HOW do you replace a head chef who almost single-handed turned your unheard-of country pub into a much-lauded gastronomic hot spot?
This was the question facing the people behind Dunkeld’s Royal Mail Hotel earlier this year when Dan Hunter announced he was leaving.
Hunter’s daring and delicious 10-course degustations had not only put Dunkeld on the map, but turned the restaurant into one of the nation’s top dining experiences.
But perhaps the bigger question was “who would be game to follow in Hunter’s footsteps?”.
That courageous individual is Robin Wickens, who has spent the past three years living the good life running a successful provedore in Apollo Bay with his wife Kate.
Prior to that, he led Melbourne restaurant Interlude to various awards, including an Age Good Food Guide young chef of the year gong for himself, having moved from England in 2001 after following “the usual Michelin-star route through London and a few country hotels”.
“Originally I wasn’t interested,” Wickens said of the Royal Mail’s initial approach.
“Dan (Hunter) had achieved all he’d wanted to do and there wasn’t anywhere left to go.
“But the more I thought about it, the more I thought I could do a different approach.
‘‘When I got my head around that (I became) interested in coming here.”
That different approach is a more holistic view of the hotel that Wickens feels has been missing over the years.
“It’s very much focused on the restaurant and giving the ultimate experience of restaurant dining,” he said.
“I’m looking at it as a whole venue and delivering a package, an experience, across everything, instead of just one amazing dinner.
‘‘I want to get the bar to an amazing standard and the bistro, (as well as) breakfast.
“I want to try different things as well, maybe move away from the degustation in the restaurant.
‘‘I don’t think it has to stay exactly as it was set up.”
The many returning customers and congratulatory critics may break into a cold sweat at the thought of the Royal Mail sans degustation — after all, it was Hunter’s 10-course creations that made Dunkeld a must-visit destination.
But Wickens thinks there is potentially more to the Mail than that.
“I’ve done that with Interlude … focus on (degustation), chasing the hats, chasing the awards,” he said.
“You get to a point in life where you realise there are more targets than that, like having a really good, profitable business where customers love coming back again and again.
“I’m not against the degustation but not everyone wants to commit to a three-hour dining experience.
“When I was at Interlude, everything had to be ‘degustation’. I couldn’t see the other side and I was adamant everyone should sit there for 30 courses or whatever.
“(I’m aiming for) maybe a la carte through the week, and blurring the line between the restaurant and the bistro so we can have a great product across the board.
‘‘I’m more about the business as a whole.
“I think this could be set up like the old English country hotel, where it’s the ultimate experience to come away to.
‘‘Rather than the Royal Mail just being an amazing restaurant, I want it (to be) an amazing hotel getaway with an amazing restaurant as well.
“That’s the long-term plan if the owners are happy with what I’m doing.”
For now, the Royal Mail is still serving up a degustation in the restaurant — although that has dropped from 10 courses to eight — while the bistro and bar continue to offer a la carte alternatives.
But unlike Hunter’s seasonally-specific offerings, Wickens is, by his own admission, winging it.
“We’re flying by the seat of our pants a bit,” he said.
“What we’re doing at the moment is being a bit more free (with the courses).
‘‘I like dishes to change quickly, based on what’s in the garden, rather than putting a dish on (for a whole season). So there’s a lot of chopping and changing. A dish might be on for a night and then it might be something else.
‘‘In the past it was very regimented.
“I don’t have the attention span to work on a dish for months and months before I put it on the menu.
‘‘It might not be perfect, but we do keep tweaking things.”
Wickens conceded he’s still finding his feet, with his three months so far at the Royal Mail about “settling into the kitchen and building a team”.
“Once (the team) gets more settled, we’ll look at the long-term direction,” he said.
“At the moment, I’m just enjoying getting back into the kitchen and doing dinner service.
“It’s a chance to use the amazing produce that’s around. Working in the provedore was great and the lifestyle’s great, but you’d see all these amazing products around and you wouldn’t have the opportunity to use them.”
When you add to this the Royal Mail’s impressive 0.8-hectare kitchen garden, it must seem almost overwhelming to have so much to play with.
“There aren’t too many places where you have that opportunity to use a garden like this,” he said.
“Every restaurant chef has a kitchen garden of varying degrees, but this is a pretty serious garden.
“The main aim for me is to push it and get as much of the vegetables we need as possible and not just use it for garnish.
‘‘I like to make it as self-sufficient as possible.”
His time out of the kitchen has also opened Wickens’ eyes to some trends he thinks need to be shaken up a bit.
“There’s a very common approach these days — it’s all very minimal and it all looks the same and you put a few flowers in there,” Wickens said.
“I’d like to think it could be more. With that direction you tend to forget about it just tasting great.
“I like big, bold flavours and more classic styles. There are sauces, things are a bit heavier, there’s not one style. That’s been a bit forgotten about in (the quest for) how minimalistic can we get it.
“Maybe this has come from stepping out of kitchens and seeing it from afar.”