+ THE NEW BOSS AT BEN­NE­LONG

AF­TER A TUR­BU­LENT COU­PLE OF YEARS SINCE THE SYD­NEY OPERA HOUSE’S DE­CI­SION TO CHANGE THE DIN­ING DI­REC­TION OF ITS FLAG­SHIP RES­TAU­RANT, BEN­NE­LONG IS ABOUT TO OPEN AGAIN

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - Front Page - STORY MI­LANDA ROUT PHO­TOG­RA­PHY JONATHAN CAMI

PETER Gil­more is stand­ing on the steps of the na­tion’s most fa­mous build­ing. Just to the right of him, over one of the ma­jes­tic sails of the Syd­ney Opera House, you can see the Over­seas Pas­sen­ger Ter­mi­nal, where Gil­more’s three-hat­ted res­tau­rant Quay has made him one of Aus­tralia’s most cel­e­brated chefs. To the left, some tourists are tak­ing pic­tures of him be­ing pho­tographed for WISH, prob­a­bly think­ing they are wit­ness­ing some­thing sig­nif­i­cant. They are right. This week Gil­more is ex­pected to re­open the fa­mous Ben­ne­long res­tau­rant, which has sat empty, em­broiled in con­tro­versy, for a year and a half.

“There will def­i­nitely be ex­pec­ta­tions,’’ says Gil­more, who took over the venue when its oc­cu­pant of 12 years, French chef Guil­laume Brahimi, de­cided not to re­tender for the res­tau­rant; the Syd­ney Opera House had sig­nalled it wanted more ca­sual, higher-vol­ume din­ing at its premier eatery. “When we were an­nounced as the win­ner of the sec­ond ten­der — and it did take a while af­ter the first ten­der fell apart — the sup­port we got from our in­dus­try col­leagues was in­cred­i­ble. There were some re­ally great wishes and they were re­ally happy that we were go­ing to be here. They want to see some­thing that is done well and to be proud of the build­ing.”

It has been more than two years since the Syd­ney Opera House an­nounced a “re­fresh” of all the food and drink of­fer­ings at the World Her­itage listed-site, which has more than 8.2 mil­lion visi­tors a year and plays host to 1800 per­for­mances an­nu­ally seen by 1.4 mil­lion peo­ple. They put Ben­ne­long out to ten­der with the am­bi­tion to bring the ex­clu­sive res­tau­rant “to life day and night, ideally seven days a week”, and to heed visi­tors who wanted a “mid-price bistro op­tion” in­stead of the for­mal din­ing on of­fer only five days a week un­der Brahimi.

Un­for­tu­nately, the events that fol­lowed gen­er­ated head­lines for months (it could prob­a­bly fill a book or two). Brahimi de­clined to take part in the ten­der; the Mel­bourne-based Van Han­del Group won the 10-year lease, only to pull out af­ter its flag­ship res­tau­rant the Stoke­house burned to the ground; cov­er­age of the is­sue landed a news­pa­per in le­gal trou­ble; and a sec­ond search for a res­tau­ra­teur was launched. All the while, the Syd­ney Opera House was los­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars in rev­enue (the rent alone was re­ported as be­ing as much as $1 mil­lion an­nu­ally).

This is was when Gil­more came in. The chef and his back­ers, Syd­ney restau­ra­teurs The Fink Group, were look­ing for a sis­ter res­tau­rant for their hugely suc­cess­ful Quay (it has been awarded three hats for 14 con­sec­u­tive years and even made it into the pres­ti­gious S.Pel­le­grino World’s 50 Best Restau­rants). “We de­cided that it would be a pretty spe­cial op­por­tu­nity to do some­thing in such an iconic build­ing. It’s not just the most recog­nis­able build­ing in Aus­tralia; it is one of the most recog­nis­able build­ings in the world,’’ Gil­more says. “We wanted to do some­thing a bit more ca­sual and this op­por­tu­nity was re­ally too good not to con­sider.”

In Novem­ber last year, Gil­more and The Fink Group were an­nounced as hav­ing won the ten­der. Six months later, stand­ing in the spec­tac­u­lar shell of Ben­ne­long amid hec­tic ren­o­va­tions for the July open­ing, Gil­more tells WISH of his plans for the space, which has a cathe­dral-like qual­ity with high ceil­ings, con­crete in­te­rior and, of course, the in­cred­i­ble win­dows and view. On the up­per level will be a pri­vate din­ing area as well a more ca­sual eat­ing sec­tion (per­fect for pre-theatre meals), the mid­dle level will con­sist of a “cured and cul­tured’’ bar where peo­ple can pop in for a drink and a quick bite (think a glass of cham­pagne and some Syd­ney rock oys­ters) and the main res­tau­rant will be on the lower level.

“We re­ally want to cham­pion lo­cal food,’’ Gil­more says of the venue. “Ben­ne­long be­ing the sis­ter res­tau­rant to Quay, it means Quay will be our fine din­ing res­tau­rant

— it’s our three-hat flag­ship — so with Ben­ne­long, we want to be a lit­tle bit less tech­ni­cal with the food, but with a great em­pha­sis on in­cred­i­ble Aus­tralian in­gre­di­ents. Ninety-nine per cent of food we want to serve here will be Aus­tralian-grown. We re­ally want to cham­pion Aus­tralian pro­duc­ers and fish­er­men and celebrate the most in­cred­i­ble pro­duce we have here in this coun­try.”

Some of the dishes Gil­more plans to serve at Ben­ne­long in­clude John Dory on the bone, King Ge­orge whit­ing, “re­ally beau­ti­ful red-clawed yab­bies from Queens­land”, Flin­ders Is­land Lamb and Ma­cleay Val­ley Suck­ling Pig. “I am very proud to be able to of­fer some of the world’s most in­cred­i­ble beef by David Blackmore or some of the pris­tine seafood that we have from the south­ern wa­ters off Tas­ma­nia,’’ he says. “We will have south­ern squid on the menu, we will have mar­ron, we will have cray­fish; we will have the best fish I can find.”

Gil­more de­scribes his role as ex­ec­u­tive chef at Quay and Ben­ne­long as be­ing the “cre­ative de­signer” of the food, with for­mer Quay sous-chef Robert Cock­er­ill run­ning the 28 chefs in the kitchen at Ben­ne­long on a day-to-day ba­sis and Rob Kab­bo­ord do­ing the same at Quay. “My big role is de­vel­op­ment and mak­ing con­tact with sup­pli­ers and en­sur­ing that ev­ery­thing is how it needs to be,’’ Gil­more says. “I work very closely with farm­ers and pro­duc­ers, some of who grow things specif­i­cally for me and the restau­rants.”

The award-win­ning chef is known for his cre­ative and orig­i­nal cui­sine (one of his most fa­mous dishes at Quay is the snow-egg dessert) and go­ing be­yond the con­fines of the kitchen. He is al­ways seek­ing out dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties of fruit and veg­eta­bles, work­ing with pro­duc­ers and farm­ers to experiment. “My in­spi­ra­tion comes from a lot of dif­fer­ent sources but a lot of it comes from the pro­duce it­self,’’ he says. “I might grow a new veg­etable in my home gar­den, an heir­loom va­ri­ety; if that tastes fan­tas­tic, if it has some­thing unique, that can spur a new dish. Then I will have that grown by one of our farm­ers on a larger scale so we can put it on at the res­tau­rant.”

Gil­more, whose love of food be­gan in his mother’s kitchen, says he wants to at­tract tourists and res­i­dents to Ben­ne­long. “The lo­cal mar­ket is very im­por­tant. We want lo­cals to come here to show off Syd­ney to in­ter­state and over­seas friends,’’ he says. “Aus­tralians are very proud of the beauty of Syd­ney har­bour and all Syd­neysiders are. We get a lot of peo­ple com­ing to Quay with their over­seas friends to say, look, wow, this is what we do here in Syd­ney. We also want it to be about the peo­ple who use the Opera House, the peo­ple that come to the shows, the theatre, we want it to be ac­ces­si­ble.”

Syd­ney’s most stun­ning lo­ca­tion also has the bless­ing of con­ve­nience for Gil­more, who has spent 14 years just across the quay at Quay; he can see his first res­tau­rant from the kitchen win­dow at Ben­ne­long. “It is not in­ter­state, it is not on the other side of the city, it’s lit­er­ally walk­ing dis­tance for me — it is fan­tas­tic.”

“I AM VERY PROUD TO BE ABLE TO OF­FER SOME OF THE WORLD’S MOST IN­CRED­I­BLE BEEF ... WE WILL HAVE THE BEST FISH I CAN FIND”

Left: Salt-baked po­ti­mar­ron pump­kin

with Bruny Is­land C2 cream, Man­jimup truf­fle and seeds; right, a

cherry jam lam­ing­ton

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