Foodstyle Review Magazine
By Alan Titchall
Towards the end of the summer, ignoring bush fires, Foodstyle Review visited the culinary home of Australian regional food queen Alla Wolf Tasker at her resort and restaurant in Daylesford, Victoria.
Some chefs just can’t put down their tools, even after a resourceful 25-year career that has brought fame at least.
Alla Wolf Tasker looks up from a mixing bowl and beams her signature smile.
“How are you?”
I’m excited, after a quick drive up from Melbourne, to finally be staying at her reputable Lake House resort and restaurant in the Victorian village of Daylesford. And I have planned my visitation to coincide with the region’s ‘producers day’ that Wolf Tasker and her husband Allan organise on the lake-side property every February.
It was also, unfortunately, the day after ‘black Saturday’ when state temperatures hit 47 degrees and a suffocating dry hot wind sparked Australia’s most tragic bush fires. The danger was to the east of us, across the other side of the Calder Freeway, but the atmosphere was tense.
The region was spared the summer bushfires but, understandably, experienced a massive drop in visitor numbers and cancellations over what Wolf Tasker describes as, “two weeks of horror”. And not for her large property, but the umpteen little farm gates, cellar doors, bookshops and spas that make the region such a visitor attraction.
Country food services businesses in New Zealand country couldn’t imagine what it’s like to have this threat hanging over you every late summer, when the air is crackling dry and the winds up to 40km. Then there’s the ‘recession’.
“We will survive no doubt. This is Allan's and my fourth recession and we are used to the rich tapestry of life in this business,” she says, adding that at least the region had been spared by the fires.
Alla Wolf Tasker belongs to a trio of reputable female chefs in Victoria who have devoted their careers to promoting regional cuisine, seasonal produce and the shortest route between the grower and the table. I call them Australia’s regional food queens – Wolf Tasker, Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer who all started out almost three decades ago. Wolf Tasker, of Russian descent, and her artist husband built by hand a 45 seater restaurant on the shores of Lake Daylesford about 1.5 hours north west of Melbourne. The venue is now a Small Luxury Hotels property and spa that an Aussie critic recently described as, ‘One of Australia’s most in-demand getaways’.
“It has been an ‘overnight’ 25-year success,” she quips. It’s a romantic and inspirational story for any budding restaurateur, recorded in a beautiful book called Lake House written by Wolf Tasker a few years ago that is part autobiography and part recipe book.
The regional food producers day at the Lake House was in full swing when I arrived, and Alla was about to demonstrate how to prepare a couple of salads from summer ingredients freshly harvested from her own garden.
“Tomato skin is indigestible - take it off for any recipe,” she remonstrated before popping her tomatoes in boiling water and then quickly into iced water.
Once you convert to that practice, it’s amazing how intolerant you become to food where the tomato skin is left on, particularly in salads and on dough based recipes like pizzas and bruschetta.
At an age where most chefs would have downed tools and rested back on their laurels with television cooking shows, her hands-on role as executive chef at the Lake House restaurant reminds me of a wise industry saying, probably Russian, ‘Good restaurants are operated by restaurateurs, not restaurant owners’.
“I drive the direction of the food, source new produce, liaise with growers and develop the ideas for the seasonal menu changes."
“I have a great team of young cooks in the ‘engine room’ who still work from the ground up producing almost everything we use. All our bread, pastries, charcuterie, sausages, jams, condiments, sweets and chocolates continue to be made on the premises. We still do a lot of bottling, preserving and pickling just as I always have done.”
Wolf Tasker still draws inspiration from the fundamentals of French cuisine she learnt in French restaurants while working overseas.
“I remain of the opinion that one needs to be able to draw well, before one begins to abstract. Understanding basic techniques, the processes and the resultant ‘mouth feel’ is an essential foundation to being able to move on, evolve and develop one’s own style.”
When relaxing with family and friends, she cooks “very simply”, inspired by new seasonal produce.
“It’s autumn right now and we have late figs and quinces coming through the door. With this latest batch of rain we’re sure to be out foraging for local wild mushrooms shortly."
“Down the road the boys from Istra are producing some lovely sweet prosciutto. So for a quick dinner I’d probably put together some ripe figs, some of the salty prosciutto, wild dressed rocket and good bread."
“To follow - the mushrooms would go into a rich ragout to spoon over some creamy white polenta, and I’d roast the quinces, drizzle them with a bit of honey and serve some rich Jersey cream on the side.”
Developing regional cuisine in her area has not been easy, and Alla started the task 25 years ago.
“It’s challenging. Especially if traditionally agriculture is confined to large monocultural concerns- as it is in Australia with single crop large farms.”
Australasia doesn’t have that traditional ‘artisan’ population which produces speciality produce found in Europe to this day.
“What makes it slightly easier here is the “tree change” phenomenon where city people leave traditional careers and move to the country to fulfil some romantic notion of becoming an artisan grower."
“Strangely enough it often works as these people bring other skills with them from their previous careers. Business, marketing, IT and the like. I have ex lawyers, stockbrokers and teachers amongst my suppliers.”
You need to help create a ready market for what they produce, Wolf Tasker adds.
“In our case we established our regional produce group – Daylesford Macedon Produce – to do just that. Member growers circulate availability lists to member chefs and restaurateurs to make ordering and planning easier. It’s the support interaction and camaraderie (and fabulous produce) that is the most enjoyable and gratifying aspect of what’s evolved.”
I see little of Wolf Tasker over our stay as she dashed between assignments. Packing up the hire car early morning, she pulls up alongside. Off to cook lunch for UK wine critic Jancis Robinson who is visiting vineyards in the region.
Is there an ideal time for a chef to retire?
“A chef will always be a chef. Paul Bocuse is in his eighties and remains an inspiration. I was asked to work in Roger Verge’s brigade when he came to Melbourne in the 1990s [having spent time as a young woman in his 3 Michelin starred restaurant].
“He was already in his late seventies but we all still called him chef when he came into the kitchen. His understanding of food remained extraordinary.
"But as far as retirement is concerned – I couldn’t imagine it. The interface between my work and my life is so complete that I really can’t imagine one without the other. One evolves one’s responsibilities – but hospitality remains the most exciting of professions. There’s nothing quite like it!”
2009 Foodstyle Review. All Rights Reserved
Alla Wolf Tasker & Geoff Scott from Vinnies restaurant Auckland when Alla was on a promotional tour in New Zealand with Tourism Victoria.
Fiona from Fernleigh organic farm at the 2009 producers day, Lake House Resort Daylesford
Alla's grilled fig and goat cheese wrapped in prosciutto
Lake House accommodation on Lake Daylesford Victoria.
Alla Wolf Tasker demonstrating at the 2009 producers day, Lake House Resort Daylesford