At Melbourne's Hazel, cheese is a metric for the city's COVID status. When case numbers are looking shaky head chef Brianna Smith makes haloumi and feta, fridge-stable cheeses that can be stored in brine, lest another snap lockdown occurs. When case numbers are looking good she makes brie, a more labour-intensive cheese that requires daily care and upkeep.
Smith was appointed head chef of the CBD restaurant in July last year, but says she held the title in name, not nature, during the city's drawn-out lockdowns. Most of her energy went towards ensuring the welfare and wellbeing of her staff. "I felt responsible, but I didn't necessarily feel like a chef."
But the brie is back – it's two weeks away from being properly ripened – and so is Bri: maker of cheeses and charcuterie, effusive sharer of wheat and grain knowledge, and yes, kitchen lead at Hazel, The Mulberry Group's two-level polished diner.
Since reopening in November there have been changes under Smith's watch. The menu is smaller, tighter and her eye is on the kitchen's long game, rather than à la minute fireworks. It's the brand of slowness and steadiness that turned heads during her tenure at The Summertown Aristologist in the Adelaide Hills, alongside Oliver Edwards, her partner and collaborator.
"At the moment we're focusing on building our pantry. A lot of work Oli and I do is in the background: misos and shoyus and ferments, pickles, vinegars, that kind of thing," she says. "When you dine here, what you eat might seem quite simple but it's about the bottarga we made five months ago, or the shoyu that's been on for six months."
The bread, for example, is efficiently listed on the menu as Our bread + kefir butter, $8. But what it fails to capture is the long story behind Smith's childhood growing up on her family's wheat farm in Birchip, a town of 700 in Victoria's north-west; the revelation of reading chef Dan Barber's modern food bible The Third Plate; and her subsequent eight-week stage at his New York farmhouse restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns with its own "bread lab" and Barber's eponymous Barber Wheat, a high-yield, nutrient-dense hybrid crop grown onsite.
There, stages (interns) would be tasked with sorting the wheat from the rye grain, a tedious job that combined time and tweezers. "Having grown up on a farm, I knew it was a stitch-up," says Smith with a chuckle. But she says the laborious nature of the task, however, was testament to Blue Hill's commitment to preserving the quality of their grain by sorting by hand rather than machine.
So at Hazel, when it comes to a slice of bread, there's more than meets the eye. Currently the loaves are 40 per cent unsifted whole wheat and 60 percent zanzibar, a French red wheat variety that gives the bread a nutty, earthy character. Smith is in the middle of developing a starter from triticale, a wheat-rye hybrid sourced from her flour peddler, James Fisher of Rock Paper Flour in Monbulk.
"[Wheat] is treated so much like a staple that it's not expected to have flavour, or to be an artisan product, or to have character. It's just flour, and when you make pasta with it, for example, it's about the sauce, not the pasta," says Smith. "It's just about trying to make every ingredient important."
Wheat is in her bones. (Her family has since sold the farm, but to this day she still trades notes with her high-school agriculture teacher, Mr Christie.) And her DIY, from-the-land approach extends to all facets of the Hazel larder, from the brie made from Schulz Organic Dairy milk from Timboon, and charcuterie from Barham's Bundarra Berkshires pigs. The kitchen receives a whole pig every week, with the head meat destined for croquettes, the chops for mains, the shoulder for capocollo. Smith chalks up the prosciutto's recent menu cameo as a success. "I was so proud of it. It was so soft and melted in your mouth and had phenomenal flavour, and it's because the pigs we get are so beautiful." The kitchen's just been on a mortadella-making bender, and there's a reserve of house-cured bacon waiting in the wings. "We're holding onto it until Brussels sprouts come in."
She's steadfast in ensuring she and Edwards maintain a professional relationship in the workplace, to the point where other restaurant staffers are comically unaware of their relationship status. "We had a waitress here for six months, and she didn't even realise we were together. And that's exactly how it should be."
And Hazel in full-service mode is exactly how a Melbourne restaurant should look. The dance of waitstaff on the floor, the clink of cutlery on tables, a kitchen in full flight. The simple act of writing a real dine-in menu with dishes destined for the plate, not the takeaway box. It's Smith's comfortable place, but she doesn't feel like she "owns" the head chef role yet: "We're still in a pretty strong growth phase." But in practice, she is one. It's real. And there's brie to prove it.