In a mist-laden valley outside Hobart, a 19th-century schoolhouse nestles amongst the beauty of a lovingly hand-tended sustainable farm. The days of arithmetic drills and drawn-out history lessons have long subsided from the halls of this schoolhouse, and yet it continues its legacy through a different kind of education. The century-old building is now the home of a cooking school known as The Agrarian Kitchen, led by chef and food editor Rodney Dunn and his wife Sévérine. And in place of text books, the surrounding organically grown gardens, orchard and resident livestock act as the didactic tools to help people discover the simple pleasures of cooking and eating with the seasons.
At heart, Rodney Dunn has always been a country boy. But the call of the city saw him leave his rural hometown of Griffith to pursue his career as a chef in Sydney – hard to ignore when it meant an apprenticeship under Tetsuya Wakuda. As the years ticked by, however, and city life became more hectic, Rodney couldn’t help but wonder if there was something else out there for him. So while on a two-week break from his job as a chef, he asked a food photographer friend if he could spend the time shadowing her to gain a glimpse behind the scenes. He instantly fell in love with the world of food media and realised that perhaps that was his calling.
“I’ve always loved books and magazines and I’d got to a point in my cooking career where I had to think about whether I wanted to end up being a washed-up, grumpy old chef, or if I wanted to make a change,” he recalls. “For me it really came back to loving food. I’d always been an English-minded person and so food media seemed like the perfect thing for me.”
Rodney tapped in to the few connections he had in the industry to line up some work experience and freelance work with various publications. People instantly recognised his insatiable passion for food and he was soon able to turn the freelancing into a full-time career. After developing recipes for many of Australia’s food magazines and working as a food researcher for the show Better Homes and Gardens, in 2004 he joined Australian Gourmet Traveller as food editor.
A few years later, when the opportunity came up to travel to Tasmania for a story, Rodney – who had never before visited the state – volunteered immediately. For sometime, he and his wife Sévérine had been toying with the idea of moving to a quieter life in the countryside, but had envisioned somewhere in rural New South Wales. After one visit to Tasmania, however, Rodney knew he had found their new home. “I was just blown away by it,” he recalls. “It was like food paradise.”
At first the couple considered opening a restaurant, but not wanting to go back into the stress of running a kitchen again, they decided on a cooking school that would extoll the virtues of fresh produce and cooking and eating with the seasons. They eventually found a 19th-century schoolhouse tucked away in a misty valley near the small town of Lachlan, about 45 minutes west of the Tasmanian capital. While it needed some work, the ageing beauty was the perfect location for Rodney and Sévérine to bring their dream to life. Over the next 18 months they began toiling away to turn the old schoolhouse and its surrounding two hectares into a sustainable farm-based cooking school, which they christened The Agrarian Kitchen.
The ethos behind the cooking school was not simply to redefine people’s relationship with food, but to also establish a meaningful connection with the food we eat and the land that produces it. The classes would celebrate the simple pleasures of cooking and the beauty of a life lived in cadence with the earth, eating in tune with the seasons, and respecting nature as a generous provider.
“I like to cook, because I like to eat,” is one of Rodney’s favourite phrases to begin his classes with at The Agrarian Kitchen. “People can take away different things from the classes,” he says of the experience he and Sévérine have created. “Some people have a block of land that they want to transform into a big garden. But at the other end of the scale, someone might just come away with a better appreciation of food and of supporting the farmers at the local market.”
As a working farm, The Agrarian Kitchen is not only home to an extensive vegetable garden, orchard, berry patch and herb garden – all grown using organic principles – but also a menagerie of other residents. Roaming the grounds are Wessex Saddleback and Berkshire pigs, Barnevelder chickens, British Alpine and Toggenburg goats, a flock of geese and honeybees.
For those yet to have made the journey south to Australia’s island state, Rodney has recently distilled the essence of The Agrarian Kitchen into a visually sumptuous cookbook. The stunning imagery was shot by Rodney’s good mate and fellow chef Luke Burgess who, along with partner Katrina Birchmeier, made a similar move from Sydney to Tasmania a few years ago to open the acclaimed restaurant Garagistes in downtown Hobart. Rodney and Luke first crossed paths in the kitchen at Tetsuya’s, and immediately forged a firm friendship – and it was Luke who introduced Rodney to Sévérine.
When asked why he thinks so many mainlanders are making the move to Tasmania, Rodney says that the state is becoming a veritable gourmet region. “There’s just so much great produce and Tasmania has always had to be self-sufficient to a certain degree because it’s an island. It’s not unusual for people to have ten different types of potatoes in their gardens that they know by name. And everyone knows what a raspberry should taste like because they grow wild in their gardens. People don’t have to be foodies to do that – it’s just what they do and it’s second nature. There’s this like-minded groundswell happening here where both producers and chefs are coming together to make this esoteric dream of knowing where our produce comes from and having beautiful heirloom produce to cook with.”
Rodney loves seeing people’s faces light up with inspiration when he takes them on a tactile tour of the school’s garden and they taste the fresh produce for the first time. Watching them experience that flavour epiphany, he says, is like taking pleasure in seeing people enjoy a meal you’ve prepared for them by hand. “That’s why I like doing what I do,” he adds. “I like to be inspired and therefore I like to inspire other people.”
Rodney says he’s especially energised by seeing other people pursuing their passion for food, particularly River Cottage’s Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and American chef Paul Bertolli. He also references a recent time when Maggie Beer – a regular visitor to The Agrarian Kitchen – came with a group of people to attend a class, and spent the whole time enthusiastically taking notes. And when he himself is in need of a burst of culinary inspiration, Rodney buries himself amongst the collection of 700-odd cookbooks that he has amassed over the years.
Simple pleasures like revelling in the flavour of a fresh heirloom tomato, Rodney says, are what he has learned are the true joys of life. “The older I get, the simpler things become and I’ve learned that you shouldn’t take life too seriously. When I was younger, I used to worry about what people thought and about the future. But as you get older, you realise that the future takes care of itself and everything sorts itself out in the end.”