Brae: A Restaurant That Serves Food
Words by Mathew Bate
Photos by Colin Page and Timothy Bate
Brae is one of Australia’s best restaurants. We shouldn’t have to ask why; it’s probably because they serve really good food. But what is good food and how do you serve it?
“If you come to our farm, you're not going to be served poison.”
After dining at Brae and chatting with head chef and owner Dan Hunter at length, it’s this statement about poison that lingers with me. Last year, the restaurant came second to Azurmendi in Spain in the World’s 50 Best Sustainable Restaurant Awards. More recently, Brae was awarded Regional Restaurant of the Year at the 2020 Gourmet Traveller Restaurant Awards. Given the benchmark Dan has set with Brae, his comment seems utterly sarcastic. That Brae has a strict no-poison policy doesn’t seem like anything to write home about. Surely, at a bare minimum, we expect restaurants not to serve poison?
Yet in the modern world, we are constantly dished out processed foodlike products, while most fresh produce has been grown on chemically intensive farms using pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers. In short, most of our food has been poisoned. We’ve consumed artificial, industrial food for so long that it’s now almost unrelated to the real thing. If you ever find yourself, like me, lost in a supermarket aisle, look around. You’re looking at a whole lot of processed foods, 53 percent of which aren’t considered to be core foods that should make up the bulk of our diet.
Dan’s “no poison” comment is distressing because it highlights how disconnected we’ve become from food. The challenge now is that as we’re trying to develop more sustainable food systems, we’re also trying to re-educate people about what food actually is.
In ‘Unhappy Meals’, the New York Times article that led to bestselling book In Defense of Food, journalist and author Michael Pollan offers this rule for eating: “Eat food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done.”
Take the carrot, for example. A carrot grown in organic soil is a different thing to the orange, pointy object that’s grown in the industrial food system. Research has shown that there is a statistically significant difference between an organic carrot and a non-organic carrot (long pointy). For example, an organic carrot can have up to 69% more antioxidants and it also has little to no poison residue. An organic carrot tastes like a carrot naturally should; the long orange pointy ones taste like carroty water.
I ask Dan what he thinks about carrots. “Do I know how to cook a carrot is one thing. Do I know how to purchase a carrot is another thing. Do I know where that carrot came from is another thing and then do I know the culture that surrounds the production of that carrot year in, year out?” Different carrots tell different stories.
Carrots, communities and cultures all transform, and we’re currently living in one helluva transformation. Climate emergency means that food ethics and sustainability are more important than the cutlery on the dinner table. We cut up our food with the knife, the fork and a sense for what’s on our plate. And as we eat our way into a new cultural narrative, one that emphasises regeneration, biodiversity and natural processes, Dan maintains that “we need to fully digest the fact that eating is an environmental act. We try and cook a cuisine that celebrates the possibilities of a sustainable environment.”
When you drive into Brae you’re immediately aware that you’re on a farm, in a landscape. It’s especially palpable during my visit because it’s early March and the dry summer spell hasn’t broken yet. It’s hot. Everything seems burnt. If it weren’t for the sign at the entrance you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d driven into the wrong place. The restaurant is an ordinary-looking farmhouse. I’m greeted at the door like I’ve just arrived at my cousin’s place for tea. “I think there's something to be said about just blatantly setting up a situation where you can be nice to someone,” says Dan.
I’m seated near the kitchen beside a wall of glass. My view is of the 23-acre organic farm that produces most of the food on the menu. Over my left shoulder I can see the twelve different varieties of plum. Brae grow all sorts of organic vegetables, fruits and grains as well as honey from bees kept in the back corner of the farm. Dan and his team pick produce before each meal service, with some vegetables hitting the plate less than two hours after being harvested. I’ll spare you a play-by-play of the five hours I spent inside the restaurant, but I will re-serve the second dish:
There are six of them, skinned and resting in a shallow broth. Simple, bold and unforgettably delicious. It’s pretty audacious to just serve up six cherry tomatoes, especially at Brae. It prompted me to meditate on the simple tomato as I looked out over the field, towards the tomato vine. I realised I was literally tasting the landscape – everything within my view, from the soil to the Australian sun, had shaped the tomatoes’ flavour. I was eating an organic summer.
“We operate more by example than discussion; although the discussion is through the example,” explains Dan. “Tomatoes” gave me a new appreciation for the connection between good food, good hospitality and, most importantly, bloody good farming.
The tomatoes remind me of a story Campbell Burton, one of Australia’s leading sommeliers, once told me when I asked him why he was only really interested in organic, additive-free winemaking. Long story short, when he was 31 he was served organic tomatoes grown by the French natural winemaker and regenerative farmer, Claude Courtois. Campbell marks that moment as the first time he tasted a tomato. From then on, he was all in with organic farming.
Five hours later, after lunch and a break in the middle to walk around the farm, the meal concludes and I make my way across the parking area to the guesthouse that I’ll be staying in. The kookaburras laugh. I sneak in another walk before dark.
“What’s it taste like, Australia?”
Dan asks me this about a week after my meal at Brae. It’s a good question: what does our environment taste like? Will our future be palatable? I tell him I’m still trying to figure out what food is first.