New Norfolk's Agrarian Kitchen Eatery is built inside an asylum

Tasmanian two-hatted restaurant Agrarian Kitchen Eatery sits in the grounds of a former psychiatric hospital, attracting diners from across Australia.

It is housed in Bronte, a former dormitory ward of Willow Court that was a locally renowned asylum at New Norfolk, and the oldest of its kind in the country. 

Diners may pass the local McDonald’s and Woolworths, depending on which way they arrive from, before driving down a tree-lined avenue where windowless crumbling buildings can be viewed on the right, rusting cars are seen on the left, and a vacant art deco building sits adjacent to the Eatery’s gates. 

From the outside Bronte is an unassuming building.

Yet inside there is something being done to produce that is drawing contemporary food lovers to its nondescript doors.

The recent two-hat status in the 2018 Good Food Guide and label of best regional restaurant in Australia has certainly helped. 

For Agrarian Kitchen Eatery proprietor Rodney Dunn, opening a restaurant in Bronte added new life and new layers of history to a building that needed to be preserved. 

“I love old buildings, you can’t replicate any of this. I know lots of people would have been happy to put a bulldozer through it … but the opportunity was here to really make the most of it,” he said.

When he and wife Severine Demanet saw the site a decade ago, as part of 10 Days on the Island, he remembered looking through smashed windows at stained carpet and graffiti-covered walls. 

Today the dining space is simple, open and elegant, with concrete floors, a reopened fire place, high pressed-metal ceilings still marked with age, and a soft yellow light filtering through windows on this unlit autumn day.

Diners can look out these windows to view the unused convict-built 1830 barracks, while eating foods such as wood-roasted flounder, hot smoked lamb sausage, or spiced apple and custard pie. 

Dunn said some were bothered by the space being a former psychiatric hospital, but he went on to highlight the modern trend of utilising former institutional spaces. 

“What else are you going to do with it?  Those people who would knock it down are very short sighted, and yet we have had designers from New York say ‘wow, this is amazing’,” he said.

“A lot of locals wouldn’t even know that we are here, some who would normally go to Hobart to eat are excited that they have something like this on their doorstep, others are just really excited that the buildings are being used.”

Rodney Dunn with Agrarian Kitchen Eatery head chef Ali Currey-Voumard.

Rodney Dunn with Agrarian Kitchen Eatery head chef Ali Currey-Voumard.

Black swing doors hide the space where culinary art is created. Here, up to seven chefs are busily preparing for service.

Weekly menus are created from that which is sourced from the earth, preferably near-by and just-recently.

For instance, Dunn said the restaurant has a working relationship with the Derwent Valley Community Garden, grabbing a box or three of greens just before service, including Portugese cabbage and five types of kale. 

This morning he picked up a truck load of pumpkins from a New Norfolk farmer, some  of which sit as a rustic centerpiece on a table. 

The other day a woman rocked up with a five kilogram box of olives in her car boot.

“It is about putting delicious food on a plate, in a way that is interesting,” Dunn said.

“Our advantage is that our ingredients are at the peak of their flavours.”

Since gaining the two-hat title Dunn said between 400 to 600 diners visit the Eatery over its four weekly service days, a not-insignificant number for a restaurant not yet one year old. 

He said this included people who may never have set foot at New Norfolk but for the restaurant.

“When we first came here 11 years ago it was such a shame to see a lovely town held back in some respects and not progressing forward. I get a buzz to see all the cars lined up and the place in here humming.” 

The convict-built Willow Court building can be seen by diners at the Agrarian Kitchen Eatery.

The convict-built Willow Court building can be seen by diners at the Agrarian Kitchen Eatery.

So where did this success story begin, and what does it mean for any future redevelopment of Willow Court with its colonial architecture and ill history? 

It’s possible that it all begun when Dunn, a former food editor for Australian Gourmet Traveller, visited the state several years ago as part of a Tourism Tasmania media campaign. 

The result was that a couple from Sydney, passionate about growing things – plants, animals, business, a family – moved to Tasmania, found an old Lachlan schoolhouse in a wet and fertile region, and started inviting people over to cook. 

The Agrarian Kitchen and Cooking School was created.

Add in a bit of branding know-how, industry connections, two books, a decade-long development of the Agrarian Kitchen name, and a restaurant is born. 

“People seek out these places, they eat their way through the book [the Good Food Guide], but it is certainly not something we strove for,” Dunn said. 

“There are the good and the bad [impacts], it brings expectations.”

Our style is not fine dining - you can still have amazing food that is more of a casual nature, and we called ourselves an eatery for a reason.

Bronte belongs to a large cluster of former asylum buildings that are owned by the Derwent Valley Council or various private owners, with the council currently selling some of its buildings.

An Expression of Interest process is in place, to help decide what Willow Court’s future might look like. 

Dunn said diners to the Eatery provided a ready-made market for any redevelopment at the site. 

“I would love to see the barracks building as an artist or makers space,” he said. 

“It is important that momentum continues, also at the same time you realise that any development is not going to happen overnight.  The best things evolve, they aren’t forced.”