Chef Rodney Dunn’s idea of unwinding after an entire day in the kitchen involves watching food TV. In fact, it was English series River Cottage, where chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall uprooted from London to grow his own vegetables and raise his own animals, that inspired his move from Sydney to Tasmania’s Derwent Valley. Fed by fresh water from the Derwent River, the area is a fertile food bowl that includes cherry and raspberry orchards, wineries, breweries, distilleries, an internationally competitive hop growing industry, and cattle and sheep farms.
Watching River Cottage made Dunn not so much homesick for rural New South Wales where he grew up, but wanting to grow produce. It was “a light bulb moment about the connection of how quality and freshness of the produce leads to the end plate.”
Dunn, who sharpened his knife under top Sydney-based chef Tetsuya Wakuda, recalls thinking about Tasmania and her reputation for clean air and great produce. As luck had it, Tourism Tasmania invited Gourmet Traveller magazine, where he was food editor, for a 10-day visit. “It was even better than what I imagined,” he says.
“I talked to chefs and Daniel Alps was telling me ‘The lady down the road brought in this bag of quinces’. Another chef told me he grew his own salad mix. Yet another said, ‘You see those cows over there? That’s where we get our beef.’ I was in heaven.”
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In 2007, Dunn and wife Séverine Demanet transplanted themselves and their first of two children, then four months old, to Australia’s southernmost state. They set about renovating a 19th-century former schoolhouse in Lachlan, 45 mins out of Hobart, into their home and The Agrarian Kitchen Cooking School & Farm was born.
Students at the cooking school — from curious to qualified chefs — don gumboots to forage and harvest from the garden as part of the hands-on agrarian experience. Dunn only decides on the menu the day before, after checking which of his heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables are freshest and ripest for the picking.
Most ingredients used in their 20 different classes also come from the farm, if not local producers. Barnevelder chickens, raised on whole grains and greens from the vegetable garden, lay beautiful dark brown eggs with chocolate spots that are used in everything from ice cream to omelettes.
Geese, a cross breed of Emden and Chinese, are fattened for charcuterie. Dairy comes from Toggenburg goats, and honey from the apiary that keeps fruit trees, berries and vegetables pollinated.
Rare-breed Wessex Saddlebacks and Berkshires from their property or a trusted small producer are used in The Whole Hog, a two-day course with butcher Marcus Vermey and Dunn. Students learn the ins and outs of cutting and using the entire pig from nose to tail, cooking 16 dishes from sausages to lard.
In Dunn’s 35-sq-m home-kitchen with large windows looking out to the herb garden, students — up to 10 at a time — also learn how to balance food, season food and how to caramelise things to develop flavour. “So they can go away and apply these principles to whatever they cook. Not to follow a recipe, because that’s just your guide.”
Among the state-of-the-art ovens and cooktops in the Tasmanian oak-floored kitchen, is an original fireplace for heating in winter and cooking over, and a wood-fired masonry oven by the late oven artisan Alan Scott. Students enjoy a late lunch paired with wine in the dining room lined with Dunn’s collection of 1,000 or more cookbooks.
Dunn’s opening of The Agrarian Kitchen Eatery & Store in the former asylum Willow Court — Tasmania’s oldest, continually run one that dates back to before 1827 — at the nearby New Norfolk in 2017, has made a dining destination out of the town once stained by the stigma of mental illness.
Today, the Bronte building feels happy, airy and modern with sunlight streaming through the generous sash windows, filling the expansive dining space that was the women’s infirmary. The high tin-pressed ceiling, and the linoleum floor beneath our feet, are originals from the building.
The eatery was awarded two hats and named Regional Restaurant of the Year by The Good Food Guide Awards within four months.
Diners who make the half-hour drive from Hobart to the eatery get a hyper-local food experience. Produce comes from small local gardeners, including the community garden; producers, farmers and fishermen. Behind the bar, radius-consciousness also extends to the wine, beer and spirits curated by Adi Ruiz, who also dips into produce to create syrups and fermented concoctions for cocktails and punches.
On the day of my visit, Dunn’s good friend and fellow Tetsuya alumnus, Luke Burgess, was in the kitchen helping out as head chef Ali Currey-Voumard was away.
We start with fresher-than-fresh Blackman Bay oysters with mignonette, then segue into a fritto misto of spotted trevally, artichoke, spring onions and green garlic. The food is soulful with real flavour, and just about everything is made from scratch in the kitchen.
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A standout is the sand whiting cooked in the woodfire oven (built from old bricks from Willow Court). Its accompanying salad — of sorrel (plucked from Dunn’s garden that morning), lovage, finely sliced asparagus, anchovies and tiny capers — looks simple and tastes anything but. The highlight is the riff on beef tartare. Dunn says, “We didn’t have any beef, so we did a trial with lamb and it works just as well. The lamb we get is just so exceptional.”
Toasted rice adds crisp to the mince on red lettuce, and the heat from the spicy dressing is just right. The chilli is from Adam James aka the Tasmanian king of live cultures, who recently went on a Churchill Fellowship that took him on a globe-trotting fermentation study. Our rhubarb and brambleberry pie, caramelised on top, is a sweet ending accompanied by elderflower cream cultured from kefir grains.
The eatery’s menu constantly evolves, based on what’s in season and available for the day. Everyone on the team has a say — something practised by Sam Vico’s Bassano Caffe (now known as Dolce Dolce), where Dunn worked pre-Tetsuya.
Backstage, there are starters for bread; goat cheese, prosciutto and salami ageing; a dedicated preserving kitchen where excess produce is pickled, jammed, fermented or cured. What they don’t have or need is much space for storage, as Dunn points out, “Stuff comes in fresh and gets used”.
The kitchen is also a culinary lab of sorts. “This is Alex’s experiment with Adam’s miso,” Dunn points to a ziplock bag of silver beet and miso. We’ll see what happens to it”.