The Collective - Issue 8

Luxury by the lake

WITH little more than a DREAM, a dash of REBELLION and WHAT free time they had between them, Alla and Allan Wolf-Tasker TRANSFORMED an abandoned swamp into one of AUSTRALIA’S most premium LUXURY hotels.

Words: Kate Creevey

Around 40 years ago, a young Alla Wolf-Tasker disappointed her Russian emigrant parents by leaving the country they had fought so hard to make their home and travelling back over the sea to France, not to become a lawyer or doctor as they had hoped, but to study cooking – and at a time when the notion of women working in restaurant kitchens was reluctantly accepted, if at all.

But this determined and passionate woman had grown up in a culture where sharing food equalled sharing love, and she had cooking in her blood. Of paramount importance was (and is, still to this day) the ritual of preparing meals and gathering together around a table to appreciate eating and the conversation and relationships it subsequently inspires. So, long before the concept of fine dining – or rural tourism for that matter – existed in Australia, she dreamed of creating a “destination restaurant”. It would be a restaurant “worthy of a journey” and situated in the places she’d spent all her childhood summers: Daylesford, Victoria.

Take a whole lot of inspiration, add bucketloads of energy, optimism, guts and hard work, as well as a strong and supportive team, and fast-forward to 2014. Not only has that dream become a larger-than-life culinary reality, but its heart – the multi-award-winning Lake House Restaurant – is now the focal point of a world-class holiday retreat that welcomes discerning guests from all over the globe.

As its name suggests, Lake House is located amid lush terraced gardens on the shore of a gorgeous lake. In the thriving mineral spa town of Daylesford, 90 minutes from the centre of Melbourne, its 120 staff hail from all over the planet, while its produce and art are truly local, representing more than 40 producers and artists from the surrounding communities.

Wandering the six-acre oasis of gardens today, with quirky sculptures and the divine fragrance of roses in the air, it’s hard to believe this paradise was once a bare, neglected patch at the ‘swampy end’ of Lake Daylesford, used only as a rubbish dump for locals. The property was for sale for more than a decade until one day when Alla and her husband Allan spotted a small sign nailed to a lone tree and saw beyond the muck to their vision of today.

Difficult also to imagine is that this picturesque town, with its lively cafes, galleries and famed mineral springs, was known for one thing – agriculture – certainly not a place for travel.

Guests can enjoy a gentle stroll around the lake listening to the abundance of birdlife, take a more strenuous hike through the scenic gorge connecting Daylesford and neighbouring spa town Hepburn Springs, have a hit of tennis or just laze with the daily newspaper on the deck overlooking the lake. Or relax with a treatment at Lake House’s Salus Spa, float away in your own private mineral spring spa bath or take yourself on an adventure of discovery through the nearby galleries, cellar-doors or restaurants.

Alla laughs good-naturedly as she refers to her dream as a “runaway Russian train” and confesses, “If we had’ve stopped and thought about the ‘why nots’, we would never have done it, because there was no business plan, there was no forethought – none of the things we needed to achieve it.”

With her world-renowned artist husband Allan (they met working at a Melbourne street school with a community kitchen), the duo started the Daylesford journey by commuting from Melbourne for three years between fulltime jobs to build – with their own hands – what’s now the main restaurant building.

“It was just nuts,” Alla admits. “We built a 45-seater restaurant in the middle of nowhere when no one had heard of Daylesford. People would ring and say, ‘Where’s Daylesford?’, and we’d send them a map. But this was not only before email, it was before fax, so we would have to write a letter, insert a map, stick a stamp on it and send it.

“And whatever day they rang, they’d wait two days for the mail and then open it and say, ‘Oh, that’s where you go’. You couldn’t Google it.”

Their daughter, Larissa, who saw the opening of the restaurant from her playpen in the corner of the kitchen at the age of three, is now, some 30 years later, their chief marketer and brand manager. Her partner, Rob, is maître d’ of the restaurant, making it more than a dream, but a family affair.

From the delicious food and larger than-life artworks painted by Allan (whose studio is tucked into a ferny corner of the property and who welcomes regular visitors for a drink and a chat amid his canvases), to the exquisite attention to detail everywhere you look, Daylesford leaves you feeling like part of a huge extended family that engulfs you in a delightful embrace while affording you space and privacy.

From the heated bathroom floors to the aromatherapy sleep spray left on the pillows in the evening; the homemade honey from on-site beehives on your morning toast to a note hand-delivered each morning with the weather forecast, it’s impossible not to succumb to Lake House’s charms.

“It’s like having people to your home,” agree Alla and Larissa, both self-confessed hotel and restaurant junkies who travel the world in search of inspiration and new ideas. “You really want to give them the best experience.”

keep it local, keep it pure

Although Alla is no longer in the kitchen, she still oversees the menus and is a passionate advocate of small-scale sustainable artisan farming and 100 per cent fresh, paddock-toplate ingredients. She also has a strong belief in food supply benefiting the local economy.

In this vein, Lake House offers quarterly seasonal cooking masterclasses with celebrity chefs, local producers and winemakers in the demonstration kitchen (in the wedding and function centre), as well as hands-on tutorials for smaller groups in the kitchen with their in-house chefs. Alla is also patron of the Daylesford Primary School Kitchen Garden, where the kids grow upwards of 32 varieties of vegetables. The project, with ties to the Stephanie Alexander Foundation Kitchen and Garden Program, has run for four years, with the labour of love Grow. Cook. Eat cookbook (released with Andrew Stone) channelling 100 per cent of proceeds into the program.

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The Collective Issue 8 Cover