Thirty years after launching, Lake House Daylesford is one of Australia’s most awarded destination retreats. Since its opening, co-owner and culinary director Alla Wolf-Tasker has been at the helm of the 2.5-hectare property – and experienced every change in the hospitality industry.
“If you lack a well-honed personal philosophy, direction or self-confidence, it’s easy to be caught up in a torrent of industry FOMO,” says Alla. “It’s tempting to join the flow and morph who you are into the mantle of the latest, newest and hottest, regardless of how relevant it actually is to your own hospitality DNA.”
This is a temptation that Lake House Daylesford has managed to avoid, despite constantly evolving. “[We value] true hospitality, generosity and deliciousness above personal creative ego. But on the other hand, it’s also essential to remain relevant and understand contemporary culinary thinking,” says Alla.
With the release of a new book, Three Decades On, which documents the rise of her iconic destination, the visionary shares her tips:
Embrace positive change
The transfer of information now is so incredibly speedy. Make no mistake, there’s clearly some benefit in that. When I was a very young cook we used to wait six weeks for cookbooks from ‘the greats’ to arrive by boat, often from France. Nowadays I can get pictures of dishes on a table at Eleven Madison Park in New York, or Narisawa in Japan, courtesy of a blogger on the same day. None of us are working in isolation anymore, and research and development need fuel. We get to see new dishes,
new drinks, new plating, new interiors, immediately. Things that will often spur our creative juices.
Remember where you began
We didn’t have a business plan at all when we started. I have to be honest – and I can only laugh when I say this – we didn’t know we needed one. [My husband and business partner] Allan was an artist who could design and build. I was an industry junkie, hooked on dreams of hospitality excellence, and I could cook. The business side of things really wasn’t on our radar. If it was, we wouldn’t have done what we did; we wouldn’t have taken the gamble. It took us a long time to evolve the business to economic sustainability.
Go the distance – literally
From the beginning, I wanted Lake House to be ‘worthy of a journey’, in the words of the Michelin Guide. We chose a location few people had heard of (I knew the area and the land was cheap!). It was madness as a business proposition. At the time, people in this country had no expectation of being able to travel out of the cities and find good food. When one travelled into the country, one took a picnic. But it was something [my husband and I] were familiar with from spending time in Europe – journeying to a small village because of one iconic restaurant. We plunged into the process of helping develop the region as a destination, encouraging other businesses and sitting on many boards and committees.
Find a sense of place
We talked about Lake House having ‘a sense of place’ from the first day. I wanted to develop a restaurant truly immersed in its region. One which contributed viably to the economic, social and environmental development of its location and the community around it. From day one I ran an open-kitchen-door policy and encouraged local folk to bring in excess produce and windfalls from their gardens, supplemented with produce we bought from the wholesale markets. Provenance (where our food comes from and what’s been done to it) has always been a guiding principle for me. I’m pleased to see a growing respect for it in this country.
Be a trend-picker
Reinvention and renewal, rather than resting on your laurels, will always be the hallmark of a successful business. But standing firm and being selective with what’s relevant for your vision is critical. Changes in how and what people eat have been absorbed into what we do – healthier eating, for example, and an acceptance of a wider scope of ingredients driven by the multicultural nature of our communities. We were pioneers, I guess, in offering a vegetarian tasting menu two decades ago, alongside our normal tasting menu. Moving with the times does not mean following fads, but it does mean keeping an eye out for how your market is thinking and, in some cases, even being ahead of a trend.
Upskill and inspire others
Have an understanding of issues critical to your industry. I’ve had to learn a myriad of skills I had no training in – skills that have allowed me to contribute to the mentoring and development of hospitality across Australia. A couple of years ago, I evolved a concept for Institute of Gastronomy in Daylesford that will give culinary trainees and graduates the opportunity to immerse themselves in a region – do placement on local biodynamic farms, work with cheese makers, bakers, honey producers and brewers. In partnership with William Angliss Institute in Melbourne, I’ve obtained government funding. Yes, it’s a ‘dare to dream’ project – but so was Lake House once!