Dining

How Tasmania Became the Food World's Newest Culinary Odyssey

This faraway island has a lot to offer a curious and hungry traveler.
IMAGE MONA/JESSE HUNNIFORD/LISA KUILENBURG
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Sometime after the cocktail of cold-smoked Tasmanian gin but before the appetizer of pickled walnuts and wallaby, I was escorted from my table at the restaurant Faro, up glowing blue steps and into a giant, smooth orb that sat like a spaceship at the center of the soaring steel and glass dining room over the Derwent River.

Faro is a museum restaurant, but it’s unlike any I’ve seen. For one thing, art is not just seen before or after you eat: It is central to the experience. Anchoring the new wing of the wonderful and wonderfully weird Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), seven miles upriver from downtown Hobart, Tasmania, Faro is reached via a tunnel of shimmering light made by the American artist James Turrell. 


At Faro, the restaurant in Tasman's Museum of Old and New Art, you are invited to enter artist James Turrell's "Perceptual Cell" between courses

The orb is another of his creations. Titled Unseen Seen, it is the latest and largest of his “perceptual cells,” spaces in which the reclining viewer is encircled and overwhelmed by a throbbing barrage of flashing colors and sounds. The wallaby? Tastes like kangaroo. The Turrell—well, it baffled my senses and flooded my jetlagged brain with pure, unalloyed joy. Here was dinner and a show I could get behind, an immersive experience that effectively obliterates the distinction between gustatory and intellectual stimulation—one in which, as the MONA website puts it, you might “take your jamón ibérico with a side of neural battering.”

The exact nature of that battering is hard to explain with any precision. As a New York Times writer, equally flummoxed, observed of another Turrell work, “It is difficult to say much more about the piece without descending into gibberish.” I can tell you this: I booked the Art + Dinner program online before my arrival, I checked the waiver warning that “artworks may induce hallucinations, migraines, claustrophobic seizures,” and I emerged from the orb 14 minutes later in a dazzled, altered state, ready to ponder the meaning of the universe as well as whether to go for a main course of grilled octopus and eggplant or squid ink paella. I skipped dessert and instead, like a child coming off a carousel, begged to ride the Turrell again.

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For a faraway island, often thought of as remote even by mainland Australians, Tasmania has a lot to recommend it to the curious hungry traveler: a thriving little restaurant and bar scene in Hobart, the capital; abundant seafood (including beautiful Bruny Island oysters); good wine and smoky malt whiskey; cheese­makers and truffle hunters you can visit and then have a foraged dinner cooked for you on the beach. And because of its size and the small number of self-selecting people who have moved here, drawn by the bounty and beauty of the place, as well as its low-key vibe, there’s a kind of can-do enthusiasm that’s highly appealing to those who like to travel to eat.

We want to take home something more meaningful than Instagram bragging rights and a signed menu.

But why fly all the way down under just for some culinary kicks? Why, when the world is full of so many good places to eat, does it matter that there are places doing things differently, looking beyond the white tablecloth, the tasting menu, and the allegiance to a certain international style of luxury dining?

It matters because more of us don’t want just another great meal anymore—we’re looking for deeper, weirder connections to the things we consume, the people who make them, and the cultures and traditions behind them. We don’t want to just check off entries on the year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list; in this post-Bourdain world, we increasingly want context, relevance, excitement, fun. We want to take home something more meaningful than Instagram bragging rights and a signed menu.


Tasmania's Central Highlands

Curious, informed diners are seeking out restaurants where you can really learn about the terroir of a place, restaurants that double as culinary labs and archaeological sites, and chefs who are taking their talents outside the kitchen and into the field—with mobile pop-up dinners or chef-hosted tours that get you cooking and seeing food in a more multifaceted way.

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“People want a 360-degree view of food culture,” says David Prior, a globetrotting Brisbane-born, New York–based journalist who has worked with Alice Waters and who has just launched Prior.club, a bespoke chef-and-sommelier-led travelers club, in response to the demand. “They want experiences that can’t be replicated anywhere else.”

Tasmania, in its modest way, is a testing ground for this new wave of beyond-the-bucket-list culinary tourism. I went not merely to blow my mind with Tassie tapas and brain-scrambling lights but to sample another kind of immersive experience—this one on a small family farm in the lush Derwent Valley, where Rodney Dunn and his wife Séverine Demanet run the ­Agrarian Kitchen cooking school.


The Orb at Faro

As you turn off the Lyell Highway onto the twisty country roads that lead to Dunn and Demanet’s domain, it’s impossible not to be immediately soothed by the landscape: misty morning light in velvety greens and big sky blues; little cottages and working sheep farms; hop fields; leatherwood, oak, and white-bark gum trees. It’s the opposite of Turrell’s sensory bombardment—a shock of calm—but it’s equally invigorating.

Dunn trained as a chef in Sydney and was the food editor of Australia’s Gourmet Traveller magazine. Like many urban-dwelling food-minded folks, he yearned to grow more of what he cooked, to have the opportunity and space to put into practice the ethos of sustainability and healthy eating he preached, and to inspire others. He went to Tasmania for the first time 10 years ago, for a magazine story, and one look was all it took. He left the city for five idyllic acres of fertile soil that supported a berry patch, rows of heirloom vegetables, milk cows, geese and ducks, some handsome goats, and a family of contented Wessex Saddleback pigs sniffing for acorns out back.

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The Agrarian Kitchen is a kind of transporting food television show come to life.

In their home, a converted 19th-century schoolhouse, he and Demanet constructed a big teaching kitchen with cream-colored wainscoting, a long center island, a wood-burning brick oven, and a view of the vegetable garden. Contributing to the coziness is a large hearth where the fire is stoked all day long and a rotating menagerie of culinary seekers arrive to warm themselves with morning espressos before the day’s class in enlightened country living begins.

The Agrarian Kitchen is a kind of transporting food television show come to life. Dunn, a trained chef and a self-taught farmer, is an exemplar of the fantasy food life in the flesh. Jars of preserved tomatoes line a shelf alongside a pot of housemade plum vinegar. “We preserve a lot,” Dunn says. “This year we did 400 kilos of apricots and about a ton of tomatoes. So in the winter we can really go to town.”


The Agrarian Kitchen's cooking school

Along with nine others (Aussies on holiday who varied in kitchen skills and in the likelihood that they would become back-to-the-landers), I have signed up for the “Agrarian Experience.” An all-day mix of pleasant conversation, gentle guidance, hands-on kitchen prep, light lamb butchery, and communal eating, it’s less an instructional lecture than an indoctrination into the earnest and engaged culinary life, the pleasures and struggles of growing good food and cooking it well.

We visit the pigs, peek into the smokehouse, gawk at the purple cauliflower, sniff the cardamom plants, and take turns snipping kale and pulling knobby carrots out of the sweet-smelling earth. Wild green parrots whiz overhead. In the kitchen we break into teams and tackle the day’s work, which in a few hours becomes our late lunch. The menu, which changes for every class, today includes tortellini stuffed with pumpkin, breaded cutlets of lamb (waiting to be cut off the animal currently hanging from a hook at the front of the kitchen), a winter salad of greens we just plucked, and apple pie with ice cream we’ll churn and swirl with Dunn’s own walnuts.

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“Rather than me breathing down your neck at every step, it’s really nice just to do it,” Dunn says. “It’s a lot of work, but that’s why you’re here. I’ve been to too many cooking classes—and taught some in a previous life—where someone stands at the front and does all the cooking. Your mind wanders. You go home and never do any of it again.”

In teams of two we roll out the pasta dough, shred cabbages for salad, bread and fry the lamb, and stuff our little pies. Over the course of several happy hours, our group of strangers cooks and talks together, and a meal greater than the sum of our individual skills comes impressively together.


Pasta making at the Agrarian Kitchen

Last year Dunn and Demanet opened the Agrarian Kitchen Eatery, an incongruously bright little restaurant on the grounds of an abandoned 1920s mental asylum a few miles’ drive from the farm. It has quickly made a name for itself as the best restaurant on the whole island. With its blond wood tables, wood-fired grill, vaguely Scandinavian vibe, and thoughtful source selection, it’s the kind of place that would make a splash in Sydney or San Francisco. But the food is distinctively, singularly Tasmanian: roasted oca (a kind of root) with hot and sour peanut sauce; an outstanding salad of speckled cos lettuce with smoked wild eel and paper-thin slices of smoked pork neck coppa, washed down with a glass of bracing Meadow­bank Tasmanian riesling.

That they’ve managed it here, in the pioneer hamlet of New Norfolk, Tasmania, is further proof of the allure of this place—and an emblem of our desire to find novel experiences that transcend tired ideas of destination dining. Dunn and Demanet’s place is remote and it’s good, but this isn’t El Bulli or Fäviken. You wouldn’t helicopter in, expecting the meal of your life. It’s a casual, happy place that’s best experienced as part of a deeper exploration of the region. “I don’t miss worrying about where the next hot place is,” Dunn says. “We’re sort of the antithesis of that.”

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More than just the antithesis, they’re the antidote to the idea that you must travel just to say you’ve eaten at a particular restaurant. In an era of so much culinary overstimulation without context—and with the splendors of the world a hashtag search away—it’s places like theirs where we can find real learning, adventure, and inspiration, not merely a passport stamped with highlights of the gastronomic grand tour. The highest distinction in the old Michelin guide was a note that an establishment was “worth a special journey”; now it’s the journey itself that is the draw—one with as many enlightening interactions and good tastes along the way as possible.

*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com

*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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