Inside Out

A weekend with.....Alla Wolf-Tasker

Thirty years ago, chef Alla Wolf-Tasker and her husband Allan opennd Lake House in Daylesford that helped them transform the landscape. Now their lives are embedded into the community.

Words – Carrie Hutchinson. Styling – Julia Green. Photography – Armelle Habib.

In France, in the 1970s, I’d been working in Michelin-star destination restaurants. “Worthy of the journey,” they used to say of them. I’d always had this image in my mind of a destination restaurant her in Daylesford.

My parents were Russian émigrés and they brought a miner’s cottage in Daylesford for £500. Buying a summer house was the Russian thing to do, and Daylesford really reminded them of Europe, with its hills and lakes and, of course, the mineral water. I spent all of my childhood summers here, swimming in the lake. We had the most wonderful vegetable garden and orchard, and bot of my parents were great cooks.

When I told Allan that I wanted to open a restaurant in the country, he said, “Why not?” We had no money, but he had great building skills. We found this god-forsaken block of land down the hill from Mum and Dad’s house. It had been on the market for 10 years and overlooked what the locals called ‘The Swamp’. Then we basically spent four years nailing the building together, during which time Larissa was born. We finally opened and everyone came in wanting toasted sandwiches when I was doing goat’s cheese soufflés. It wasn’t until we go a good review that people started trying to find us. I’d have to send them a map by post when they booked because no-one knew where Daylesford was.

We put our first rooms in after three or four years and it has gradually grown to 35 over 30 years. I have more than a hundred people on the team now, and a lot of them love the place with a passion that easily equals mine.

I made it my mission to help change Daylesford when we got here. We worked out pretty quickly that if the town didn’t become a destination, we were sunk. I started the first sub-committee on tourism with the council. However, the real turnaround probably came with Tourism Victoria’s ‘Jigsaw’ campaign, which is more than 20 years old now. It resurrected people’s interest in their own backyards.

Now the town is blessed with great little bookshops, cafes and bars, and it has become an interesting place to live. When I first opened Lake House, I would ask farmers to grow stuff for us, but the big-concern farmers didn’t get it. I met chef Thomas Keller in 1998 and we spoke about the artisan producer movement growing from people who move out of the city and fulfil their dreams of having an organic apple orchard or growing olives. He was getting his supplies from former social workers and doctors and a photographer, and that’s absolutely what’s happened here. Florian Hofinger, who’s our main organic farmer, is an ex-chef and so is Tim Wyatt from Angelica Organic Farm. Carla Meurs and Ann-Marie Monda from Holy Goat Cheese used to be teachers. These people are tree-changers and they come to farming with a totally different set of skills and a singular focus on what they believe farming should be.

When I turned 40, I bought a block of land adjacent to Mum and Dad’s cottage, although they don’t own it anymore. Now looking out of my kitchen window, I can see the trees Mum and I planted. I know it sounds corny, but it’s a really important thing in my life.

We only built this house about 10 years ago – up until then we’d lived on the property. We’re off-site now and have a bit of privacy, but Lake House is only five minutes’ drive away.

It’s a comfortable house, but it’s really about borrowed landscapes – the views and being among the trees. Were on a slope, so sometimes you’ll get a pair of eagles that think you’re part of the mountain and come sweeping down. Inside, it’s functional and modern, and full of Allan’s paintings and our art collection from all over the world.

It’s not the house of my dreams because the house of my dreams is actually Lake House. In fact, guests often say, “You must live in an amazing house because look at what you’ve done here”.

Even on my days off, I don’t really have days off; u just do the pleasurable thanks at work. And I’m constantly thinking about something to do with food.

Reading, gardening and music are all important to me. The garden makes me live in the moment. If I have a morning off, I’ll walk up to Wombat Hill Botanical Gardens (in which I have a café called Wombat Hill House), grab a coffee and read before everyone else starts arriving. Then I’ll go out the back of Wombat Hill House to the kitchen garden and pick flowers, herbs and things for the restaurant kitchen. If I’ve got time, I might even go foraging. We have so many wild herbs in this area and it’s a real pleasure. It reminds me of what I did with my mum, and that’s my idea of heaven.

what I am…..
Planning… Another book. Listening to… Old Russian tangos converted from my father’s collection of 78s. Creating… Some dishes for out next menus. Hoping for… Some peace and stability in the world. Cooking… Delicious, ethically raised pork from nearby Jonai Farms. Oh my, that crackling! Eating… Everything from the great local harvest. At this time of year, 90 per cent of what’s on our table often comes from out own gardens or just a few kilometres away. Reading… Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr. It’s a fascinating account of a gathering of some of America’s greatest culinary writhers and thinkers, including Julia Child, and James Beard, at a pivotal moment for Western cooking. Dreaming about… A holiday in Sicily with some great pals. Relishing… The extended daylight house. Coveting… There’s a large and comfy reading armchair I have my eye on. Meddling in… Too many things that my terrific Lake House team are more than capable of handling.

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Inside Out March 2014 Cover