Dunkeld’s garden chef

By Louise Johnson
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Dan Hunter, chef, Royal Mail Hotel, Dunkeld, Victoria

Dan Hunter, chef, Royal Mail Hotel, Dunkeld, Victoria

Gourmet Traveller's 2009 best regional restaurant - The Royal Mail Hotel at Dunkeld in Victoria
Gourmet Traveller's 2009 best regional restaurant - The Royal Mail Hotel at Dunkeld in Victoria
Gourmet Traveller's 2009 best regional restaurant - The Royal Mail Hotel at Dunkeld in Victoria


Dan Hunter went to the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld, Western Victoria to escape the pressure of big city restaurants and enjoy the freedom to be creative. Now his gardening and culinary efforts are drawing a crowd to the tiny farming township.

“I wanted a chance to be free,” he told VisitVineyards.com. “Free of neighbours or peers and to be able to pursue the style of cooking which I was interested in and to do that without having to look over my shoulder constantly; without the influence of having other restaurants right next door and checking what they have on their menus. It’s great just to have space to cultivate produce which is not available. Here it’s quite open, it’s quite a relaxed sort of area. There's space here to be creative.”

Dan is a serious champion of local and seasonal produce and presented a MasterClass during the Melbourne Wine and Food Festival 2009 on marrying these with modern techniques and technologies. He began his career in Melbourne before heading to Spain and Andoni Aduriz's famed Mugaritz restaurant near San Sebastian, where he worked his way up to head chef before returning to Australia in 2007.

In the 18 months since his arrival at the Royal Mail Hotel he’s propelled it to international attention with awards for regional cuisine from Australian Gourmet Traveller and The Age Good Food Guide. Backed by perhaps one of the greatest wine cellars in Australia, his 10 course degustation menus are a conscious backlash against the dumbing-down of restaurants.

“There's almost a notion that you can't have a restaurant in these times unless you make it cheap and quick and we've fought against that. Dining here does take time, it does take three hours and it’s a menu that reflects the seasons, our surrounds and nature. I think it’s good to have restaurants still pushing to be restaurants and to be leaders and doing interesting things,” he says.

The hotel has three food venue – the restaurant, a cafe and the pub bistro – and Dan says locals have welcomed the restaurant to the mix.

“They’re very clear in their vision of what they think life is and what’s good and bad. We have set out to do something that is more national or international, but I think the locals are excited to have something which is being recognised as a leader in its field in their town and they're excited that Dunkeld is all of a sudden in the media for whatever reason.”

One of the biggest drawcards for Dan was the kitchen garden, a 1500 square metre plot that provides fresh produce to the kitchen daily. One of his major goals this year is to double the size of the gardens. “That's a really big job which will take a bit of effort. I want to develop the menus to a point where they are self sufficient, where we are not relying on any produce from outside for the restaurant apart from the meat and fish. I think we'll probably start to look at growing some livestock, poultry and pigeons and that sort of thing,” he says.

Meat and fish are sourced locally, where quality is available, though the logistics can be frustrating. “We're 45 minutes from the coast and the fish comes in at Portland which is probably only about an hour and a quarter from here. Unfortunately it has to go to Melbourne before it can make its way here,” he says.

The Royal Mail is a tasting restaurant. “We've got two multi course tasting menus, one being a complete vegetarian and one being a menu which we call omnivore and that's a more protein driven menu and they are both of 10 courses. Until we hit the desert part of the menus every single course from those menus comes from our gardens.”

The kitchen employs a full time vege gardener. “Aside from that two chefs a day spend anywhere between three and six hours a day in the gardens and then probably four or five hours a day preparing stuff from the days pick for the restaurant that evening.”

Dan says the garden is vital to the business. “That's probably been led a little bit by the cost of produce in the last year in Australia being almost excessive due to the lack of water and farming conditions, but also you can’t always buy the produce you want to use.”

A dish on the menu with calamari and carrots uses five varieties of carrots picked young: “really small and beautiful – the things which you can’t buy”.

“That's been exciting to start to look at varieties of vegetables which aren't commercially available because they don't grow in the numbers a farmer needs or they don't store or travel well.”

“We are picking it [produce] that day. We wash it, prepare it and serve it and you get those natural flavours. Nothing is dulled through storage or aging or being too cold. This time of year tomatoes or berries off the vines are still warm from the sun when they’re being served. These are real local flavours. “

Nature-based cuisine is the new trend that Dan see’s sweeping the restaurant world. “I think people are recognising that it’s something important and it’s something that appeals to the diner. Good food prepared from good produce appeals across the board.”




  • Grampians (Tourism) (VIC)
  • Grampians (Wine) (VIC)
  • Western Victoria (VIC)

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August 08th, 2009
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