Interviews With Alla
Vittoria Legend award winner Alla Wolf-Tasker tells the story behind Lake House..
How did you get into cooking?
Both my parents were good domestic cooks. The favorite memories of my childhood are of weekends at our dacha (summerhouse) in Daylesford when Russian friends brought home grown produce and beautiful dishes to our groaning shared lunch table. The hospitality and cooking of my parents and their friends was a huge influence on my wanting to become a cook and restaurateur.
What did Lake House look like when you first came to it?
There was no Lake House. We bought the gorse and blackberry infested paddock in 1979 and commenced the hands on four year construction in 1980. We worked in Melbourne during the week and drove to Daylesford on weekends with our infant daughter. Allan built and I planted the gardens. We completed the first building - our 45 seater restaurant with an attached small residence for us late in 1983 and opened our doors as a restaurant in 1984.
How did you develop it into what it is today?
Lake House now is a small luxury hotel of 35 rooms,suites and villas. Onsite now we have our ten treatment area Salus Day Spa and a beautiful function and event room that can seat 150 people.It also houses the demonstration kitchen where we hold Masterclasses with some of Australia's top chefs.Our cellar houses over 10,000 bottles and is the winner of many international and local awards. But everything we have developed has been to enhance and add value to our restaurant the "beating heart" of the property . It is a beautiful light and airy space overlooking the lake and is filled with local greenery ,flowers and artworks. We do up to 100 covers at a time but the outdoor terraces cascading down to the water are filled in warm weather with many more guests enjoying our food and wine.We are delighted with our continued awards and now have an accumulated 70 or so chef's hats. A record in Australia we believe.
You've been a champion of fresh regional produce. How do others do likewise?
For me this has been a driving force from the day we opened. If I was to emulate the great country restaurants of France that were my inspiration I would need to create a local food culture here. Unlike Europe this was not a given in Australia - the food distribution systems in Australia were such that local food was often transported out of the regions to wholesale markets where buyers were guaranteed. Meanwhile local purveyors drove down to the markets and brought that same produce back for resale. A local food culture develops when you can create a local demand for local produce. The triple bottom line outcome - social,environmental and economic outcomes for the local community are considerable. And of course I haven't even mentioned the benefits to me as a cook, of being able to snap a just picked carrot and smell the aroma or use a tomato still warm from the sun that hasn't seen the inside of a refrigerator. For people not living in a food production area I'd say always try and find out where your food comes from and buy as local as you can. That may mean choosing Victorian produce over interstate and certainly Australian over imports. And if you have access to good farmers markets and can actually eyeball the grower - then even better. Mind you there will always be specialty produce from further afield that as a chef I want to use - and I do. Peerless products such as seafood from around the Eyre peninsula for example.
What's your favourite meal to cook?
I love cooking whatever is in season. Now in late winter and very early spring I'm out foraging for dandelion leaves,nettles and the first wild morels of the season. So I'm already dreaming of a dish of crisp skinned free range chicken, wild morels, a dense nettle puree and a salad of bitter leaves. As the season progresses and the weather changes - I'll be dreaming of whatever produce is just around the corner - and constructing a dish from it.
HM Magazine - Kate Carroll
Its impossible to talk about Alla Wolf-Tasker without mentioning her award winning restaurant and boutique hotel, Lake House. In the early 80's, when Wolf-Tasker and her husband Allan were building the restaurant, the town of Daylesford had high unemployment, a staple diet of 'Meat and three veg' and very little tourism.
"But there I was with a denuded gorse ridden paddock covered in car wrecks in a down at the heel town with no local clientele or tourism and with no local suppliers or growers" Wolf-Tasker says. But inspired by Frances's great country restaurants, she saw great potential for a destination restaurant in the town just 90 minutes from Melbourne, where she spent most of her childhood summers.
"And in that climate, full of passion and enthusiasm of youth and fresh from the Michelin starred restaurants of rural France and against all odds, i dreamt of acres or verdant gardens, battalions of long-aproned waiters and a discerning clientele," she says."What folly!"
It took them four years to build the 45-seat restaurant, travelling to Daylesford on weekends to construct it. They opened in 1983 with just four staff - her and an assistant in the kitchen, and Allan and a waiter on the floor. But the hunch paid off and today Lake House is not only a renowned restaurant but a thriving boutique hotel with 33 rooms and suites, a 10,000 bottle award winning cellar and the Salus Day Spa.
"I often sit on the terrace overlooking the lake and am gob-smacked by what we have achieved from such inauspicious beginnings." she says. In November last year Wolf Tasker even released a book - A Culinary Journey in Country Australia. As the child of Russian post-war migrants, Wolf Tasker believes her career path into hospitality was "a given" as she grew up surrounded by a love of food and entertaining.
"Both of my parents were wonderful cooks. My childhood was full of wonderful large shared table occasions," she says. It's a love she spreads around. Wolf Tasker realised early on that to succeed, she would have to work hard to develop the region as well. For the last fourteen years she's been involved in forming various economic development and tourism committees and has served on the Board of Tourism Victoria. She also uses fresh, local produce, which has a positive knock-off affect for local agriculture.
But it was only this year when Wolf Tasker was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia and congratulations came flooding in, that she became aware of how she'd affected other people's lives. She received letters from long standing locals "about their memories of the down-at-heel village that was Daylesford and the overgrown swamp that is now the lake". While local suppliers, now in export wrote and thanked her for encouraging and supporting them along the way.
"There were all the usual ones from the pollies and so on but also many, many congratulations from people's whose lives I had obviously touched in some small way over the years," she said "It was really quite and extraordinary experience."
Restaurant & Catering Magazine - Michael Harden
House of Alla - Having already left her own incredible mark at Lake House, Alla Wolf Tasker hopes to spread her passion and dedication to the next generation. By Michael Harden
Alla Wolf Tasker is a woman whose passion and energy lie close to the surface. Despite her protests that she has "Slowed down with age", the owner of the world renowned country restaurant Lake House lives and astonishingly busy life, and continues to hold powerful opinions on everything from why food and dining have become devalued in our society, to the way staff should be trained in order for them to discover the "Excitement and theatre" of hospitality. Awarded a Member of the Order of Australia in the recent Australia Day honours for her contribution to hospitality and regional tourism, Wolf Tasker is not a person capable of resting on her laurels. The force of will not only established a successful resort and restaurant in a depressed country town, but was integral in revitalising a whole region, show no signs of flagging. Slowing down is obviously a relative term.
Despite admitting that she is a restaurant tragic "who lives, eats and breaths restaurant" Wolf Tasker is at a loss to explain exactly how this passion came about. Her Russian parents (who migrated to Australia in the 1950's when she was a young child) were passionate about food and entertaining at home, but rarely - if ever - went to restaurants. Nevertheless, the young Wolf Tasker found herself longing for the restaurant experiences, and when, on her first trip overseas, she was finally exposed to the dining experience in France, she felt she had come home.
"It was an affirmation of everything that I had always longed for as a child," she says. "I felt like a fish that had found water. I just loved the way the whole thing worked, the almost balletic way in which food was served and people were greeted. I saw it then as everything I had always wanted."
Being a child of first generation immigrants who considered tertiary education and a career as a doctor or engineer as the only suitable path for their offspring, Wolf Tasker horrified her parents when she expressed her ambition to be a cook. ("Anything but a cook!" was her father's aghast response.) A battle of wills saw Wolf Tasker "Taking a detour" into an arts degree at university before she embarked on that first fateful trip to France. Stints washing dishes at Cordon Bleu cooking school so she could sit in on afternoon classes and time working in the cafes in Paris began to solidify her resolve to get her education outside of university. After she returned to Australia, she began working in some nonscript restaurants (many of the "Appalling"), and did a little teaching and a lot of reading - From Elizabeth David to Richard Olney - before returning to France.
The second trip to France was taken entirely for the benefit of her food and restaurant education. Wolf Tasker lined up work in some Michelin Starred kitchen and spent her spare time looking at restaurants menus and wine lists and watching the way chefs and waiters worked, "Soaking it all up like a sponge." All this confirmed to her that this was the career she wanted to pursue, but it was only when she discovered French Country restaurants that she understood exactly what it was she wanted to do. She returned to Australia fired up with her own vision of a French Country restaurant. Daylesford a town in central Victoria with a European landscape known for its mineral springs, a place where her parents had once owned a house, seemed like the place to do it.
Despite having no idea "about what made a country restaurant viable over there and why the idea simply wasn't viable over here," Wolf Tasker and her artist husband Allan began to look for a suitable piece of land for her French dream. In 1979 they noticed an "An old for sale sign nailed to a rotten gum tree in a paddock overlooking and overgrown arm of Lake Daylesford," and despite the land being known about town as a "Swamp" and being used by locals to dump rubbish and old cars, the Wolf Taskers decoded this was the perfect place to realise their vision.
Lake House opened in early 1984 in a building the Wolf Taskers designed and built themselves on a land they had cleared and re-planted, and with a kitchen coddled together from second hand pieces sourced throughout Victoria. They accomplished all of this while commuting from Melbourne to Daylesford and raising their baby daughter Larissa. Local disbelief at what they were attempting went far beyond locals pulling up on the road to shake their heads and point. The local council issued them a restaurant permit only after warning them that they would probably lose all their money.
It's not difficult to see why there was such pessimism about the project. In the early 1980's unemployment in Daylesford was running at around 21 per cent, most of the shops in the main street were boarded up and used for storage, and most people in Melbourne had no idea where Daylesford was. There was no-one with restaurant experience living in the area, and there was little chance of attracting industry professionals from Melbourne because Daylesford had little to offer apart from endless quite isolation.
Still Wolf Tasker persisted, despite her mother's eye rolling and exhortations to Russian saints to make her daughter come to her senses. When Lake House opened, she was alone in the kitchen, Allan ran the front of house with one waiter and the 45 seater restaurant offered a fixed price menu for $24. They opened Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and the Wolf Tasker's not only cooked and served the food, but they cleaned the restaurant, bought the produce, tended the garden, launded the linen and managed the accounts while they still lived and worked in Melbourne and commuted every weekend.
Offering something unique in country Victoria at that time may have been as much a blessing as it was a curse for Lake House, because people began to talk, the first of a series of favourable reviews soon appeared and the phones began ringing, mostly asking for directions on how to get to Daylesford. Nearly a quarter of a century later, Lake House now encompasses a 33 room resort with a renowned spa, and a restaurant that seats 110 people. It's set amongst beautiful gardens, host's produce markets several times a year and trails a string of awards including The 2007 Age Good Food Guide Best country restaurant award. Perhaps even more importantly Wolf Tasker dream of a country restaurant has helped revitalised what was once a deeply depressed town. Daylesford's Main Street is now a hive of activity, and there are few people in Melbourne that don't know about Daylesford and its ‘Spa country'.
Wolf tasker believes that "Because Daylesford is so close to Melbourne, it was inevitable that it would become gentrified," But she is a firm believer that such gentrification and booming tourist number need to be carefully managed for the sake of the town and its longevity. "You have to be careful about fuelling a development that realises on the boom and bust model," she says. "If you have a town full of cafes and B&B's, the only jobs for locals are dishwasher and bed cleaners, and you still have the situation were people want to move out of the area to get more interesting work. We need to develop industries - like food production - that provide training and long term careers." Proper training and the education of young people, so they can see the path ahead in the hospitality industry, is one of Wolf Taskers pet causes. It's part of what drives her in one of her many public roles, be it her position on the board of Destination Daylesford, a community based think tank that discuss ways to shape to future; a board member for Tourism Victoria; or as a member of the Victoria food and wine council. She is constantly drawing attention to the fact that the industry is desperately short staffed, and the way that people are trained and introduced to the industry plays a big part in the chronic shortage. Having no formal training herself, Wolf Tasker is loathed to put herself forward as an expert on the subject, but she does believe that operating an establishment like Lake House in the country has given her a unique perspective on training and what needs to be done in order to instil a sense of excitement into new staff.
"Training has always been a difficult issue for us at Lake House" she says "In the old days we had no hope of attracting anybody with experience up here, and many of the local kids had never eaten in restaurants before, so we had to train them from scratch. The situation now is similar, but it is more that the kids have never eaten their meals at a table so they don't know where the cutlery goes and so on. "The essence of hospitality is something that hasn't been a part of many of their upbringings. The idea of providing a great experience for somebody and why you should get excited about it is not essentially a natural thing. That is why we recruit on the basis of attitude rather than skill, because skill can always be trained." She says. If training people for front of house duties is difficult, partly because the dearth of courses for waiters "Creates the assumption that you don't need to train these people because they're not really serious about a career." Then making sure chefs stay in the industry is even more problematic. "There is such a shortage of chefs" Says Wolf Tasker "that many of the kids are coming out of school and getting thrown in the deep end, begin given whole kitchens to run when they don't have enough experience to know how to do it properly. They fail spectacularly, and probably traumatically, and then we lose them from the industry altogether. Combine that with a whole generation of people who come into the industry because they want to become the next Jamie Oliver with their own television show, and it's little wonder that the attrition rate is so acute." Communication is the most important issue of training according to Wolf Tasker. Making sure people know what they want by communicating clearly and directly is the best way to "Distress what is basically a stressful industry." Emphasising team work as opposed to the individual Rock Star approach, is another way to some into the industry with the right attitude.
"Anybody who has ever felt the amazing sense of accomplishment that you feel after a really big night, that has run really well, and customers have told you how much they enjoyed it, and you are all sitting around afterwards having a drink, will understand how special and unique working in hospitality is," she says "It's that magic and excitement that we need to communicate to the next generation."
Though justifiably proud about the medal she received last Australia Day, there is no sense with Wolf Tasker that her job has been done. Her mission is to "invert the pyramid" where the food we put into our bodies becomes as important as the "Overseas trip, the plasma TV, the expensive car and the latest mobile phone." "It has to change," She says "Because surely the food we eat and feed our children and the way that food is presented to us has to be of consequence to the way we live our lives."
Arrivals & Departures Magazine - Helen Razor
"Local" & "Sensational" are words we hear mumbled like a mantra by every chef and TV charlatan. For Alla Wolf Tasker, they actually mean something. These are holy relics to be held aloft like Excalibur.
"Your our kind of people" she said. Who. Me? For a delirious moment I felt a little like a pop star who has ascended from his knees after hearing those words: Arise Sir Elton. All kohl eyes and rustic glamour, the empress in question was Alla Wolf Tasker. Some are born hospitable, some achieve hospitality and others have hospitality thrust upon them. In Alla's case, it's all of the above. The woman fairly oozes charm and it's no small wonder her Daylesford diner lures people and awards by the coach load.
Back in 1980's, Daylesford was an agreeably sleepy former mining town home to a small population of vegetable growers and sundry new age travellers. Between the float tanks and the garden variety potatoes, a small culinary revolution was about to explode. And, of course, it was ignited by this regal broad. With so many meals separating the decades, it's hard to remember just how hellish Australian cuisine had become. Between worship of Wolfgang Puck and other miceurs and, of course, a kneejerk respect for anything French, we were a bland, plump nation of foodies. Wolf Tasker remembers a time when a special night out in Melbourne consisted of "A seafood cocktail, usually thawed. Or Duck a' l orange, or pepper steak, chocolate mousse, Black Forrest gateau and after dinner mints in little brown envelopes." If it wasn't Australian, we reasoned, it must be good.
The about turn in Australian culinary thinking, she says, is intriguing. "When I first began working in restaurants some thirty years ago, it was almost a badge of honour and a symbol of the ‘Haustest' of cuisine to fly out-of-season ingredients in from some other part of the world." Since that time, a fearless fleet of great cooks including Serge Dansereau and Tetsuya Wakuda have shown us possibilities for the Australian plate. Preferring local over import and fusion over fuss, a group of greats helped us awake to the prospect of exciting indigenous cuisine. Alla, make no mistake, is one of OZ food's pushy parents. Like these major players, she also first generation Australian. Perhaps this is why it was a long held dream to build a truly local joint. Or "A restaurant with a genuine sense of place".
As a young visionary and vixen with cooking on her mind, Wolf Tasker found her way to France. The ardour of the French for local, seasonal produce confirmed her distrust for thawed seafood. A replay of the practise of regional Michelin starred restaurants did not come easy. "Daylesford, like most regional areas in Australia was surrounded by large agricultural single crop concerns," she says. While Dansereau was famously convincing Sydney's market gardens to grow things that most Australians couldn't pronounce, Wolf Tasker was doing the same thing from her country base. "Unlike France there was no little Fromagier just down the road, or farmer raising quail of pheasant, or supplier knocking on the back door with some inland fish," So Alla, I imagine, charmed everyone into producing. Wolf Tasker's commitment to local produce is fairly legendary. Ask her about her love of local produce. "We have a breeder of rare Wessex Saddleback Pigs just down the road, we have apple, cherry and chestnut orchards, fabulous berry farms and much more."
Ask her! She'll give you lecture on Food Miles (the term used to describe the amplified carbon footprint of imported foods) a sermon on community and a list of suggested reading. Before you know it you've read The Omnivores Dilemma. You'd best do as she says, in fact. Out of sheer fear that she might lose interest in cooking one day. No!
I first booked into the Lake House dining room, I think, in the late nineties. At the time, I was absurdly broke. Naturally, I decided to spend what little money I did have on fine food. This was, not to put to fine a point on it, the bomb. The menu was a work of cross cultural chaos. Seasonal fare tipped its local hat to international cuisine. Who'd-a-thunk Russian food could be quite so compelling. This was not the sad fusion of you bottom rung Mod Oz. No miserable overcooked couscous drenched in Italian vinegar here. The ‘Fusion' made sense. It still does. The wait staff knew the provenance of every dish. They still do. The wine cellar was a Wonderland. And now THAT'S even bigger. After a Pinot, or four, I will often ask to meet the chef. I have teetered unsteadily in the company of George Calombaris, Guy Grossi and Neil Perry. Like many enthusiastic diners I want to show my gratitude. Of course a tip is a more conventional credit. But, I like to personally tell these guys I love them.
For some reason, I've always been a little afraid to talk to Alla. For no good reason, really, beyond the unique magic of her place. Its almost as if I felt I might disturb the balance if I tipsily offer my thanks. So, even though I ha seen her, dressed like one of those subtler Faberge eggs, overseeing her restaurant, I never said hello. And then, while quizzing Jacques Reymond at a foodie conference, I saw the woman who had prepared some of my more memorable meals. Apparently, she'd liked a piece of my food criticism. "You're our kind of people," she said. Be-knighted, I was aghast. I could not speak for a good ten minutes (even though this is not my habit, and even though I was dying to ask her about her use of beetroot) This, as it turned out, was fine. Alla had things to say.
Among them: "Today the rich volcanic plains surrounding Daylesford have seen a proliferation of small to large scale agribusiness. Many are run of organic of biodynamic principles but all are committed to at least sustainable agricultural practices," This, truly, is the way she talks. And, in a sense, it's the way she cooks, and the manner in which her restaurant, attached to a luxury hotel, is run. Its complex it's logical and truly, it springs from a deep affection for humanity. Part chef, part food lexicorn, Alla is all hospitality.
So if you see Madam Wolf Tasker surveying her creation, don't be afraid to introduce yourself. She'll offer you an education. And a conversational digestif.
Open House Magazine
Local Hero - Passionate about locally-sourced, seasonal produce, chef and restaurateur Alla Wolf Tasker is a driving force behind the growth of the Daylesford Macedon Produce Group.
There are few restaurants as much loved as the Lake House at Daylesford, 90 minutes drive from Melbourne. For more than 25 years chef / owner Alla Wolf Tasker has been delighting diner with degustation and a la carte menus that showcase the seasonal, local produce of the region. Online review sites are full of praise for the food the service and romantic lake views and the critics agree, awarded the restaurant Two Chefs Hats and the Service Excellence award in the Age Good Food Guide and the Country Wine List of the year in Australia's wine list of the year Awards earlier this year.
While there are plenty of chefs these days who are going down the local produce route, the difference is that Wolf Tasker's passion for regional produce has also been the driving force behind the promotion of the Daylesford Macedon region as a major food producing region and tourist drawcard. "I trained in Europe where local produce coming through the door was a given," Says Wolf Tasker "Often it still had the morning dew on it, and the chefs knew the suppliers and their families. It was the model I wanted when I decided to build a destination country restaurant in 1979. I had no idea of how impossible that dream was at the time." Advertising for produce, the only thing Wolf Tasker sourced was a sack of spuds, dumped on the doorstep. Everything had to be brought from the wholesale market in Melbourne. Determined to recreate the supply chain model she had seen in action in Europe, the chef helped the first artisan farmers that moved into the area by taking their produce to the market herself, and more recently by founding Daylesford Macedon Produce Group, an organisation that works with local farmers and chefs to aid direct interaction and set up supply chains. "Until we created local demand for their products none of the small farmers were sustainable," she says. "The Daylesford Macedon Produce Group has a charter to create a sustainable local food system. It connects local suppliers with local chefs and restaurants; expedites communications, and promotes and develops local produce." A concurrent increase in consumer interest in regional food and the farmers market movement has also seen the birth of a thriving "Farm Gate" trail, which is popular with visitors in the region. The benefits for the restaurants, according to Wolf Tasker, are obvious. "I now have wonderful local produce almost all year round and I also have the opportunity to work with a particular farm or supplier to get the exact products that we want," she says. "The other benefit for us is that the produce is truly remarkable. Often it's just picked or taken from the ground on the day of delivery."
"Having a salad of just picked vegetables that haven't seen the inside of a fridge, tossed with some local olive oil and scattered with that morning's fresh curd, is my idea of indulgence." Producers also have reason to cheer - they now have a ready market within their area, deal directly with their customers, eliminating the need for middlemen, and are guaranteed to sell their product. And with the money staying in the local area, the region benefits as a whole. Some of the local ingredients currently featuring on Wolf Tasker menu are bay broad beans, white asparagus, wild morels and spring lamb.
Surplus produce is made into charcuterie or preserved so nothing is wasted. "We follow the time honoured traditions of country life by utilising each season's bounty and laying down products for leaner; less abundant seasons." she says "We are using some of last season's elderberry glaze with local venison at the moment." Wolf Taskers belief in the importance of sourcing food locally goes beyond solving her immediate supply chain issues. "As a society, as we continue to source our food from further and further away, we're less likely to understand how it was produced." She says "Agriculture has now largely become and acknowledged and accepted degrader of the environment. Food that we eat is routinely exposed to questionable substances. Most often the economic use for those substances is flawed, leaving the farmers worse off. Diversity is diminished, as only produce that can travel long distances or be stored for long periods of time, is grown and produced.
"In addition, cutting corners in order to provide cheap food has led to appalling animal husbandry practices that most of us would never prefer to know about." As part of this year's Daylesford Macedon Harvest week, held in May, Wolf Tasker hosted activist and farmer Joel Salatin, who featured in the controversial documentary Food Inc., about the state of the food industry in the United States, at Lake House. "I'd read some of Joel's books, understood his farming methods and thought I knew pretty much all of what he had to say but seeing him and hearing him in person, truly joined the dots," she says. "He runs one of the most productive farms in the US and really ‘Walks the Walk'. He demonstrates what a truly sustainable agricultural model should look like and how agriculture should actually be regenerative, rather than a destroyer of our precious resources."
"Joel's message for Australians was a timely one. It is still not too late for us to turn back from the US model of food production and agriculture which has resulted in economically unstable farms, the wide scale spread of disease and even dangerous contamination of food and the proliferation of processed food." Looking forward Wolf Tasker is optimistic about the future of food in Australia. "I'm delighted that people are concerned about where their food is coming from," she says "it's nice to see that connection being regained and re-established."