Many things have changed at Daylesford’s Lake House over the past 30 years, but a fierce commitment to excellence is not one of them.
To survive 30 years in any business, you must remain relevant. But for founders Alla Wolf-Tasker, her artist husband Allan and their daughter Larissa, who is Marketing Manager, Daylesford’s Lake House also represents something much more: a lifetime commitment to excellence that transcends fads and fashion.
It’s a balance, Alla Wolf-Tasker concedes and the rewards of Two Chef’s Hats in The Age’s Good Food Guide, being on The Australian newspaper’s Hot 50 restaurants and awarded “Wine List of the Year 2014” has only been achieved through hard work maintaining it. “The enduring thread of the Lake House has been the same since we started in the small cottage here in 1984, which is about creating a sense of place.” Back then, the Lake House was a bare pad- dock overlooking Lake Daylesford but it has since grown to a series of buildings located in six acres of developed gardens.
“We keep up with the times, but this doesn’t mean being ‘faddish.’ Our clients by and large are discerning people. They don’t follow fads and don’t need to tick off every trend.
“They enjoy good food and excellence and this is the market I cater for. For ex- ample, we currently have Australia’s best wine list, with an 800-bottle reference list. That’s not bad for a little ‘village’ restaurant. That is a significant achievement and the awards we win are very gratifying.”
Maintaining this high, self-imposed standard has been a challenge for the Wolf- Taskers over three decades, during which the restaurant has grown from a small 45 seater with word-of-mouth recommendations, to an International culinary destination, encompassing an expanded “two-hatted” restaurant and function centre, a renowned Day Spa, quality country hotel and four years ago, the Wombat Hill House Café, a more casual café on another site in Daylesford.
“We are now very much in the hospitality business, but one of the secrets to our longevity has been to maintain a standard in relaxed professionalism,” said Alla Wolf- Tasker.
“I think good Australian establishments do this very well—probably better than anyone else in fact—because we don’t be- gin with a preconception of the status of the guest and the server. It’s a more relaxed separation.
“You won’t hear ‘Hi Guys’ here—and certainly my people wouldn’t get involved in a conversation with a customer unless they were invited and encouraged to do so—but the atmosphere we create is relaxed and professional. People who work here are not waiters; they are hospitality professionals and they want to be the best in their business.” Many of the staff have grown with The Lake House.
“For example, our original gardner, John Beetham, who developed the original gar- den along sound sustainable principles, is still shaping the property with us today; our in-house florist and designer has been here for more than 20 years and we have chefs and managers who have stayed 10 to 12 years, gone overseas and then returned to us.
“Many of our staff have come from the local area, including many of our senior people who we have trained and ‘polished.’ So for many customers, Daylesford and The Lake House are synonymous. But the International status of the Lake House is not just the produce of Alla Wolf-Tasker; the enduring partnership with her husband—co-owner and resident artist Allan has also been a crucial ingredient. “He really is the wind beneath my wings,” she said admiringly.
In the early days they were both engrossed with the vision of establishing and growing the restaurant and Allan was on the restaurant floor for a very brief period. “But we have since assumed defined and very different roles, like a separation of church and state in a healthy democracy. None of the couples running significant establishments that we knew when we started in the industry are still together!”
Today, Alla is Executive Chef, developing new dishes for both The Lake House and the Wombat Hill Café, while Head Chef David Green runs The Lake House kitchen, which according to Alla is “a contented place.” “I don’t yell at people,” she said, “but when it’s busy our kitchen has a high level of adrenalin, which is always necessary during service. But people aren’t ‘bollocking’ each other. Food needn’t be fearful. I think you can actually taste it if it comes out of an anxious kitchen!”
Many items on their menu are locally produced and this has fostered a culture amongst regional growers that has led Daylesford to become a “foodie” destination.
Allan, meanwhile, has operated as Project Manager for The Lake House’s expansion over the years, while his art has helped the business develop its sense of place. His last exhibition of landscapes painted in this vicinity was very well received and his association with other local artists has helped develop that intangible and unique quality that The Lake House now has. His paintings, created on location and in one of three studios on the property, line the restaurant’s walls.
Their daughter Larissa is a happy amalgam of both of them. She was three years old when the restaurant opened and followed her father in pursuing Visual Culture at University, but she doesn’t touch the kitchen. However by growing up in food and beverage, she understands the business intimately and does all its brand development, working with international wholesalers and overseas guests.
“She is really a hospitality kid,” said Alla proudly. “It’s part of her DNA.”
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