It is lucky Dan Hunter doesn’t believe in omens. If he did, he may not have become one of Australia’s most influential chefs. His first shift inside a kitchen resulted in a severe tongue lashing from the owner of the seafood restaurant in Fitzroy. Hunter was washing a black cast-iron pan when it slipped from his grip, bounced off the bench and shattered the glass door connecting the kitchen to the dining room. Chaos ensued, but Hunter is at peace amid chaos.
It probably didn’t help that Hunter was stoned that day. And it definitely didn’t help that he didn’t want to be there. He didn’t know what he was going to do with his life after school. He had just moved from a quiet country town to the bright lights of Melbourne when he brought that busy Friday lunch service to a standstill. But rather than frighten him away from kitchens for life, Hunter was hooked on the buzz and energy generated by the motley crew of misfits manning the stove, peeling prawns and scrubbing dishes. He knew he was one of them.
Fast forward three decades and the chef and owner behind Australia’s destination restaurant, Brae, is still hooked on the caper. Things have certainly changed since then. Hunter’s vision has attracted not just domestic, but global acclaim. It is why people drive from all over Victoria to visit a restaurant 90 minutes out of Melbourne, in a tiny town that has less than 900 residents. It is why people fly from all over the country, some even just for the afternoon or night. And it is why overseas visitors flock to the Otway’s when most don’t venture beyond the city. At least they did in pre-COVID times. And they will again, one day.
But to only focus on the success of Brae and gloss over the years of sleepless nights and financial sacrifices is to miss the deeper story behind Hunter’s steady ascension. Nothing has come easy, especially right now as we continue to swat away a virus that is refusing to retreat into the abyss. That’s what has made his climb that little bit sweeter. Behind the three hats, the spot on the World’s 50 Best restaurants list and the Phaidon cookbook, is a remarkable story of paying your dues.
If the moment inside that seafood restaurant ignited a fire inside Hunter, it wasn’t until a few years later when he discovered cooking was his calling. He was living in London with his then-girlfriend now-wife, Julianne Bagnato, who manages the operations side of Brae, when they got off a bus in Bath on the way home from Glastonbury in 1998. They were coated from head to toe in thick mud and still wearing knee-high gumboots when a job advertisement at a pub caught his eye. It wasn’t until he was sitting in the interview that he realised it was for the sous chef position. Despite no previous experience, he wanted it, so he told a few white lies, and the job was his. He didn’t realise it at the time, but this is really where it all started.
“I got the job by bullshitting and saying I could cook. I stayed there for eight or nine months and just had to get my way through it. To be fair, it was a pretty average place, the food wasn’t very good, obviously because I was the sous chef there,” Hunter tells Man of Style from inside the dining room at Brae.
“I read books at the library in Bath and really in that time, although this was a very, very average place and there were no rules, there was something to it that just captured me. It was an environment where who you were as a person outside of work wasn’t important. People were able to be themselves. They weren’t being shaped to be a certain thing like other industries; restaurants aren’t like that; the restaurant world is very diverse. I absolutely loved it.”
From there to now didn’t follow a step-by-step plan. Hunter went from England to all over Europe, stopping in Mexico on the path back to Victoria. By the time he got home, he knew what he wanted to do with his life. While all his mates were finishing university or trades, Hunter started his chef apprenticeship earning just $220 per week, eventually landing a spot inside Melbourne’s best restaurant at the time, Langton’s, working under Phillipe Mouchel and Jeremy Strode. It was there, on Flinders Lane before Flinders Lane became one of the best dining destinations in the country, where Hunter really learned what he was doing in the kitchen.
But the itch to return overseas was a compulsion that had to be scratched in 2003. Ferran Adria was the most influential chef on the planet at the time, redefining haute cuisine with his molecular gastronomy at ElBulli in Catalonia – a restaurant that was only open six months of the year and never turned a profit despite its status as the best dining experience on earth. Adria wasn’t the only Spaniard garnering notoriety. Andoni Luis Aduriz’s experimental restaurant, Mugaritz, in San Sebastian was all the rage. That’s where Hunter wanted to work, tucked away in the far north corner of Spain less than 30 minutes from the French border.
“There was an article about the ten up and coming chefs in Spain at the time. In that article was Andoni,” Hunter recalls. “It was about him being a disciple of Ferran Adria. He has his own restaurant in the hills of the Basque country. The cuisine looked very different; it was very natural and appealed to me; it was much more based on wild ingredients and farmers on that area; it was a cuisine steeped in its region and that just really appealed to me. I basically decided after reading that article that I was going to find a way to work for that guy, which sounds ridiculous, I know.”
Mugaritz wasn’t the restaurant it is today back then – it now has two Michelin stars and is currently ranked No. 7 on the World’s 50 Best restaurants list – but it already had one star and was a sustainability leader long before that term became part of the modern lexicon. Hunter didn’t fly from Melbourne to San Sebastian and just start working in the kitchen at Mugartiz. It took him two long years in Barcelona, grasping control of the language, cooking in unnoteworthy restaurants, attending plenty of techno parties and emailing – and emailing – for an opportunity to materialise in the Basque country. When he finally got a look in as a stage – weeks after eating as a guest at Mugaritz – he never looked back. Another piece of the puzzle was in place.
“It was a life-changing meal. Jules and I decided in that moment that I had to work at that restaurant. I couldn’t believe the detail. I’d just never eaten or seen a meal of this detail,” he said. “The techniques where I didn’t know what happened. When you eat classically, the techniques you use at home are the same in classical cuisine; they are just very refined versions of them. It’s not often you have a meal where you go, ‘How the fuck did they do that?’ I didn’t even know what they were doing. How did they achieve that texture? It was very understated, it wasn’t showy. On one level it was exhilarating, but on another level very calming. It was amazing on so many levels; so many levels.”
Only one other Australian had ever dined at Mugaritz before them. None had stepped foot in a kitchen that was made up almost entirely of Spaniards and Argentinians. Two years went by in the blink of an eye. He started as a stage, working for free like 80 per cent of the kitchen, before being promoted to head chef in just over 12 months, barking orders and dealing with local farmers in Spanish dialect.
It wasn’t the plan. Hunter had been promoted to chef de partie quickly and when they offered him the head chef role, he originally panicked and turned it down. He was already completely out of his depth, without taking on that level of responsibility inside one of Spain’s best restaurants. Jules reminded him that the only reason they moved to Spain was for this job. And now it was his.
Despite steering the ship at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Spain, living paycheck to paycheck on a salary of $28,000 and feeling disconnected made them realise it was time to come home. After 12 months in the main role at Mugaritz, they decided it was time to start the next chapter.
Before you jump to conclusions, Hunter didn’t leap from Mugaritz to Brae. Not even close. In an age before Instagram and Chef’s Table, Hunter was a complete unknown in Australia. He actually didn’t come home with a burning desire to open up his own restaurant. In fact, he and Julianne didn’t want to do that. It wasn’t until 12 months into their next stop at the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld they realised they’d made a poor career move and craved the freedom to make their own decisions without having to explain every single choice.
They bought a map of Victoria – back when they were made up of paper and folded into squares – and drew a ring at 150 kilometres from the GPO in Melbourne with a red marker. Anything within the ring was up for consideration. It took them four long years driving around Victoria, crunching numbers and operating in the shadows before they settled on the site for Brae, which was then known as Sunnybrae.
“We ate here in April 2012 and we heard at that time the property might be on the market soon. We saw it and thought there is no way this is the place we want. It was rundown and 30 acres which was big for a restaurant. But we wanted to consider accommodation in the future, which we have done, we wanted to consider proper agriculture like grain and wheat, which we have done,” he said.
“The property was really rundown. It went on the market at the end of the year and once we ran the figures on it, it actually just made sense and worked as good as anywhere. If we didn’t find anything by the end of the year I was going to walk away from the Royal Mail and we were going to drive around Australia in a 4WD.”
After seeing farmers deliver produce to the backdoor of Mugaritz having walked from their farms down the road, there was no turning back for Hunter. A city restaurant was never a consideration, much to the disappointment of his fans who want greater access to his brilliance.
“We actually never thought of a city restaurant. Once I worked at Mugaritz, I knew I could never work in the city again. Mugaritz doesn’t have a huge garden, but when I started seeing farmers coming through the back door with things that had grown 500 metres from the restaurant, my head flipped out. I just couldn’t believe you could work in that way,” he said.
“I started thinking, why do restaurants exist in the city? If you’re a chef with any real interest in products, why would you want it to be handled five times and refrigerated before you’ve got it? you’re starting at negative ten already. You have to be so bloody good to make it taste it good. A restaurant for me is growing food to cook and serve food. I don’t like at things we cook starting in the kitchen.”
A lot has changed since Brae opened nearly a decade ago. The pandemic has rocked the hospitality industry to its core, but Brae has weathered the storm. One thing that hasn’t changed is the restaurant’s standing in this country. Sometimes you need to look back to appreciate just how far Hunter has come since he first stepped foot inside a kitchen. Lucky he doesn’t believe in omens.