+ 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
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