Lured by the rich soils and bounteous sea, Brigitte Hafner traded her lauded Fitzroy eatery for a converted farmhouse on the Mornington Peninsula. This year, it was named Australia’s best restaurant.

By JENI PORT

We have to do this because we can’t not do it,” Brigitte Hafnerre members saying. It was late 2019 and Hafner, a co-owner and chef at Fitzroy’s Gertrude Street Enoteca, had decided to act on her forever dream of opening a restaurant on the Mornington Peninsula. She and her husband, Patrick Ness, an architect, had moved to Red Hill years before and, with its natural bounty, country feel and easy access to Melbourne (an hour’s drive), she knew it would be the perfect place for her hearty, home-style cooking.

The next step, though, was a big one. A proponent of the Slow Food movement, Hafner is very hands-on in the kitchen. Gertrude Street Enoteca, which she ran with her friend and long-time business partner James Broadway, needed her in the kitchen daily. But the new business in Red Hill would need her, too. Then Covid-19 struck. 

“Covid made it very easy,” she says of closing the Fitzroy restaurant. “Gertrude Street Enoteca was a wonderful thing that we did for a while but it was difficult with our landlords. Covid came along and closed it for us. And you know what? It was just time to shut the door on something that we’d had for a long time and do something completely new.” 

When we speak, Melbourne’s sixth lockdown is coming to an end and Hafner is about to re-open her new restaurant, Tedesca Osteria. A rustic take on fine-dining, the eatery is set in an old weatherboard house that was brought to life by Ness and is surrounded by 11 hectares of farmland. When I first call, she is wrangling a lost lamb out in the paddocks and is unable to speak. The next time I rang, news had broken that Tedesca Osteria had just been named Gourmet Traveller’s Restaurant of the Year.

‘This is something very much in me, a way I like to cook around my kitchen table — the immediacy of it, the fire. It is really an extension of my home.’

“This kind of thing never happens to me,” she says, laughing. “The phone hasn’t stopped.” The accolade not only affirms Hafner’s decision to open a country restaurant, but also her Slow Food philosophy, with the magazine describing Tedesca as the embodiment of a new approach to fine dining. 

The team, which includes just four other chefs, turns out five-course seasonal lunches that are intended to span two hours or more ($155/head; tedesca.com.au). A wood-fired oven and grill forms the heart of the kitchen; the coals are used to cook eggplant and artichokes, and chillies are turned into sauces and pickles. Meat and other vegetables are prepared in a hot and cold brick smokehouse— one of Hafner’s lockdown projects. 

And the name, Tedesca?

It’s a nickname bestowed on Hafner by an Italian chef she once worked with. It means “German”, a reference to her heritage (Hafner’s mother, Magdalene, a fine cook in her own right, is Bavarian).

Being based on the Peninsula, with its varied climate, Hafner has access to some of the country’s best produce, from seafood and truffles to olives, honey, lamb, beef and, of course, great wine. But much of what is served at the 35-seat restaurant comes from the 1,000-square-metre kitchen garden that she runs according to biodynamic principles. 

“The menu is defined by what we are growing,” she says. “I go for a walk in the garden, I have a look at what’s coming up and then I write the menu with that in mind.” 

Getting her hands dirty comes naturally to Hafner. Her father, Harald, was a landscape gardener. “I fell in love with gardens from a nearly age and I always had my hands in dirt,” she says. Right now, in her greenhouse, she has tomatoes grown from seeds, ready to be transferred to the garden. They’ll grow alongside chillies, fennel, radishes, spicy cresses, lettuce and zucchini.

Hafner’s next big project is a vineyard. The Peninsula is world-famous for its cool climate wines, including sparkling and table varieties, led by chardonnay and pinot noir. There are about 200 small-scale makers across the region, many of them focusing on organic and biodynamic wine-growing.

She and Ness plan to join the biodynamic crowd, having set aside a hectare of the farm for close-planted pinot noir, as well as red and white grapes that can either go it alone or be used in blends such as cabernet franc, sangiovese, ribolla gialla, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. The couple won’t make the wines but, says Hafner, “I think we will be very much involved in it and we will learn along the way.” 

Broadway, formerly of Gertrude Street Enoteca, manages the wine cellar at Tedesca, which features a number of Peninsula makers alongside international producers, led by Burgandy, with a focus on biodynamic labels. He and Hafner have been friends for more than 25 years and have been working on a cookbook for some time, with Hafner responsible for the recipes and Broadway in charge of the photography. Just don’t ask when that particular project will be finished.

“That is actually a little bit further down the list than I would like it to be,” says Hafner. “A tiny 35-seat restaurant takes just about everything I’ve got at the moment.”