"The zucchini have gone crazy," says Rodney Dunn. "Which is great. The lettuce is always happening, it's just prolific and everywhere. The corn grows a foot every day, and the raspberries are finishing, with the birds getting the last of them. We had our first tomatoes the other day, so that's good. The pigs are getting fatter by the day, and I'm waiting for them to be old enough to go and have some fun with the boar so they can give me some little piglets. The geese are biding their time, and I'm going to fatten them over winter; the Jersey cows are being nuisances. They've been to the bull, but I'm not sure if they're pregnant."
Welcome to a day in the life of Rodney Dunn. As a former full-time food editor here at Gourmet Traveller, he was more accustomed to whiling away his hours in the city in the test kitchen and photo studio, but for Dunn, it has been a matter of taking the boy out of the country, but not the country out of the boy. Raised in Griffith, in southern central New South Wales, he left home for the city to pursue his interest in cooking, cutting his teeth in restaurants such as Tetsuya's before turning to work in magazines. For all his flair in the kitchen and his talent for preparing food for the camera, the country kept calling. "I wanted to have access to better food," he says. "I really wanted to eat vegetables we couldn't buy, to have the experience of having our own animals, our own milk, and to make a living out of sharing that experience with other people."
So it was that in 2007, Dunn, his wife Séverine Demanet and their toddler Tristan left Sydney and settled in a 19th-century schoolhouse 45 minutes north of Hobart at Lachlan in the Derwent Valley. After some hard yards with shovel, sledgehammer and backhoe, they opened the doors on The Agrarian Kitchen late last year, and it's already being hailed by local and overseas pundits as a cooking school in a class of its own. The first part of most sessions involves pulling ingredients from the garden, but despite the rustic setting, the kitchen is equipped with shiny new professional-grade equipment, augmented by a wood-burning oven designed by fire-guru Alan Scott. In addition to the heirloom fruit and veg and the Barnevelders, Wessex saddlebacks and other assorted rare-breed livestock on the farm, other topnotch Tassie produce plays a part, whether it's black truffles, wild trout or rock lobster. Locals pitch in their skills, too; butcher and pig breeder Lee Christmas lends a hand with the Whole Hog class (yes, it means exactly what you think), for example, while Gordon Ramsay protégé and pastry chef Alistair Wise gives lessons on the sweet stuff.
The romance of the setting is undeniable. "I look at it, and think, gee, that's not growing as well as I'd like it to, and the weeds are getting away a bit over there, but other people come here and just fall in love with the place," says Dunn. There's no lack of poetry in Dunn's soul, but his mind, nonetheless, is on smokehouses and greenhouses, root cellars and milking sheds. How long will it take to get The Agrarian Kitchen to a point where he'll be satisfied with it?
"The rest of my life," he says, "I hope."
The Agrarian Kitchen, 650 Lachlan Rd, Lachlan, Tas, (03) 6261 1099.
WORDS PAT NOURSE PHOTOGRAPHY SHARYN CAIRNS