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Updated 26 May: During Canberra’s period of self-isolation and the virtual lockdown of restaurants, award-winning chef Damian Brabender has been focused not on the “closing” but on the “reopening”.
He is now celebrating the easing of restrictions that will see Canberra restaurants able to welcome in patrons—albeit in greatly reduced numbers and under stringent health protocols.
ACT restaurants are now able to host a maximum of 20 patrons who are spaced 1.5 metres apart.
ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr described it as “a tentative and small step for the industry,” and noted that such small numbers of patrons would make it viable to open for only a small number of restaurants and cafes.
Damian and his team at Otis Dining Hall are ready to emerge from weeks of closure with a bang.
They are now running special ticketed events to the Otis Chef’s Table. Partnering with Clonakilla wines and The Truffle Farm to highlight some of the ACT region’s most successful signature tastes, Brabender and his team will offer a seven-course feasts paired with award-winning Clonakilla wines, including dishes such as egg yolk ravioli with truffle sauce supreme, confit of duck leg, truffle, local honey and polenta, at Otis pepper steak with truffle butter and brandy jus.
The dinners will be held on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and tables will be laid out in accordance with the 1.5m distancing requirements.
Each night will host a maximum of 20 diners over two sittings at tables that, according to Damian “will be laid out in a floorplan as if it was designed by a child playing Minecraft”.
Automatic touch-free sanitizers will be installed throughout the restaurant and the processes for cleaning and polishing glassware and plates has been made even more stringent than normal, with glasses being sterilised at an even higher temperature, and wash cycles extended on all kitchen equipment.
“When looking at a menu format moving forward, it is obvious that we must adapt. Serving only 20 guests at a time means the return of degustation menus and wine dinners,” said Damian.
“Things are going to be very different…and going out may become a little more weight on the wallet for people [a Chef’s Table seat will cost $180 including wine] and a little harder to get a table in popular restaurants, but one thing is for certain, hospitality people are worth it, our local suppliers are worth it and our guests’ experiences are worth it.”
While many Canberra restaurants have quickly pivoted to the delivery market, Damian held back.
“Our food is not designed for takeaway, and jumping into other people’s market for a short time would just be disruptive, I feel. It’s important that as an industry we aren’t all copying one another to make things work.”
It might also be the case that Damian simply could not live with the thought that someone might microwave one of his award-winning steaks.
And while it was a difficult decision to close the doors, he and his staff, led by chef Adam Wilson, have turned their hands to painting and sanding, staining wood and building wine cabinets.
“We refused to waste the opportunity to give the smaller details of the restaurant the attention they deserve but rarely gets due to the normal hectic pace of the industry,” he said.
He has also used the time to brainstorm a food experience that celebrates the entire truffle experience.
In a collaboration with Otis, The Truffle Farm will run midweek ticketed events from mid-June offering a multi-course menu featuring Damian’s food—including scallop mornay with truffled bechamel and shaved truffles, or braised wagyu beef cheek with bone marrow, rosemary and truffle—but served where the truffle trees bear their precious tubers.
There will also be an added bonus.
With any purchase of event tickets comes a chance to win The Truffle Farm’s “Golden Ticket”.
The winner will get to choose their favourite truffle doggo, their favourite section of the farm, and off they go to get themselves a truffle to keep. Perhaps it’s the size of a grape, or maybe the size of a basketball, but they will be crowned genuine truffle hunters no matter what.
“Truffle season is so short, climate-based, and fickle. Jayson and I created Hunt and Eat packages as a way to give to the local community a kind of event and experience that you would otherwise have to travel to Europe for. Scaling these down by 75 percent means we will be spreading the availability out across the week.”
Damian is hoping that as COVID-19 restrictions ease, restaurants are able to put in place all the necessary requirements to ensure Canberrans feel confident to eat out again.
“I miss our customers—many have become great friends of not only mine but my staff also. Regular diners Aimee and Hayden were walking past one day and saw one of us working up far too much of a sweat with a hand saw on some new floorboards. Within an hour we had half of their power tools on the job.”
For tickets to a place at an Otis Chef’s Table, go to otisdininghall.com.au
For tickets to The Truffle Farm’s Otis collaboration, go to thetrufflefarm.com.au
For details on the ACT Government’s new hospitality policy go to covid19.act.gov.au