The outgoing Royal Mail Hotel chef speaks to GT's Michael Harden about the eatery he's about to open and why he left Australia's highest-profile regional restaurant.
"Creatively, I just want to be in charge," explains Dan Hunter of his newest venture. "I don't want to have to be considering external factors that don't necessarily help the operation, or always having to consider what someone else thinks. This is about running something that's a true reflection of my ambition and personality."
Hunter, the Australian-born, Mugaritz-trained chef who brought international acclaim to regional Victoria's Royal Mail Hotel, is talking about Brae, formerly Sunnybrae, the restaurant and cooking school run for decades by paddock-to-plate pioneer George Biron.
While working for someone else was partly the reason for change, it was also about having to accommodate three different outlets - plus regular functions - at the Royal Mail. "I really wanted to put all that effort into just one outlet," he says.
Hunter had been looking for his own place for a couple of years, but with some fairly specific requirements - room for vegetable gardens and to build accommodation, and somewhere that wasn't more than 90 minutes from Melbourne ("this is a touch over that, but it's pretty close"). When he heard that Biron was looking to sell Sunnybrae, everything fell into place.
"The garden was really important," Hunter says. "The beauty of this property is that they've treated [the land] organically for 25 years, so we can open and be operating with a garden straightaway."
That means by the end of the year, after the house is given a major renovation. "Something a little more contemporary," he says, courtesy of business partners the McCorkell Brown Group in collaboration with Six Degrees architect James Legge. Purpose-built accommodation is on the cards, but will not be part of the package until the end of 2014.
Until the accommodation becomes available, Hunter says the opening hours will be as much about lunch (Friday to Monday) as dinner (Thursday to Sunday). The food at those meals will, he says, be "stylistically similar" to what he cooked at the Royal Mail. "I'll be focusing as much on produce and product as technique, as always, and just extending a little bit."
He says he doesn't intend to go backwards creatively or offer a simplified version of the cooking for which he's become known "just because it's too hard. I think there's an opportunity in Australia to have the highest quality dining experience in a regional area, to have a regionally focused, but internationally recognised restaurant".