The land of opportunity: Rodney Dunn on Tasmanias thriving food scene [video]
Chef, turned food editor, turned farmer, Rodney Dunn is a passionate advocate for seasonal cooking and the locavore movement. He’s also part of the reason why Tasmania is rapidly becoming the food lover’s destination Down Under. By Danielle Bowling.
“At the moment, coming into late spring, all the broadbeans are rapidly getting bigger, so there are loads and loads of broadbeans; and lots of the peas, so snowpeas, sugar snap peas and the garden peas. Zucchinis are just showing their first flowers, so we’ll be starting to use those soon.
“We’ve been away for three days and come back to just a motza of artichokes, so artichokes will be on the menu this week. They’re absolutely everywhere. And we’re just starting to see those summer things: tomatoes, chillies, corn, eggplant. And lots of the brassicas which we had over winter are starting to go to seed now, so they’re coming out. The garlic is looking amazing; there’s probably in excess of about 800 bulbs of garlic up there.
“The berries are all starting to flower too. The raspberries are looking great, and the strawberries. Gooseberries, I’ll use gooseberries this week. And of course we’ll pair those with some rhubarb. The rhubarb is well and truly mature, so we’re getting into that as well.
“It’s going to be a really good season for fruit this year. It’s been a drier season which I think they’ve liked; I don’t think they like too much wet too early on – they start to split and carry on. So we’ve got apricots, plums, peaches. The stone fruits are loving it. And then apples and pears always seem to go pretty well here too.”
I’ll cut him off there. Rodney Dunn could go on forever about what’s flourishing in his garden at the moment. It’s hard to tell what he has more of: fruit and vege ready for the picking, or cookbooks lining the walls of his dining room. This man seriously loves his food – every aspect of it, from paddock to plate, as they say.
Dunn, together with his wife Severine Demanet, moved from Sydney to Tasmania in 2007, transforming a 19th century schoolhouse in Lachlan, 45 minutes from Hobart in Tasmania’s Derwent Valley, into a sustainable farm-based cooking school called The Agrarian Kitchen.
Cooking classes are booked out a couple of months in advance, and when Dunn’s not busy teaching enthusiastic foodies how to make ricotta from the milk they just got from one of the property’s goats, or describing the culinary applications of stinging nettles, he’s tending to the acre and a half or so of productive land, complete with Wessex Saddleback and Berkshire pigs, Barnevelder chickens, a flock of geese and honeybees.
But his office hasn’t always been the great outdoors. Dunn is a qualified chef and even spent a year of his apprenticeship working with the one and only Tetsuya Wakuda.
Despite having three hats at the time of his tenure, Tetsuya’s wasn’t the only restaurant which had a lasting effect on Dunn’s career and his approach to food and cooking.
“There was a restaurant called Cafe Bassano (Griffith, NSW) which was a SMH one hatted restaurant. My brother worked there in the pastry side, so he got me a job and it was great. It was probably one of the moments in my career that I think really helped to shape it, because it was a blackboard menu, and it was inspired by what was around and what the farmers got off the farms in the area. It was an introduction to true Italian cooking in the sense that it had these beautiful, simple little food marriages on a plate,” Dunn told Hospitality.
After completing his apprenticeship, Dunn wasn’t sure that he was cut out for a career in a commercial kitchen, so when an opportunity came up for him to shadow a food photographer that he’d met at Tetsuya’s, he jumped at the chance.
Other than food, Dunn’s big love is the printed word; he’s always loved and collected books and magazines. The thought of combining the two was a dream come true, and he spent the next few years conducting photoshoots, writing recipes and temping as a chef until he ultimately landed a gig as food editor of Australian Gourmet Traveller.
“But then I got to a point with food – I’d probably watched too much River Cottage – where I thought ‘well, this is all very well but how much better would it be with amazing produce?’ So we started dreaming of having our own garden and animals and stuff like that, and Tassie just seemed like the place to do that sort of thing. Something just resonated with it for me. I came down on a trip with Gourmet Traveller … and that was it: I fell in love with the place and had to find a way to move here.”
Dunn and Demanet knew they wanted to grow great produce, and they knew they wanted to do it in Tasmania, but how they’d actually make a living off it was unclear. At first, they considered opening a restaurant, but when they realised that they wouldn’t be able to do a good job of both growing all their own produce and running a business, the priority fell with the former.
“The cooking school was a later idea. It really evolved out of wanting to grow our own produce. I don’t think I’d really thought about it too much before that,” he says.
The cooking classes include single day ‘Agrarian Experience’ sessions as well as more niche offerings such as Handmade Pasta, Pastry 101 and Cooking with Fire. For die-hard food fans there are two day courses with topics like Fermenting Vegetables, Cheesemaking and Charcuterie.
Despite Dunn’s extensive connections in the foodservice industry, the Agrarian Kitchen only supplies to local restaurants on the odd occasion.
“Occasionally we do, it just depends on the garden. My main concern is that we’ve always got plenty of stuff for the classes. But if there’s just way too much stuff and we’ve got this big patch of, say, broadbeans that we’re just not going to get through, then I’ll contact one of the chefs or one of the restaurants and see if they’re interested.
“There’s an insatiable appetite in restaurants in terms of being able to get amazing produce, because every chef knows that that’s really the secret,” he says.
Dunn feels that chefs have turned a corner in recent years and have not only realised that a great dining experience starts with fresh, quality produce, but are genuinely excited about learning more about seasonality and how to get the most from different ingredients.
“I think that’s definitely the trend. I think chefs are realising that they thought they were in tune with it [seasonality], but are not really. So they have that desire to go that step back and really learn more about the produce. And not only learn more about the produce, but learn more about how it grows. There might be another part of the plant that they can use. They’re looking for ingredients and things that they can add to their food to make it stand out from another restaurant or caf.”
Chefs’ renewed commitment to seasonal, fresh produce is reflected in the growing popularity of kitchen gardens, especially in the capital cities on the mainland. Chefs in Tassie are particularly lucky, Dunn says, because they don’t need to bother with tending their own patch of soil; the farm is just around the corner.
“Here in Tassie, because you don’t have to go too far out of the city to find yourself in farmland, you’ve got that easy supply. So you’re not seeing them needing to have gardens nearby; the farms are nearby,” he says. “But what you are seeing is people starting to grow almost especially for restaurants. Friends of ours who had a farm and were supplying to a couple of restaurants have now bought a caf and are supplying their own caf, so value adding in the opposite direction, if you like.”
Over the eight years that Dunn has been living in Tasmania, the state’s food industry has become far more sophisticated, to the point where chefs and consumers around the country – and the world – see it as a haven for ethically produced, sustainable and delicious food and booze.
With producers including Cape Grim Beef, Robbins Island Wagyu, Huon Aquaculture, Lark Distillery, Bruny Island Cheese, King Island Dairy and a plethora of others, food and liquor represent four of the top 10 industries contributing to the state’s economy.
“In eight years it’s changed dramatically, I think … If you look at the legacy that Garagistes left [Hobart restaurant established by chef Luke Burgess, co-owner Kirk Richardson and sommelier Katrina Birchmeier] – they had that direct supply with producers, and in their place – well, they’ve left a massive void – but there’s probably been about five or six restaurants open up in Hobart, so it’s really nice to see people taking up the baton and running with it.”
Garagistes, which opened in 2010 and was a favourite in Hobart’s dining scene until it closed its doors earlier this year, was a pioneer in the paddock to plate philosophy, and inspired many others in the industry to follow suit.
“They worked with farmers and they wanted to use local produce. Prior to that, no one was really doing it to the same extent,” Dunn says.
Having people like Burgess and Dunn promoting the quality of food produced in Tasmania is one thing, but another key contributor to the state’s booming industry is the fact that – with the help of Tourism Tasmania and Brand Tasmania – it’s learnt to market itself as a sector focused on quality, not quantity – a message that resonates with chefs and foodservice professionals.
“We can’t grow bulk, so we have to grow niche, and whatever we grow niche has to be good. Because there’s this little thing called the Bass Strait between us and our markets on the mainland so we have to be a little bit different and we have to grow something that takes advantage of our wonderful climate, and do it a bit better than everyone else.
“We don’t have vast acres of land to grow those commodity crops, which is also an advantage, I think. What we do has got to be small and it’s got to be niche and it’s got to have a point of difference,” Dunn says.
“It’s really exciting. We came down here because we could see the potential of Tasmania, and it’s really nice … to see it beginning to be realised. There’s still plenty of opportunity and plenty of scope there, but it’s nice that it’s heading in the direction that we always knew it could.”