April 4, 2016

Tale of two icons

Gilmore speaks to Private Word about setting up the restaurant, his goals for its future and some of the secrets of his success.

Already regarded as one of Australia’s most celebrated chefs, Peter Gilmore earlier this year led the team backed by restaurant group The Fink Group to open the new-look Bennelong restaurant at the Sydney Opera House.

The July opening at the iconic site just across the harbour from Gilmore’s acclaimed three-hat Quay restaurant was one of the most highly anticipated launches of the year and swept the award shows, grabbing gongs for Australia’s best new restaurant and snaffling two hats after just a few months in operation. Gilmore spoke to Private Word’ about setting up the restaurant, his goals for its future and some of the secrets of his success.

Tell us about your vision for Bennelong.

Because it is part of such an iconic building, I think the restaurant needs to represent modern Australian cuisine – where it’s at – using the best produce from Australian producers. Our vision was to be more casual than Quay but to maintain the same very high quality in cuisine and focus on finding the best ingredients from different regions in Australia. Provenance is really important and I can confidently say that 98 percent of the menu is Australian grown.

What’s the style of food and the dining experience you wanted to create?

We’re offering two dining options. At the top is the bar, and on the mezzanine level we built Cured and Cultured, where you can sit and watch the chef. The bar food for both these spaces is predominantly raw – sashimi, oysters, beautiful prosciutto, especially cured for us. We also have the Dave Blackmore Wagyu beef bresaola sliced super thin and served with rye and homemade pickles, dill butter and horseradish cream. There are a couple of hot items including suckling pig sausage rolls and a dish with pancakes, yabby tails, lemon jam and cultured cream. It’s fun food. The restaurant downstairs is three courses. My signature dish here is the John Dory, usually from the NSW South Coast, baked on the bone to retain the tenderness of the flesh. The fish is covered in umami butter. Umami is the fifth flavour; sweet, sour, bitter and salty are the first four. It’s a very Japanese savoury flavour that occurs naturally in shitake mushrooms, seaweed and parmesan. The Dory is served with golden orach, white kabu turnips and kailaan, a Chinese broccoli.

And you’ve had some fun with the desserts?

I really wanted to embrace something of the 1970s when Bennelong first opened – that era of iconic Australian desserts. I didn’t want to produce an actual lamington, I had to turn it on its head. I wanted to produce the very best idea of a lamington you could have. In a lot of ways it has the essential ingredients; we make our own cherry jam, we make a beautiful sponge that gets broken up into little pieces. It has a creme brulee mixture folded through, shaved coconut, with the best chocolate ganache. It sort of looks like a lamington but everyone says it tastes like a lamington on steroids, like a lamington at the extreme end, with more luscious textures. I’ve also created a pavlova in the shape of the Opera House. I couldn’t resist having fun with it.

How does Bennelong compare with Quay?

At Bennelong you have to appeal to a broad spectrum of people. At Quay I can be more lineal with my ideas and the direction I want to achieve with my food, using sophistication and level of technical ability. Bennelong for me is more about the generosity of the produce speaking for itself. Making something simple is sometimes harder than something complex; you have to get it right, because there is nowhere to hide!

What’s it been like launching a restaurant in such an iconic site, and what have been the big challenges?

The architecture of the building is cathedral-like and the location is stunning from every angle; whether you’re looking at the beautiful gardens, the harbour or the city. It’s a real privilege to have a restaurant in the Sydney Opera House and to hopefully represent Australian cuisine in a really positive way. The biggest challenge is that it’s a big space with a lot of seats. We knew from day one we had to be on our game. We had to find the right staff, do a lot of recruiting and training, not only with the chefs in the kitchen but all the front-of-house staff. Neil Walkington (restaurant manager) and Kylie Ball (general manager, Quay and Bennelong) have played a big part in making sure the front-of-house runs smoothly. The Fink Group – Leon and John – invested a lot of money in getting the place up and running. From when we decided we’d take on the lease until opening was really only six months – not long for a big operation like this. The kitchen was completely stripped out, all the furnishings, lighting, sound systems, carpeting and construction of the Cured and Cultured bar was done from scratch with a lot of work and planning.

What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of how well Bennelong’s been received by the people of Sydney and also the industry. The industry was very supportive and knew that we’d do something of quality. Seeing that come to fruition makes me really happy.

How does Bennelong compare with other career milestones?

It’s a pretty big one! My wife said she thought Quay was the peak of my career, having now received three hats for 14 years and all the pressure that comes with that. But this one has been a really fantastic goal and challenge; to see it’s been so well received is a highlight of my career for sure.

What style of leader do you see yourself as, and how do you inspire your team?

Inspiring by innovating is where I see my role. Keeping the menu evolving is the main thing I bring to the team. My job is having great inspiration with the food – keeping the food interesting, fresh and a certain quality. An operation like this is a team effort, not a one-person operation. We have almost 100 staff, including 35 chefs in the kitchen. Because I’m between Quay and Bennelong I rely on a lot of people to have the same ideals, the same standards that I have, but it has to come from their passion and their passion has to be in line with mine for it all to work. The people who are at the coalface, on the day-to-day stuff, have to inspire by consistency, by leadership, attitude and example.

What inspires you?

From a very young age I decided this is what I wanted to do. I love the creativity of it. I love to take raw ingredients, to mould, marry, combine and blend them to make something that’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s the endless possibilities when you take great ingredients and make a truly beautiful dish that keeps me going.

Last year you joined chefs Neil Perry and Ben Shewry to head up Tourism Australia’s Restaurant Australia campaign to promote Australia’s food and restaurants. How important is that kind of ambassadorial role to you?

It was a real honour to be one of the chefs chosen to represent Australia in that campaign – an amazingly great initiative. Rather than doing a campaign on how great our beaches are, or our natural scenic wonders, they focused on our food and wine culture in Australia. We realised we needed to shout about it a bit more than we had in the past. We invited food and wine journalists from around the world and cooked a very special dinner at MONA in Hobart. Everyone was pretty impressed with what we did. Those initiatives are really important for our tourism industry.

This article was first published in Private Word magazine (Summer 2015). Private Word is also available in an App for Android and iTunes users.

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