Australian chef Dan Hunter on writing a cookbook while running Brae, one of the World's 50 Best Restaurants.
For chef Dan Hunter, whose restaurant Brae just landed at number 44 on the 2017 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, writing a cookbook was never a goal. “You write a book, which is cool, but it’s not really what I do," he says. "I had never considered doing a book and frankly, before Brae opened, it just didn’t feel right, especially while working for someone else." (Prior to opening Brae Hunter worked at the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld, Australia and as the exectuvie chef at Mugaritz outside San Sebastian, Spain)
But his plans changed after he got his own place. Hunter started working on Brae the book, out now via Phaidon, less than a year after his new restaurant had opened and before he and his team even had enough recipes to fill the pages. Written in spurts before, during and after long days of service, here is how Brae came together over the course of two and a half years.
Hunter had a clear vision of the book throughout the process.
“I wrote the whole manuscript myself before there was much of any editing,” he says. “It’s quite a raw and honest insight into how my team and I work. I didn’t want it to be this super stylized book of food that wasn’t true to the restaurant and I think we succeeded with that."
The book shaped the restaurant as much as the restaurant shaped the book.
“The editors I was working with suggested we include 60-65 recipes and I told them that, at the time, we didn’t even have that many dishes,” he explains. “From there going forward, the book wasn’t retrospective in any way, it was pure emotion. I kept feeling like, “well, the deadline is coming up, we better change the menu,” which actually helped encourage spontaneity. Additionally, the dishes had to be good enough to go in a book so that five or 10 years from now, we could still be proud of each of them. I think we got there on that front.”
The real challenge came once Brae started receiving recognition.
“When we first opened, we certainly weren’t full every night,” he says. “You know, we’re not in a city, we’re on a farm an hour and half from Melbourne in southwestern Victoria in Australia. However, after the Age Good Food Guide named us Restaurant of the Year in 2015, suddenly we were really busy, which meant I had no time to work on the book. The restaurant just blew up in the time between saying yes to doing the book and actually sitting down to write it.”
Finding time to work on the book became increasingly difficult.
“I have spent 20 years working in restaurants, so I don’t really wake up and think ok, this will be a writing day,” he explains. “The reality of it is that I go to the restaurant and deal with that day's problems and deliveries and with issues on the farm and then it’s like eight o’clock at night. At that point, I stay for service because now that’s happening. Then customers want to talk to you and suddenly, it’s midnight. By then, I figure I’ll write for a while and then by 3:00am, I feel broken. It was that or I would procrastinate in front of my computer for hours when I did get time to work on it. It was a very unusual process for me as someone with a completely different skillset.”
More than anything, though, Brae is the story of Hunter himself.
"The final book is organized in the same order I wrote it," he says. "Beginning the book with my own background, my own story, I thought helped provide the context anyone would need. It’s easy to tell your own story if you’re given the opportunity and you’re honest about it and don’t have anything that you want to keep out of it. You always sound more eloquent when you tell your own story."
Brae is out now and can be purchased here.