Getting away to the country for a weekend and visiting an award-winning restaurant to sample local, seasonal produce close to its source may be a popular pastime in modern Australia, but when Alla Wolf-Tasker started out the concept of regional dining was a foreign one – literally.
The culinary director of the Lake House at Daylesford in Victoria fell in love with the ethos of regional restaurants in France and was determined to recreate what she saw on her return.
“Their strong sense of place and the incomparable relationship that I had seen first-hand between the chefs and their producer/growers really resonated for me,” she says. “I came back to Australia determined to emulate what I’d seen. But it was the late ‘70s; regional Australia was facing considerable difficulties with loss of traditional industries and dwindling populations. And really no-one travelled to regional Australia in the expectation of finding good food and certainly not a destination restaurant.”
In the blindness of her youthful determination, Alla never sought to question why Australia had no regional destination restaurants. “After a four-year period of hands on construction, we finally opened our original little 45-seater,” she says. “Rather than being surrounded by small artisan provedores we were encircled by big agricultural concerns growing commodity crops for transport and storage elsewhere. There were no local suppliers for our table, no local discerning clientele, no locally-available trained hospitality career professionals… That’s pretty much when the penny dropped, but it was too late – the dye was cast we’d built our restaurant.”
Despite the challenges Alla and her team stuck at it and the restaurant is now considered one of the best in regional Australia, winning countless awards over the decades. The Lake House has around 100 staff working across the small luxury hotel and spa, café Wombat Hill House and the two-hat restaurant that is its beating heart.
Alla, who was recently named winner of the Fine Food Australia Legend of the Industry Award at the Nestlé Professional Women in Foodservice Awards, says it is critical for a regional restaurant to have a personal identity and a strong sense of place.
“There needs to be a desire to stay relevant and contemporary without falling for fads and that requires us all to be sure of what we are and what we do,” she says.
“Above all, providing development and support for our team is critical – to keep them engaged and motivated. Continued investment and renewal are also critical. I often joke that this place Lake House gets all the face lifts and I get none! It’s a bit like oiling a much-loved machine really – all driving it in the one direction, updating it and giving it love.”
While it may not offer the excitement and fast-paced environment of a city eatery, Alla says the location is beautiful and she has a great connection with the community and suppliers. “Peak hour here means birdsong,” she says. “You can go for a drive and within minutes pop in to visit two or three of our suppliers for a chat about our needs and what they might grow for us for the upcoming season. You can gather mushrooms in the forest in Autumn, chestnuts in winter, elderflowers, elderberries and mountain pepper from early to late summer. Our clientele love the ‘sense of place’ this creates here as well. They escape to us to relax, to recharge, to enjoy good food and wine. Although with some, it might take a day or two to temper their neon-saturated, adrenaline-charged city FOMO.”
Local, seasonal produce has always been crucial for the restaurant. “Knowing one’s producer is important to us – it provides for transparency with regards to food and what’s been done to it,” Alla says. “Being able to cook with produce that has just been picked that morning and hasn’t seen the inside of a fridge or cool room is everything you expect it to be. The flavour and the aromas – you just can’t get any fresher or better. The building of relationships with our producers is a wonderful thing and I believe our guests respect us for that. Having said that, we celebrate hardworking, sustainable producers from all over Australia. But we make a point of knowing who they are and what their practices are and share that information with our guests whenever possible. But many of our dishes most often mirror what’s available or being grown locally. Our current beef tartare dish, served with a lemongrass and coriander-infused beef broth, is from British White cattle grown locally at Brooklands free range farms. The chicken dish on our tasting menu is from nearby Sommerlad Chicken – the closest thing I have found in Australia to the famed Bresse chickens of France. And we currently have a delicious goat cheese custard on the vegetarian tasting menu made from Holy Goat produce, topped with tempura of brassica leaves and served with a sweet mustard dressing.”
Alla still thinks of Lake House as a work in progress. This year has seen a refurbishment, including the installation of a new kitchen, and a new horizon pool. “We have also purchased and are developing a farming property seven minutes away from Lake House,” Alla says. “It already has an established olive grove with more than 200 trees on it, a three-hectare vineyard and several formal gardens. We have put in a 300-tree orchard, are planting out three acres of vegetables to supply our restaurant and have plans for an herbarium of endangered species of trees. There are new barns and a glass house being erected and we are renovating the existing rather beautiful house to include six luxury rooms to allow for people who may be interested in staying on an estate that will be providing a great deal of our produce and wine. It’s a thoroughly engaging and very exciting prospect I tell you!”
Alla’s advice to anyone considering opening a restaurant in a regional area is to go in with your eyes wide open and talk to as many people as possible beforehand.
“Monitor and learn as much as possible about the area you are interested in,” she says. “Expect to work hard and long unsociable hours, and don’t expect to be driving a Maserati anytime soon.”