Woman of Vision
STORY BY RICHARD CORNISH
PHOTOGRAPHY BY LISA COHEN
Lake House founders Allan and Alla Wolf-Tasker have helped change the way that the nation eats. Their focus on using food from the farmers of the local countryside was inspired by a vision a young Alla had when visiting France in the 1970s. She explains this as she races into the lounge by the luxurious yet cosy pavilion-like dining room overlooking Lake Daylesford. She rubs her hands and holds them to the fire to warm up. “I have been visiting a local farmer,” says Alla in her measured mellifluous voice. “Farmers have it tough and I was lending them an ear,” she says. Alla has always been a champion for local producers. Her daughter, Larissa, comes with coffee. She heads the marketing and promotions team at Lake House. Husband Allan drops by to quickly discuss family business. He is an accomplished artist in his own right, his enigmatic landscapes often hanging in the dining room.
“When we first came here in 1979 there was an old ‘for sale’ sign nailed to a tree,” says Alla sipping on her coffee. “The place had been on the market for ages and no wonder,” she recalls. “There was no top soil. There were blackberries growing amongst the car bodies.” Alla, however, could see something else. She had a vision. “I was this young ‘kangourou’ in France and some mates helped me get into the kitchen of George Blanc’s kitchen at his restaurant at Vonnas,” she says. “It was almost unheard of for a woman to be allowed in a French kitchen, let alone a foreign one.” There she saw the materialisation of Blanc’s concept of a gourmet village built around his restaurant housed in a historic building on the banks of a canal. This included adjacent historic buildings converted into accommodation, the grounds of the 3ha site made into gardens and the restaurant a showcase for local produce. “Locals were so proud of their local restaurant,” says Alla. “They would say to the visitors in the town, ‘have you been to our restaurant?’ The working people would save up and go, perhaps once a year, just to be part of their local food culture,” she says.
Alla uses words like ‘good food’ and ‘real food’. She doesn’t like elite words like gastronomic. Her team cooks real food at Lake House combining her Russian heritage and traditional French technique. It is some of the best in the nation. It comes from years of experience from when she was running a cooking school in Melbourne in the early ‘80s when people were still throwing dinner parties and were making everything from scratch. “The more things change…” says Alla drolly, referring to the resurgence of paddock to plate cooking. “But then that all fell in a heap. People became very conservative and headed more towards industrial foods,” she says. In this environment she and Allan opened Lake House in 1984. “God we worked hard,” she says. “We drove from home (in Melbourne) and worked the weekends then drove home again with the linen in the boot of the car. We did not make money in the first seven years. We propped the place up with jobs in the city.”
Over the past three decades Alla and Allan have reinvested in the waterfront property, building villas, a wellness centre and conference facilities. At present there is long lap pool being built in time for the summer season. The Lake House kitchen has also invested in local producers championing their harvest and spotlighting it on the menu. She lists names such as Mount Franklin Organics, Angelica Organics, Brooklands Free Range Pork, Milking Yard Farm and Honest Eggs. “Recently one of the growers we work with came up to me and said ‘thank you, we have now paid off our mortgage mostly thanks to you’.”
She talks of taking the town on a journey to understand the multiplier effects of a business this size. There are builders, gardeners, an in-house florist and stylist, administrators and accounting staff, cleaners, wait staff chefs and sommeliers. There are over 120 staff at Lake House, some of whom are children of long term employees. She has trained some of the best chefs in the business including names like Annie Smithers and Jake Nicholson. There are countless other businesses in town whose success relies on the Wolf Taskers working tirelessly to put Daylesford on the global map.
She sees her next role as mentoring the next generation of chefs and producers. She has already forked out thousands of dollars in the annual Alla Wolf-Tasker Good Food Matters Scholarship in which $5000 is awarded to a food producer each year. She is also working with local businesses and William Angliss College on the Institute of Gastronomy and Good Food to be housed somewhere in or around Daylesford. Seed funding has allowed the project to be scoped out and now she is looking to drive the education centre where prospective chefs and cooks learn skills such as charcuterie and whole carcass butchery, the lost arts of the culinary world. Meanwhile she is concentrating on the ongoing demands of running a multi award winning restaurant and hotel. “It took us 35 years to be an overnight success,” jokes Alla. “And it’s more than a fulltime job.” With that she is off and disappears into the kitchen to talk with the chef about how to deal with a box of winter venegtables that have just landed in the kitchen.
Three Decades On - Lake House and
Daylesford by Alla Wolf-Tasker AM.
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