Don Dunstan

June 1998

A beautifully restored historic house is the new home of Don's Table, the restaurant of former South Australia Labor premier, Don Dunstan. The house in Norwood (Dunstan's former electorate), owned by the Cheng family, on a large site which Dunstan has landscaped himself, planting more than 30 fruit trees and beds of culinary herbs.

The old hayloft and stables are currently being renovated and will house a Centre explaining the history of food in SA featuring displays of historic recipes collected by Dunstan, including the first Chinese cookbook produced in Australia. There will also be an old Jacka stove made by Dunstan's family, who set up their ironmongering business back in the 1840's, and the appropriate settlers' furniture of the period.

The restaurant seats 90 in a series of rooms complete with the original fireplaces, wooden floors and specially commissioned leadlight windows showing Australian plants. At the front, on Kensington Street, is theWilliam Morris room, a small private dining room which will contain a pair (unique in the world) of original Morris curtains, a bookcase containing works by and about Morris and some furniture reproduced from designs of his period.

In the 1860's the arts and craft movement began to flourish in England and its most important designer was William Morris. South Australians bought an enormous amount of his soft furnishings and there is a permanent exhibition of the work in the Adelaide National Gallery. Morris also espoused radical political beliefs and was an inspiration to Don Dunstan as Premier in founding the Jam Factory Craft and Design Centre and in making Adelaide a centre for the arts. The creation of the State Theatre Company, setting up the Film Corporation, the Adelaide Festival Trust and the establishment of the Regency College of Hospitality are all part of the legacy Dunstan left before ill health led to his retiring from politics in 1979.

There followed several years of recovery, then work in Victoria for the Tourist Commission. The original Don's Table was opened exactly four years ago (July 1994) in Norwood and sold earlier this year. Dunstan is himself a fine cook and author and, before opening the restaurant taught Stephen Cheng, now his partner and the restaurant's chef, how to cook. Stephen's family own the beautiful mansion which houses the new Don's Table.

It's really the culmination of a long held dream for Don Dunstan. As Premier he championed the hospitality industry, wine industry and the arts in Adelaide. First as Attorney General in 1967 he set about reforming the state's "hopelessly antiquated, unworkeable liquor laws", which allowed restaurants only to serve Australian wine, mead or perry and only until 9pm."There wasn't much incentive there." The changes which Dunstan introduced created a restaurant boom in the '70's including that of acclaimed chef and cook book author, Cheong Liew. After selling his successful first restaurant, Cheong taught for some years at the Regency College before taking up his current position as Executive Chef of the Hilton's Grange restaurant. Here you can find some of Australia's finest and most inventive food.

Another aspect of the legislative changes which Dunstan introduced were to make outdoor eating and cellar door sales possible, a great boon for vineyards in the state.

Last year's inaugural Tasting Australia saw South Australia renew the push to establish itself as the food and wine centre of Australia. Writers from all round the world were invited to come and visit and taste the local produce before speaking at the first Food and Wine Writers Festival of Australia and being part of the World Food Media Awards.

Don Dunstan played a major part in all this activity acting as judge of the Australian Regional Culinary Competition and chairing sessions in the writers' festival (and the panel I was on). So the new Don's Table will be much more than a restaurant and historical centre. It will also eventually become an epicurean food centre showcasing the fine products (as well as wine of course) available now from SA. The fruit, olive and nut trees and herbs planted by Dunstan will show the development of the domestic use of fruits, herbs and food plants over the history of South Australia since 1836.

It's an ambitious project budgeted at $1 million but one which is a natural extension of Don's own backyard. There is a large herb, fruit and vegetable garden which supplied many of the products used at the original Don's Table. It is, as he says, "the way I like to live, surrounded by the produce I want to cook." Dunstan has long been an advocate of reflecting Australia's success as a multicultural society in the menu of his restaurant and of showing how Australian cooking today can draw on " a wide range of proven techniques and tastes and to grow a range of produce over a range of climates very successfully."

Update 2001
Don Dunstan died a few months after this was written. Don's Table closed shortly after.

Mietta O'Donnell

This first appeared in the Australian Way June, 1998.
©Mietta's 1998.