Australia’s New Culinary Capitals: Victoria

Australia’s New Culinary Capitals: Victoria

hour’s drive from the gateway city of Melbourne,
I pull up at dusk to the futuristic Jackalope hotel, tucked into the
vineyards of the fertile Mornington Peninsula. Named after a
mythical North American monster that looks like a jackrabbit but
has the horns of an antelope, the hotel seems to have taken its
design cues from Donnie Darko – my wardrobe is filled with coat
hangers covered with silver rabbit fur and there’s a geometric
bathtub at the foot of the bed.

This attention to aesthetics apparently extends to the staff –
if ever a chef matched their restaurant, it’s Guy Stanaway of Doot
Doot Doot, the Jackalope’s fine diner. His cheekbones are as
angular as the marble bar. His slicked-back hair gleams like the
leather sofas beneath the installation of 10,000 amber light bulbs.
In short, he looks like he belongs in one of the many natural-wine
hubs in the achingly hip Melbourne suburb of Collingwood. Yet
instead, Stanaway has chosen the candy-coloured beach huts and lush
pony paddocks of the peninsula as his larder. As I dissolve a scoop
of avocado sorbet textured with crispy saltbush (a native herb) on
my tongue, he holds up a pomegranate. “One of our neighbours
recently brought in a basketful that had over-ripened on her tree
and asked if we wanted them. We treated her to lunch to say thanks.
This part of Victoria has that old-world, community vibe you just
don’t find in a city.”

Compared to Jackalope, the nearby seaside town of Geelong is
positively old-fashioned. An ancient Ferris wheel creaks on the
pier as seagulls the size of cats wheel overhead. However, our
sights are set on Igni, a restaurant in a converted
refrigerator showroom with a staggering dedication to
sustainability. While there are always a variety of dishes
available, there isn’t enough of each ingredient for every diner to
order the same. Instead, servers chat to guests about their
preferences and report back to the chefs, who then decide which
version of the eight-course tasting menu is most appropriate. Chef
and co-owner Aaron Turner is tending the grill in the open kitchen
as we arrive. Peering through a cloud of cherry-wood smoke, he
informs me: “We work with very small local producers. By not
demanding a certain amount of any one ingredient, we aren’t
pressuring them and the environment to produce more than is
natural. It also means that we have to roll with what we’ve got,
which makes us far more creative.” As I tuck into an unexpectedly
sharp goat’s-milk ice cream infused with botanicals from the farm’s
garden, I agree that the proof is in the pudding.

It’s impossible to talk about Australia’s regional dining scene
without returning to Dan Hunter and Brae. It may be little more than a clapboard cottage
under an enormous weeping willow, but the renowned restaurant’s
name is whispered by every chef I meet with a reverence bordering
on fanaticism. The drive from Geelong reveals snatches of villages
that look like they could be filmsets for cowboy movies – old boys
sit in the shade of their porches, sipping cold ones and cracking
jokes as dry as the clouds of dust that gather when the wind picks
up. When we arrive, Hunter shows us around his organic farm.
Shooing away a couple of chickens, he points out two young people
weeding a bed of kale. “All my chefs do two shifts a week in the
garden. I want them to spend time nurturing the food they cook,” he

Just like his 14-course menus, Hunter is understated yet
electrically creative. He plucks what looks like a green brazil nut
off a bush, breaking it open to reveal caviar-like pearls of fresh
within. “Finger lime,” he explains, popping some into his mouth.
“We’re trying to use more native ingredients because we see it as
our duty to educate people. There’s a growing interest in healing
the rift with our indigenous population, and food is an excellent
way of understanding more about their culture.” Warmed by an open
fire and roamed by soft-voiced staff, the dining room has the
tranquillity of a chapel. As I tuck into a dish called “the last of
this year’s rock melons”, a single slice of homegrown cantaloupe
served with a tiny golden fork, I am fully ready to sign up to the
diocese of Dan Hunter.

Discover More
Australia’s New Culinary Capitals: South Australia

This article appears in Volume 29: The Taste