From acting, to writing, to studying marketing, Alison Hutley dreamed many dreams before realising that her love of food was the thing that would bring her the most joy. Her realisation came in a moment of clarity at the age of 24, when she was feeling uninspired and unfulfilled after drifting through university for six years. With little hesitation, she abandoned her studies to take up a chef’s apprenticeship, and, as she began to work tirelessly at her new craft, discovered a passion that had been patiently lying dormant. Her journey culminated in the opening of boutique salad bar Botanica early last year, where – alongside her husband Brett – Alison channels her love for simple, wholesome food.
In conversation, Alison Hutley is so humble and softly spoken that it’s difficult to imagine that her childhood dream was to be a famous performer. But in her younger years, she was so determined to become either a famous writer or actress, that she worked at both endeavours with equal measures of enthusiasm. In her spare time, she would write stories, and whenever she was in public she would break out in song, in the hope that there might be a talent scout hiding somewhere.
Sadly, no talent scouts ever appeared, and Alison began to set her sights on more practical dreams as she grew older. Still partly inspired to pursue a writing career, she studied journalism when she finished high school, but, sensing it wasn’t quite right, changed to a film and media course, and then eventually abandoned that to study marketing. Unlike during her younger years, when she pursued her dreams with boundless enthusiasm, Alison drifted through university with little excitement for the future. “I actually never completed my degrees, even though I was at uni for about six years,” she recalls. “I just chopped and changed and I was never settled trying to get a degree, but I just thought that was what I had to do.”
Eventually, Alison realised just how unhappy she was, and she put her books away to contemplate what she truly wanted to do. She had been working as a waitress to support herself through university and decided to apply for an apprenticeship at Circa Restaurant, which formerly resided on Adelaide Street in the CBD. The first time she stepped into the kitchen, she instantly felt at ease – even though she was the only female there at the time. “It was what I wanted to do, so I had a natural instinct towards wanting to spend the many, many hours I did in the kitchen,” Alison recalls. “It was a baptism of fire doing my apprenticeship at Circa, but it has well and truly paid off. I learned such amazing skills.”
Even though six years is a long time to spend at university without gaining a single degree, Alison views the experience as one she needed to have to appreciate becoming a chef. Taking on an apprenticeship at the age of 24 can be difficult, especially financially, but she explains that it was the perfect age for her, as she was mature enough to work hard and without complaint.
She does, however, admit that she may not have been able to take the plunge without the support of her family, who were thrilled to finally see her doing something she loved. She also credits her family with igniting her passion for food. “I have always had a connection with real food,” she explains. “My mum’s family are farmers and when I was really little we had an acreage with a fruit orchard with all the fruits. My fondest food memories are always going back to special occasions with family where food was always just part of the experience – the warmth of being in the kitchen with food being prepared and everyone being around.”
When she came to the end of her apprenticeship, her partner Brett – a chef she had met in her waitressing days – was offered a position in Sydney. Following her heart, Alison packed her bags and decided to use the move interstate as an opportunity to explore where else her culinary career could take her. “I went for a lot of job trials and things I wasn’t experienced in,” Alison recalls. “I even went for an audition to be a TV chef – I really put myself out there.”
It was testing for Alison to go outside of her comfort zone of working in restaurants, and she credits her friend and mentor Pamela Clark from Women’s Weekly with giving her the confidence to continue looking for new ways to apply her chef skills. Eventually, a position as a personal chef for the Packer family came up, and Alison worked and travelled with the family for five happy years.
Always in search of food inspiration, Alison and Brett would chat about work in their downtime, and would also plan their holidays around where they were going to eat. Brett was also working as a personal chef, and both of them noticed that even those who could afford a full-time chef still longed for the comforts of homestyle cooking. Meanwhile, on a gourmet food sojourn to New York City, they ate some of the best vegetarian food they had tasted, and lamented the lack of quality vegetarian options in Australia. Inspired to fill the gap in the market, they made plans to return to Brisbane to start a boutique salad bar offering delicious, nourishing fare. “We always felt better when we ate a more plant-based diet and eliminated the huge serving of protein on a plate,” Alison recalls. “And so we wanted to make that really easy for people to get their five serves of vegetables per day.”
Botanica took two years to set up, and the final plans were made in a frantic three-week period when Alison was in Sydney and Brett was working in Argentina. She would call Brett at 2:00 am to discuss the business, and signed the lease before the food licence was approved. Amidst this frenzy, she also learned that she was pregnant her first child.
With so much happening, there was little time to second-guess themselves, but doubts still lingered in Alison’s mind. She recalls that when she would explain her concept of a boutique salad bar to people, most would ask her whether lasagne would also be available to purchase with the salads. But, sticking to their original idea, they opened the doors to Botanica on the first day selling only salads laden with gourmet ingredients such as cumin-roasted carrots, raw garlic cashew cream, freekeh and shaved raw broccoli.
Within a year, the response has been greater than either of them ever imagined. “My proudest moment at Botanica was on Christmas Eve,” Alison explains. “We had a line out the door and into the carpark the whole day – well, not the whole day because we sold out at 11:00 am. Christmas lunch is really special and to think that many people wanted to have Botanica salads on their Christmas lunch table, that to us was just such a special moment.”
While having a business and a newborn may seem like a frantic existence, Alison says that the arrival of Imogen (Immie) has brought her peace and balance. “With Immie, I am just forced so many times a day to be sitting still and just be in the moment,” she explains tenderly. “Anything that’s weighing on me drains away and I am just at peace.”
Aside from her daughter, Alison is most proud that she plucked up the courage to chase her dreams. And since then, she has discovered life’s richness. “Life is fun – relax and enjoy it.”