of stuff is unseen because we don’t bang on about it at the table.

Besides collecting rainwater, are there other methods Brae uses to conserve water?

We don’t waste water. If we have to do something with a big pot of water, we let it cool down and then it goes on the garden. It doesn’t go down the sink. Even to the point where everyone’s asking: “Do you need this boiling water? Do you need to refresh? Does anyone need ice water before I tip it on the garden?” Traditionally it’s been boil one pot, cook three bloody spears of asparagus and then tip it down the drain. Or put something under a running tap and try to cool it down. All these types of things. It’s pretty crazy. Having the staff work this way raises their attention to what they’re doing and how much waste is created by kitchens and restaurants.

What happens to the kitchen waste?

In our kitchen, we have a bin for actual rubbish and a bin for compost. We have a bin for soft vegetables and things that the chooks [chickens] can eat. And then we have our recycling. As a business, we do about 220 to 230 customers a week, but we only make between six and eight green domestic bins of rubbish a week – that’s it. The rest is basically captured on the property. By comparison, a family of six or seven can make a green bin a day. We have a worm farm off our accommodation for human waste which goes into the paddock and native plants. We keep compost on the property and put that back in the garden. For a business that’s doing what we’re doing and only making that much rubbish, it’s actually fuck-all to be honest. And I still think we have to improve on that.

Is your model practical for further business growth?

It’s been a massive fucking growth. When we started, it was six in the kitchen and four people on the floor. Now with the accommodation, and gardens and housekeeping, there’s something like close to 40 employees in Brae now. It’s in motion and it’s got to operate at a certain capacity now to pay its way. When I got back from Spain in 2008, I had some ideas internally of how a world-class organisation could operate. We’ve grown a lot as an organisation since then but then I think any organisation that’s worth its salt is growing all the time.

What else needs to happen for us to see broader changes in the restaurant industry?

There seems to be a lot of emphasis on the roles of the chef and restaurateur in terms of creating change. As the ones using these ingredients, I understand we have some responsibility but I mean, the change has to be collaborative, doesn’t it? Without cultural change across the board you don’t get change, you just get pockets of change.

Last thoughts about the Re Food Forum?

Of all the things I’ve been invited to do in the past 12 months, it’s probably the thing that’s appealed most to me. You’ve got these guys doing something for Thailand and South East Asia, but with a global outlook and including other people’s experiences working in a way that they like to promote.

 

Dan Hunter will be speaking at the {Re} Food Forum in Bangkok tonight (Mar 19) and tomorrow (Mar 20). He will also present a masterclass on of his signature dishes for up to 20 people. See www.re-take.asia

Max Veenhuyzen is a Perth-based food, drink and travel writer for titles including Australian Gourmet Traveller and The Guardian. maxveenhuyzen@gmail.com