Get all your news in one place
100’s of premium titles. One news app. Zero ads. Just $10 per month.

The fine-dining restaurants reshaping country communities

Phil Glover eats a fresh Tasmania Gold oyster as a seagull flies overhead. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Fine-dining restaurants are increasingly cropping up in regional Australia. The knock-on effects are reshaping towns and communities. 

Birregurra township(ABC News: Scott Jewell)

This is Birregurra.

A town so quietly picturesque, so quaint, it would make Rosehaven blush.

Nestled amid lush green pastures less than two hours south-west of Melbourne, it is home to fewer than 1,000 people. 

Birregurra

On crisp winter days, it is a bucolic caricature of rural Victoria.

Things here move at a gentle pace.

At least, for the most part.

Up the road and around a corner, a jarring contrast sits just out of view.

In a sleek, modern kitchen, a small army of chefs methodically sets to work at one of the best restaurants in the country.

Soon, the dining room at Brae will be filled with customers who have travelled from around Victoria, interstate and beyond.

Brae restaurant is situated just outside of the Birregurra township. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

The menu is fixed at $340 per head. Throw in some matched wines and you're looking at more than $500.

If cost-of-living pressures are felt by diners here, they are being put on hold for a moment. Or, more accurately, for an hours-long meal.

Watching over it all with a calm sense of focus is chef-owner Dan Hunter.

Head chef at Brae, Dan Hunter (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

"It's a celebration restaurant, there's no doubt about it," says Hunter.

"On a good day here, people are just caught up in it. They are in the moment." 

Chefs working in the Brae kitchen. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Crter)

Brae opened in late 2013 to instant acclaim. In the years since, it has been recognised among the top 50 restaurants in the world (it currently sits at 53rd).

It is, in industry terms, a destination restaurant: one where diners have been known to fly in business class from Singapore, hire a car and drive straight out to the restaurant, before flying back the following day. 

Duck cooked over flames at Brae. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

"That was probably more common than people would imagine," says Hunter.

In a town as small as Birregurra, that sort of attention can fundamentally change the ecology of a place. 

Xavier Meade on his farm outside Birregurra. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

On a nearby pig farm under a pearly-grey haze of early-morning fog, Xavier Meade hasn't just noticed the change — he's lived it. 

"Growing up in this area, the only time I used to go to Birregurra was to play football. Play footy, leave Birre — that was about it.

"It was a small, sleepy town. Now, you've only got to mention Brae and everyone knows about it."

Piglets at Barongarook farm. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Xavier and his wife Laura run about 350 rare breed Berkshire and Duroc pigs on a farm geared towards regenerative and sustainable agriculture. 

They used to sell their pork cuts directly to local customers, but working five days then spending their weekends selling produce at farmers' markets proved incompatible with raising a young family.

Then, they got a call from Brae.

Xavier and Laura Meade and their young family. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

"It was daunting," Xavier says.

"I thought, it'd be great if we could get on the menu there — not only a feelgood thing for us to know we're doing the right thing, but also plenty of good chefs go to Brae and would see it on the menu and go, 'Who is this?'."

A pig at Barongarook farm (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
A pig at Barongarook farm (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
Two pigs at Barongarook farm (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
Laura Meade and her young family (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

You are unlikely to find the Meades at weekend farmers' markets anymore. They now sell 95 per cent of their pork products through the restaurant trade. 

For Xavier, who presents as every bit the country footy-playing farmer, it's meant recalibrating some of his own preconceptions.

Xavier Meade on his farm outside Birregurra. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
Xavier and Laura Meade and their young family (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
The young Meade family on their farm outside of Birregurra (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

"I had this feeling Brae would be really difficult to deal with because of their status in the restaurant world. It's been the complete opposite," he says.

"The boys came out and asked, 'What cuts do you struggle to move?'. Jowls was one of the ones that we weren't moving at the time, and they just said straight away, 'Yep, we'll take the whole lot'.

"There was a cut we were struggling to put into the market, and they just snapped it up straight away."

Starters at Brae including Pork jowl grilled with smoked eel. (Supplied: Brae/Colin Page)

As regional fine-diners increasingly populate the country's best restaurant lists, such a model becomes all the more attractive.

For Dan Hunter, the effect of these businesses on their surrounding community can, and perhaps should, be more diffuse than merely tourism or agriculture.

"It's interesting to understand for a business of this type, where its impact can be, because it's not just tourism — it's trades, it's taxi drivers, it's property growth — it's a number of things."

The restaurant regularly fundraises for organisations in town, including the local school — where Hunter and his wife and business partner, Julianne Bagnato, send their daughter.

Head chef at Brae, Dan Hunter. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

"I mean, a restaurant is frivolous. It's fun, it's leisure, and it's for hedonistic pleasures," Hunter says.

"We take it very seriously, but we don't take ourselves that seriously.

"Just to be caught up in that with no other avenue to express the benefits of it would be a little bit pointless."

New publican at the Royal Mail Hotel in Birregurra, Sarah Dickinson. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

That impact of the restaurant is keenly felt in Birregurra's only pub.

After closing during the pandemic, it was bought, renovated and recently reopened by Sarah Dickinson and her partner Paul Watkin.

They didn't purchase it purely because of its proximity to Brae — but it gave them confidence all the same.

The main street in Birregurra. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Rather than fighting with Brae for customers, it gets a steady trickle of flow-on visitors looking to fill out their weekends, as well as visits from staff members at the restaurant itself. 

Plans have now been drawn up for accommodation at the back of the pub to cater for the growing demand.

Birregurra train station.

Food tourism doesn't necessarily serve everyone, and even pub meals — let alone exclusive fine-dining menus — are beyond the means of many Australians.

Such businesses undeniably heighten the appeal of converting properties to cater to the short-term holiday rental market as well, although that is already its own pervasive issue throughout regional Australia

The main street in Birregurra. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

It is easy to be cynical about this type of economy, particularly when it can redefine the character of a town. 

Yet at a recent cafe meeting of a dozen or so members of the Birregurra Historical Society ("We sometimes call ourselves the hysterical society!" chuckled one member over a pastie), there were shared nods of approval.

The Birregurra Historical Centre (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

"The restaurant has brought a lot of interest to the town. A lot of new people have moved in," says Janet Brien, a 50-year Birregurra resident and the society's president.

She's only eaten at the restaurant once, but keeps a folder of its reviews and newspaper clippings in the historical society's offices.

Janet Brien from the Birregurra Historical Society.

"People say it's dear. Well, some people go to the Grand Final, the theatre and concerts. This is similar to that experience — it is not just eating a meal.

'That's doing things quite differently'

Boomer Bay(ABC News: Peter Curtis)

Welcome to south-east Tasmania. 

In this small pocket alone, you'll find rolling green hills and fertile paddocks colliding with the glassy waters of Marion Bay and Boomer Bay.

It all eventually gives way to a dramatic Tasmanian coastline.

But in between, you'll find Dunalley, a town of rare charm.

"Years ago, Dunalley was a place that you just drove through on the way from Hobart to Port Arthur," says oyster business owner and shopkeeper Sue Madden

"Now that's not the case."

The Dunalley Fish Market (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
Dunalley township (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
The Dunalley Fish Market  (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
A sign at the Dunalley primary school (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Sue has been at the helm of Blue Lagoon Oysters for more than two decades. 

It ran happily enough as a wholesale business, but Sue sensed a change in the sea breeze.

"The area has become a destination," she says.

"People are coming here for food."

Sue Madden from Blue Lagoon Oysters. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

Encouraged by the region's growing food tourism scene, Sue set about opening a shopfront for the business — a cellar door, of sorts, for oysters.

"It is to showcase what we're doing here. There's a number of oyster farms in our bay, but we're the only outlet.

If blame is to be attributed for Sue being run off her feet at the shop, it can in part be directed 10 minutes up a dirt road to a new sandstone bunker dug into a hill.

Van Bone restaurant (ABC News: Peter Curtis)

The degustation restaurant Van Bone can't be blamed for failing to make the most of its regional Tasmanian location.

The intimate dining room eats in every part of the landscape.

But the relationship with its surrounds doesn't end at the view. 

Laura Stucken and Tim Hardy only opened Van Bone one pandemic-affected year ago, but already it's making its mark. 

What the restaurant doesn't grow itself, it sources from exclusively Tasmanian producers.

That includes many ingredients from the adjacent community, like meat, cheese, wine and spirits, olive oil, and fresh oysters from Sue Madden at Blue Lagoon.

Laura Stucken and Tim Hardy outside Van Bone restaurant. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

"I think people come to this beautiful area and really feel that sense of place," says chef Tim Hardy.

"And that then grows the region."

Chef Tim Hardy cooking during a service at Van Bone. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
The restaurant pickles ingredients throughout the year. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
Pre-lunch service at Van Bone. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
A window into the kitchen at Van Bone. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
Laura Stucken with diners during a lunch service at Van Bone. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

That growth can be charted through new tourist dollars to the region — midway through one recent lunch service, a helicopter landed on the restaurant's grounds, disgorging a group of diners.

Guests arrive by helicopter at Van Bone in south east Tasmania. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

It can also be understood in the way such restaurants become inadvertent staging points for local produce, helping to give context to the region's high-quality agriculture.

Up on a nearby hill overlooking Marion Bay, goat farmer and cheesemaker Iain Field thinks that is significant. 

"This region has traditionally been a lovely, sleepy, agricultural area. Now, it is beginning to change."

Goats at Leap farm just outside of Copping in Tasmania. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

With that change comes opportunity. 

"We've been looking at trying to do some agritourism, with the cheese in mind, for a few years — but it's getting the right people in the place," says Field, who in a former life was a distinguished ecologist.

"You need these networks and collaborations to really thrive."

Iain Field and his wife make high-quality cheese under the Tongola Cheese label. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

With the right sort of telescope set up at the goat farm, you could just about see Phil Glover and his small team hauling out oyster baskets from the bay.

Depending on who you ask, these waters produce some of the best oysters in the country. 

Phil Glover driving out to an oyster farm. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

The fact they were, until recently, hard to find locally is symptomatic of a phenomenon Glover has long disliked.

"We grow all this beautiful stuff in Tassie, but then we just send it away," he says through a briny grimace.

"It's important to have things on show here so people can have a better understanding about this place."

An oyster farm worker (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
A tractor in the water awaits the return of an oyster barge (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)
Phil Glover inspects some fresh Tasmanian oysters. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

For Sue Madden at Blue Lagoon, the region's shift to more of a food tourism destination is an important part of its evolution, after devastating bushfires in 2013. 

Hers was one of more than 100 businesses badly affected by the fires, which ripped through communities and houses up and down the coast.

Sue keeps a melted piece of aluminium, once belonging to an oyster barge, on the shop's counter as a reminder.

A melted piece of aluminum from an old barge that was destroyed during the 2013 bushfires.  (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

She thinks it's important there are now places for people to stop, interact with the community and celebrate what is grown and produced in the region.

"It's really exciting to see what people can do and how others respond to that. Van Bone, for instance, that's doing things quite differently for the area. That's great someone's got that vision.

Sue Madden from Blue Lagoon Oysters. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

"Before we were just wholesaling, so we didn't really see what the end result was. 

The Blue Lagoon oyster shop in Dunalley (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

"Now, we often have people coming in after they've eaten at some of the restaurants in the area.

Sue Madden from Blue Lagoon Oysters. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

"They will say, 'We've just had some of your Oysters and they were fantastic! We just need to come and get some more'.

Sue Madden from Blue Lagoon holding a plate of Oysters (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

"It's a good flow-on effect.

Sue Madden from Blue Lagoon Oysters. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

"It was a hard time with the bushfires back in 2013.

Sue Madden from Blue Lagoon Oysters. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

"But people like to hear how we got back up on our feet again.

Sue Madden from Blue Lagoon holding a plate of Oysters (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

"I mean, what else do you do when you've got employees? You've got to keep going.

Sue Madden from Blue Lagoon Oysters. (ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

"So it is a celebration of what you can do when the chips are down."

Credits

Words, photos and digital production: Jeremy Story Carter

Video and drone footage: Scott Jewell, Peter Curtis