insight - Dan Hunter

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Occupation - Chef

When Dan Hunter returned to Australia after a one-year posting as head chef at Spain’s revered Mugaritz, Melbourne diners were expecting big things. What they weren’t counting on was Dan heading west to rural Dunkeld to help transform an unassuming country hotel into Australia’s hottest dining destination. He talks about getting back to nature.

I guess the big question on everyone’s lips: why Dunkeld?
I was ready to do my own thing. It was great to work in Spain and, to be honest, I do often think about what it would be like to stay and work in that environment again. But I think what we’ve created here in such a short time isn’t dissimilar to higher-end European country restaurants. It’s a type of escape from normality, a release from the mundane and something that’s quite ‘jarry’ against the urban existence the majority of people have. I’d never been to Dunkeld before, but after spending time here and having seen the environment, I saw the possibilities of where I wanted to go.

Apart from the produce, how does Dunkeld affect your work as a chef?
Dunkeld offers great freedom in terms of being removed from looking over your shoulder and looking at other restaurants around you. In Melbourne you have all these busy streets that maybe have six restaurants in the space of 300 metres. It’s very hard to find who you are in that sort of environment. I think what we’ve managed to do is carve a style that’s ours, home in on that and not worry about what other people are doing. We’re the only restaurant in town. It was interesting to read something in the newspaper saying that we were the best restaurant in Dunkeld.

How much of the produce that you cook with at the Royal Mail Hotel comes from your own gardens?
We tend to grow 90% or more of all the vegetables we use in the kitchen, but it depends on the season and time of year. We also use lots of wild stuff – wild herbs, sorrel, those sorts of things. During autumn, we’re out picking mushrooms most mornings. But when you work with a garden and become associated with growing fruit and vegetables, you can’t control everything. There’s this thought of a chef going out with a basket and being able to pick beautiful fruit and veg at any time, but it’s not like that.

So how did you end up working with Andoni [Luis Aduriz, executive chef at Mugaritz], and what did he teach you?
When I went to Barcelona, I was getting a grip on Spanish and settling in as a foreigner in a foreign country. Once I was in the system, I realised the person I wanted to work for most was Andoni, and the restaurant I was most interested in was Mugaritz. It was more a reconfirmation of what I had always thought in cooking. Andoni expanded what seasonality could mean. To Australian chefs, it’s a heavy protein with sauce. In summer it’s a lighter protein with sauce. Mugaritz opened my eyes to thousands of new ingredients. Now it’s okay for someone to walk out and grab a wild herb, pair it with something and call it a dish.

So Andoni wasn’t necessarily the person that got you passionate about produce?
In every point in my career, I’ve been lucky to have worked with chefs who’ve had a heavy interest in quality of produce and seasonality, whether it was never spoken about or held up by the media following the master class circuit. It’s even been there in varying degrees at lesser quality places. I worked for Jeremy Strode when he still owned Langton’s in Melbourne. Of the wave of British chefs that came to Australia in the ’90s, Jeremy’s cuisine was the most simplistic with the least ingredients on the plate and not necessarily drowned by sauce.

What was it like working alongside Andoni again at this year’s Melbourne Food and Wine Festival?
It was a great honour to have Andoni come here, but it’s also a bit bizarre to have your old boss in your kitchen. But the relationship he has with anyone is that he’s a worker. When he comes to a kitchen, he doesn’t take over, he understands his place in things. When he’s there during service, he does what he’s told to like any good chef, purely to make things work. Having him here reminded me of being back in Mugaritz.

Growing and using heirloom vegetables is a great passion of yours. Tell us about heirloom varieties. Heirloom fruits and vegetables provide customers and ourselves as cooks with a greater variety of ingredients. There’s a very interesting quote from Peter Gilmore [executive chef of Quay in Sydney] who believes it’s important to eat various breeds to make sure we still have them. You eat to promote diversity.
We’re interested in getting varieties of things people don’t have access to. We don’t grow anything that’s super-psychedelic or hippy, but things people might understand, like six or seven different breeds of carrots, varieties with different flavour profiles and colours. We want people to know that beetroots aren’t just big gnarly things you see in the supermarket, tomatoes aren’t super-hard things with skin that never ripens, and that carrots aren’t just giant woody things. The textures and flavours are different each year and we want to show people the diversity and textures of nature.

Do you find it hard to separate your personal life from your work life in a small town like Dunkeld?
When you get to this level in something you’re passionate about, you don’t separate yourself from work. Just as a great guitarist will always play guitar at home, I like to cook when I’m not here. But sometimes, hiding and switching off and being non-contactable are things you have to do. But we live in the town. This is my life. It’s what I do as a person.

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