After a full buffet lunch put on by the Langham, it was back to work (well, as much as sitting down and eating and listening was work) with Dan Hunter, the chef at the Royal Mail.

I’ve raved about my dinner at the Royal Mail before and the kitchen presents food that’s all about provenance, seasonality and highlighting the flavours of the ingredients. That’s not to say there’s not a lot of technique involved.

Most of the dishes at the Royal Maill incorporate some ingredient from their kitchen garden. The kitchen garden is partly a passion project for Dan but also a simple case of practicalities – Dunkeld is almost 3 hours away from Melbourne and thus 3 hours away from a really good regular fruit and vegetable market. Harvesting from the garden also helps to keep food costs down!

Dan’s approach to food is about respecting the produce, giving diners a sense of place when they come to the restaurant and highlighting the food’s connection with the environment. In his view great cooking doesn’t begin in the kitchen but starts with forging a relationship with small scale producers such as Diggers Club (heritage seeds), Grampians Pure ¬†Sheep Dairy (sheep’s milk and milk products), Mount Zero (olives) and harvesting local and native ingredients with the help and knowledge of Brambuk Cultural Centre.¬†When the produce gets to the kitchen he creates dishes with the intention of highlighting one or two great products.

We received three tastings during Dan’s demonstration: tomato on toast, handmade sheep’s ricotta; rare breed pancetta, candied radish, rocket; and eel and bone marrow, eggplant, pickled vegetables. You can watch a video on the journey of these dishes from the producers to the plate below.

Royal Mail Hotel: The journey of a dish from Sarah-Jane Woulahan on Vimeo.

All the dishes burst with fresh flavours – a meaty tomato, sharp chive flowers, the different aniseed hints from different basil leaves, sweet grassy ricotta, melt-in-the-mouth Wessex Saddleback pancetta, peppery rocket and the rich umami of eel flavours.

Dan’s food is so good that they are invariably copied or highly influence dishes by other chefs. Dan’s view on ‘imitation being the sincerest form of flattery’ – who cares? Just get on with it. If people are copying dishes then you’ve already gone past that dish if you’re aiming to be in front. Which he is.