What really kicked off this adventure for me was fatherhood. Lucas, my first son, was born three years ago, and I realised that I wanted to give him the same sense of place that I’ve always had,” Alejandro Saravia, the Peruvian-born Melbourne chef behind Farmer’s Daughters, told Thrillist.
Saravia has worked all around the world, and even though he has been settled in Australia for some time now, he is grounded in his Peruvian roots. “That has always given me a sense of purpose,” he said. “I know where I come from and what I’m representing.” His wife is Spanish and tells us she has the same sense of identity with her country.
“Now we have two sons, Lucas and Gonzalo, and they’re not Peruvian, they’re not Spanish, they were born in Australia. They’re Australian; they’re Victorians.”
Burdened with the responsibility of cementing their identity at birth, Saravia set about connecting them with where they’re from. To do this, Saravia had to look into his own connection with Victoria, or, then, lack thereof.
“I needed to understand where I was living and where my sons were going to be born so that they could grow up with that assurance. This moment for me was a huge push to discover more about Victorian produce, local produce, the produce I’d always worked with but didn’t know enough about,” he said.
Saravia met Paul Crock, a Gippsland beef farmer who hosted Saravia for a weekend at his farm after Crock insisted he come for a visit every time the pair spoke.
“At the time, I was very busy with Pastuso and life, but I had a hunger to explore and get out of the city, so I accepted his invitation.”
I still remember the day he came to pick me up. I’d been filming since 5:30 am, I’d done a massive shift the day before, and so by midday, when he came to pick me up from the restaurant, I was exhausted. Saravia confessed he fell asleep for the road trip, waking as soon as they got to Gippsland.
“I saw a road lined with Eucalyptus gum trees. It immediately reminded me of trips I went on as a boy with my family in Peru. From the coast to the Andes and Sierras, we have roads surrounded by Eucalyptus, and that triggered memories in me. I felt immediately connected with Gippsland. I knew this would be a place that I could learn a lot from,” he said.
It didn’t take long for Saravia to be wowed by the diversity of geography, micro-climates, and local ingredients.
“Gippsland has got coast, mountains, and lakes, and its sheer vastness is pretty breathtaking. I met the most incredible people.”
One such person on Saravia’s culinary pilgrimage is Phillip Jones, the owner of Bass Phillip Wines, who spilled his 10-year plan to Saravia over a bottle of wine.
“I was so impressed—who has a 10-year plan!? He told me he wanted to sell his first bottle of Burgundy in his 10th year. He sold it on his 11th. That moment, although I didn’t know it at the time, represented the passion, dedication, specialisation, and breadth of research that all the farmers in Gippsland have,” he said.
“The same story links into every farmer I met and continue to meet.”
David Jones was another farmer Saravia met in Gippsland, who is now one of the partners at Farmer’s Daughters. Jones runs The Garlic Festival in Meeniyan. He put Meeniyan on the map, now bringing 10,000 to the town of 600 every year.
“I’ve been to every garlic festival with a pop-up campfire kitchen, roasting whole pigs and lambs. Each time I was there, I fell increasingly in love with the place and wanted to share it with as many people as possible. I also wanted to share the beautiful produce with city people, business people, and tourists,” said Saravia.
Although, according to Saravia, Farmer’s Daughters was never supposed to be a restaurant. Instead, he envisioned an ongoing concept that created and organised events in Gippsland. After a successful run, Saravia hoped it would lead to something more permanent, a farm and an actual farm-to-table space, he said. Then he realised he was not a farmer; he knew nothing about farming, not to mention business-wise, it would have to be a destination and seasonal. Instead, Saravia turned his attention to his bread and butter, hospitality.
“As much as it’s still a dream of mine, I didn’t have the resources, and I’d met a whole lot of farmers that I could count on. So, I left farming to the farmers,” said Saravia.
“We wanted to create a space that brings Gippsland to Melbourne in every way, triggering a sense of place through food, stories, colours, wine, takeaway produce and fresh knowledge.”
Enter Farmer’s Daughters. Starting a true farm-to-table concept isn’t easy; it has many parts, but Saravia’s relationship with the people of Gippsland went a long way in the restaurant’s success.
“We worked on finding produce and farmers for the past two years, chatting to them about how to create a supply chain from Gippsland into the city. Luckily, farmers are very community-driven people. They fix each other’s fences; they come over when there’s a water leak; they swap produce… they’re a family. So, we applied that community to our system, working out a way that farmers can carpool each other’s produce to us, taking turns on different weeks and working geographically,” said Saravia.
The menu at Farmer’s Daughters is flexible and depends heavily on the produce available.
“One day, we asked Andrew from Snowy River Station if his urchin divers could get some for us, and sure enough, we have enough for the whole week, picked a couple of days ago and beautifully dried out, ready to be used.
“You have to be imaginative, you have to be willing to take risks and be spontaneous, and that isn’t easy. Instead of the farmers being flexible for us, we’re being flexible for them,” he said.
Using local produce is the bulk of the concept, but at the heart of Saravia’s restaurant is the zero-waste philosophy he injects into the menu. The ability to use an ingredient in its entirety means using parts of a product that people might not be familiar with, but as Saravia says, it requires an open mind. It’s also about charging what the product is worth. Most of the time, imported foods are cheaper to buy than local, but Saravia has noticed a shift in thinking, with many diners valuing local produce, especially post-Covid.
“I think the reset that was 2020 has helped in some way. During the lockdown, so many people were consuming more locally. They were learning to eat different things and get comfortable with the unfamiliar, but it’s a slow process; you have to be willing to learn,” he said.
“I would love to see more farm-to-table restaurants in cities. It’s difficult because to do it on the scale we are, you must start from scratch. It has to be a part of the concept, the kitchen, the communication, the staff… everything. You have to be passionate about it because it’s a lot of work, and only if you’re willing to invest will it start to pay off.”