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Alla Wolf-Tasker’s Lake House story is the stuff of legend and has been told many times. And while the Lake House is recognised around the world as one of this country’s great restaurants, the impact Alla, and the venue, have had on creating a culinary community will be seen as perhaps her greatest legacy.
It is a true pleasure speaking with Alla. She’s friendly and knowledgeable, eloquent and assured, and so very passionate about all things food. The reason for our chat is to discuss the release of her latest book, Three Decades On – Lake House and Daylesford. Like everything Alla does, it is beautifully presented with gorgeous lush photography, delicious recipes and engaging editorial that updates the Lake House story. At its heart is a strong sense of community.
DREAM A LITTLE DREAM
As a young chef, Alla travelled to France, spending her time working in some of its iconic provincial restaurants. When she returned, Alla dreamed of creating one of her own in Australia. She instinctively chose Daylesford, a small village about 90 minutes north-west of Melbourne. It was where she had spent time as a child, as her Russian-immigrant parents owned a small summer house there, a place where they grew their own produce.
In 1979, Alla and her husband Allan, bought what she describes as a ‘blackberry-covered car-wreck-strewn paddock’ and set about building the country restaurant of her dreams.
“I came back from France with stars in my eyes and with this notion that the restaurants that really resonated for me were regional restaurants because they had this growing sense of place around them,” recounts Alla.
“They actually grew a community around them. A community of growers and suppliers and producers and also a community of doers, people that would fix things and were part of the business. Someone like the florist who supplies the f lowers, the carpenter builds the chairs and tables – that sort of real community enterprise that I saw overseas. That’s what I fell in love with.”
DESTINED TO DINE
While Alla’s notions were romantic, the reality was somewhat different. Nowadays, destination dining is in vogue, back then it was a foreign concept.
“The only reason we bought the land here so cheap was because Daylesford at that time was a derelict little town with 21% unemployment,” says Alla.
“If you went to the country, you packed a picnic because you were never sure you’d be able to get a good loaf of bread or cheese or decent wine.
“So when we started, people thought we were mad. Those people who found us by accident didn’t want what we were serving. They wanted toasted sandwiches or steak and three veg. I offered twice cooked goats milk soufflé and Shiraz glazed squab, which were pigeons shot around Castlemaine Post Office.
“So we certainly weren’t providing what the market wanted. I think I was spoken of as that strange foreign women down by the lake. To see how the world has changed is just extraordinary and well done for Australia. Now, it’s wonderful.”
A SWEEPING CHANGE
While the change in the mind-set of the modern Australian gourmand is significant, the transformation of Daylesford has been nothing short of remarkable.
“The interesting thing that has happened is, as Daylesford has developed from a very down and out little town to a successful destination, it has also become a place where people want to live,” observes Alla.
“People, we call them tree changers, or ‘city real estate escapees’ – people who don’t want the huge city mortgage that they have to pay off over 30 years, are tempted to come into the region because it is far more liveable and try their hand at something else.
“I must get a request a month where people will ring us and say we’re thinking of buying a small acreage, what could you recommend and are there any workshops we can go to? It’s that whole entrepreneurial streak and many of them go into farming even though they’ve never done anything of the sort.
“Some of our most interesting suppliers have come from an entirely different background. They are not traditional farmers, they have just come in and given things a go. And I believe there is a huge opportunity for regional Australia, certainly in this area. I work very hard to promote that and support those people because it’s one of the enrichments of this community.”
THE REASON FOR BEING
While Alla is far too proud to say the Lake House has transformed the entire region, she does admit she’s played her part in not only creating a hobby farming utopia, but also fostering a community with a strong sense of pride, sharing and self-worth.
“We’ve had an open kitchen door policy since we started, so if people had things in their garden like a windfall of plums or too many apples, we would take them. Some of them are now suppliers I’ve been dealing with for 20 years,” says Alla.
“We’ve developed an artisanal food community here with people making cheese, fermenting, sourdough bread, rare breed meats and outstanding poultry. A lot of them are now winning national produce awards. So developing the sort of community that supports the tourism industry has been really critical.
“When I first opened the restaurant, I had come from France where I had witnessed that connection between the restaurateur and the suppliers. But I never realised the benefits you would get, I just thought it was neat having this relationship with the local farmers.
“The benefits of the local community are having people that you recognise and revere because they produce your food, and being able to have a chat with them. Just having the transparency of knowledge and understanding of where your food comes from brings huge benefits. It brings environmental, social and economic benefits.
“I wasn’t aware of all of that. I just wanted local carrots and perfect beans, and someone making me goats cheese down the road. I didn’t actually understand at that stage. I was just a very young cook wanting this great produce. Now I am seeing the fruits of that labour. And it’s extraordinary.”
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