The age-old practice of hunting and gathering is at the heart of Smeaton’s Tuki Trout Farm.
Robert Jones likens his role at Tuki Trout Farm to a “form of theatre”.
“I tell all staff that work for us here that when you’re in hospitality, you are on stage. You are a performer and you’re here to listen to and entertain your guests,” Robert said.
“We try to invite people into our property as a guest, not a customer. They’re coming into our property, our home, and we’re here to look after them and host them.”
So if Tuki is a stage, the farm’s trout, lamb and beef are the stars of the show — with Robert, wife Jan and their staff playing key supporting roles, of course.
“We’re very much a spontaneous restaurant,” Robert said. “I have structured our restaurant to be minimal prepping and always in the moment. So, when you walk in and say, ‘I’ll have lunch’, I’ll get you a trout from the pond, whether you come up with me and get it or not. Or I’ll go into the butchery and cut you a steak. You can wander in with me and you can wander out with me and you can see me put it down in the open fire to sear the steak. You can experience the whole thing.”
A 40-minute drive from Ballarat, Tuki Trout Farm is situated on traditional grazing property Stoney Rises with uninterrupted views of the Loddon Campaspe Valley.
Over 150 years of rich history is apparent in the original miner’s cottage, woolshed and stable (now the restaurant) which are all still standing today.
Robert’s father Don lived on the 1500- acre property since the 1940s.
It was Don, his wife Violet, daughter Jenny and Robert who came up with the Tuki concept, with the fishing venue opening in 1985.
At the time, Tukidale sheep grazed on the property, hence the name Tuki.
In addition to the original miner’s cottage, Tuki’s handcrafted guest cottages were built in the 1990s by Robert and Don (who passed away in 2007) with bluestone from the surrounding land.
Tuki’s 40,000 rainbow trout are reared on the property in ponds filled with aerated spring water sourced from 250 feet below the surface.
A generous compliment of beneficial minerals contribute to the wonderful flavour of the trout.
“Our fish have a very sweet, nonintrusive subtleness about them” – Robert Jones
The lamb and beef on Tuki’s menu are Stoney Rises’ very own livestock. The animals graze on natural herbage and native pasture, giving their meat greater nutritional benefits and a unique taste.
“As every year has gone on (since the business opened in 1985), the need for people to know the origin of their food has heightened. We are now in a peak period,” Robert said.
Adding to the homegrown experience is the on-site butcher shop which sells a range of lamb, beef and trout products.
If you want to work for your supper, you’re guaranteed to catch a fish at Tuki, with seven ponds and a lake open for fishing. Rods and nets are available for hire, along with bait to purchase.
“We’ve done this for 34 years, helping people who have never fished before to catch and to achieve the end result of sourcing the food on their plate,” Robert said.
Once you’ve caught your trout, the Tuki team will clean and package it for you to take home, or you can have it cooked in-house for lunch.
The restaurant’s former life as a stable is apparent in its 1860s feel and nine eating stalls. At the heart of the space is what Robert proudly describes as the “biggest, best fireplace within the realms of the world”.
A front room and bar area boasts floor-to-ceiling views of the picturesque vista and is complemented by outside terraced areas for al fresco dining.
Everything on the Tuki menu is produced on the property and prepared by chef Ben O’Brien, the former owner of Daylesford’s Breakfast and Beer who is renowned for his innovative and flavoursome dishes.
“Even though people might like to catch a trout, a lot of people are frightened of what to do with a trout,” Robert said. “But we can play that very easy by cooking and presenting the trout on your plate with no bones. It’s very enlightening and it gives people a very good introduction to hunting and gathering. We’re the making of a future generation that can understand and appreciate the freshness of food that they’ve caught themselves.”
Tuki’s commitment to its craft is evident in the fact that it has been awarded Best Menu of Local Produce three years in a row at regional Victoria’s Golden Plate Awards.
“People come here and say, ‘This is the best lamb I’ve eaten in my whole life’ or ‘I eat steak all around the world and this is probably the best steak I’ve ever eaten’,” Robert said. “And all you can do is say, ‘Well, thank you. I’m pleased that we’ve exceeded your expectations’. It’s a big bar to keep lifting higher and higher but to do exceptional things in life, you don’t have to be unbelievable — you just have to be sincere and remain focused.”