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Always adventurous, never faddish, every meal a celebration
- for 30 years Alla Wolf-Tasker has honed her Lake House
It was 1979 when we bought the denuded, car-wreck-covered paddock that was to be the site for the restaurant of my dreams. Was there a demand for such a place? Were there any others like it? And, if not, why not? Moreover, what the hell did we think we were doing? All reasonable questions that we didn't think to ask.
Drunk on my experiences of France's rural destination restaurants, I ignored the disconnect between what I had and what I wanted. Namely, a discerning clientele, artisan suppliers, career staff, a cellar of note and a knowledgeable sommelier, beautiful gardens and flower-filled interiors. Ambitious? Idiotic, more like.
Against all odds, including a miserly bank balance, we began construction on an eroded south-facing block that no one else wanted. Unemployment in the then down-at-heel village of Daylesford was about 20 per cent. There were no local trained staff and attracting staff to live there was impossible.
When I advertised for local produce, I was rewarded with a sack of potatoes, delivered to the kitchen. The "discerning clientele" that walked through the newly planted orchard to our front door were usually in search of Devonshire teas, toasted sandwiches or steak and three veg. When city folk ventured out on country drives, there was no expectation of finding good food. Ours was the first espresso machine in the region.
My ambitious opening menu featured shiraz-glazed Castlemaine pigeon and twice-cooked goat's cheese soufflé. Freshly foraged mushrooms and chestnuts, quinces and wild damsons, local trout and eel were on offer. It probably sounded grand to the sandwich seekers, but "grand" was never what we were about.
In France, rural restaurants resonated with me for that reason. Unlike their city cousins, the great regional French restaurants were relaxed in their hospitality and had a palpable "sense of place" I hoped to emulate. Roger Vergé was celebrating tomatoes from his garden, Georges Blanc channelled the cooking of his grandmother (La Mère Blanc), and boxes of produce from the market gardens of Provence arrived still covered in dew at Jacques Chibois in Cannes.
Yes, there was considerable craft on the plates and pride in knowledgeable service, but the core of the experience in those places was conviviality and celebration. Michelin stars notwithstanding, children (and dogs, of course) were welcome at the table. In Australia, we were breeding inhospitable city restaurants full of pomp, supercilious service and badly duplicated classical French fare.
A revolution was afoot, however, with people such as Stephanie Alexander leading the charge. Her celebrated Melbourne restaurant offered good-natured service and promoted named Australian produce rather than reproducing European haute cuisine.
The countryside was still a desert, with economic sustainability for restaurants such as ours still a long way off. It would take the development of the wider region and persuading people to look for things in their own backyard rather than seek them out in Italy and France. The proliferation of good suppliers came even later, as consumers became interested in the provenance of their food, and better infrastructure encouraged people to move to the country. Many tree-changers have become our most valuable suppliers, fulfilling their dreams on small organic allotments or raising rare breeds.
Drive an hour out of most of our capital cities nowadays and you'll be sure to come across a decent café, a quirky general store or a cellar door. Australia's regional destination restaurants are regularly the recipients of accolades and awards. I'm delighted Lake House maintains its place among them.
As for that discerning clientele I wished for, they now come to us from all over Australia and the globe. Fortunately, they're not the box-ticking sort. Ancient grains? Tick. Tendons, testicles, tails? Tick. Obscure peasant dish? Tick. Like us, I suspect, having sorted through the chemical manipulation of foods, weeds as garnish, and twig camp fires and stone assemblages on dinner plates, they are interested in adventure but sceptical of fads.
People often ask me about our "market" and a look at the dining room might suggest the eclectic population of another planet. High-stepping Jimmy Choos, short skirts and extraordinary body art jostle with the reefer jackets of chief executives. Locals come for birthdays and anniversaries; young people save for a proposal dinner.
Our restaurant, still the beating heart, has grown into a small hotel and spa with more than 100 staff, set in beautiful gardens with a pristine lake. Remaining relevant has enabled us to prosper, despite difficult times for the industry. And Lake House remains, as ever, a work in progress.
To mark 30 years of Lake House, a black-tie event is being held on New Year's Eve; all proceeds will be donated to the local Country Fire Authority. Visit lakehouse.com.au.
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