Alla Wolf-Tasker spent four years building her restaurant, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, on a blackberry-infested paddock adjoining this lake.
Photo: Arsineh Houspian
Almost 1500 Victorian restaurants closed in 2012/13, reflecting a nationwide hospitality industry crisis, which Alla Wolf-Tasker – celebrating the 30th anniversary of her Lake House fine dining restaurant at Daylesford – partly blames on barriers to entry having become too low.
“We started back when you had to apply to a judge for your liquor licence. They’d want to know what restaurant experience you had and what your credentials were,” says Wolf-Tasker, whose family retains ownership of what has grown to become a resort employing 120 people.
“These days it’s just an administrative tick. There needed to be some loosening up, it’s made Melbourne a much more interesting place, but there are many in the industry who say the pendulum has swung too far.”
Too many professionals without direct hospitality experience – the type a judge would once have told to “come back in a couple of years” – decided “we throw nice dinner parties, let’s open a cafe!” Wolf-Tasker observes.
Although turnover in the nation’s restaurants rose over the past year, too many inexperienced proprietors are not turning that into profit.
“They can’t run a budget. They think the numbers are coming in – then the fridge breaks down, or they’re sick and they have to replace themselves for a week. What ends up happening is they undercharge, to the detriment of all the established restaurants around them,” Wolf-Tasker says.
HOW TO STAY IN BUSINESS FOR 30 YEARS IN HOSPITALITY
The secrets to Lake House’s longevity are worth hearing in light of the wider restaurant industry’s malaise.
Despite “the money men” continually advising Wolf-Tasker against it, Lake House still makes all its food from scratch (sourced locally wherever possible) and trains its staff to, for instance, break down a whole fish rather than use fillets in portion-controlled bags.
“With so much surplus catch from trawling being sold now, breaking it down yourself is the only way of knowing if a fish has been monstered by the nets,” Wolf-Tasker says.
The labour-intensive attention to detail behind fine dining food and service is a “diminishing commodity that people are willing to pay for” in an era where casual, “home replacement” dining has become the norm.
“If a pizza joint is the benchmark, the skills reduce and the whole industry devalues itself,” Wolf-Tasker says.
“There’s a lack of training – proper butchery, for example, has become a lost art – but we’re losing our top end, look at Jacques Reymond who’s just retired – and the top end is essential for places that pride themselves on food culture.”
Properly training staff and giving them opportunities to develop skills – including through temporary placements with other restaurateurs here and overseas – tends to engender loyalty.
“My head chef came in as a commis cook, my operations manager started as a casual waiter – she could work anywhere in the world now, so you need to bring them along on the journey.”
‘Desperate times’ of skill shortage
However, Wolf-Tasker admits these are “desperate times” of skill shortage in the fine dining game, and nothing can eradicate poaching with “huge amounts of money that don’t turn out to be sustainable”.
To survive the fripperies of shifting public tastes, Wolf-Tasker long ago recognised that a diverse business was needed to support her passion for a fine dining restaurant in country Victoria.
She and husband Allan took out their first “serious loan” to add accommodation in the late 1980s; in 2001 a spa was added to capitalise on the growing “wellness” trend – of which Daylesford, with its natural springs, became a centre; in 2008 she took over a disused cafe in Daysleford’s Botanic Gardens, converting it into a venue to capture some of that casual dining market; more recent additions are conference facilities and a cooking school, which caters to the demand for knowledge about artisanal produce and traditional cooking skills that Wolf-Tasker herself helped create.
Longevity in the restaurant business also requires passion – nobody should open a restaurant expecting to get rich quick by jumping on a trend, Wolf-Tasker says.
“You build up a loyal following by being true to yourself. When we opened here, the few visitors there were to Daylesford were looking for Devonshire teas and toasted sandwiches. My first menu had shiraz-glazed squab and goats’ cheese souffle,” she recalls.
“I had a vision for what I wanted and I’ve never wavered from it.”