BREAK­FAST CHAM­PION

THE AVO­CADO-ON-TOAST MANIA CAN BE TRACED BACK TO ONE MAN: BILL GRANGER, WHO BE­GAN SERV­ING THE NOW STA­PLE BRUNCH DISH IN 1993, MORE FROM NE­CES­SITY THAN DE­SIGN. IT WAS THE BE­GIN­NING OF AN IN­TER­NA­TIONAL RES­TAU­RANT EM­PIRE.

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - MOTORING - STORY MILANDA ROUT K PHO­TOG­RA­PHY PETRINA TINSLAY

Should the mil­len­ni­als in fact blame Bill? For it is 25 years since Bill Granger opened his first Bills café in in­ner-Syd­ney Dar­linghurst and made the fate­ful de­ci­sion to put toast with a side of avo­cado on his break­fast menu. This unas­sum­ing com­bi­na­tion kicked off a global food phe­nom­e­non that has reached such ridiculous heights it is be­ing blamed for kids to­day be­ing un­able af­ford to buy a house.

But per­haps, for the sake of ac­cu­racy, the mil­len­ni­als should go back a step fur­ther and ac­tu­ally blame Granger’s land­lord. For it was the ac­tions of this man that led to Granger serv­ing break­fast – and said avo­cado on toast – in the first place. This par­tic­u­lar man set up a café for his girl­friend, but he an­noyed the neigh­bours so much he was slapped with lim­ited trad­ing hours: he could only open from 7am-4pm Mon­day to Satur­day and could not serve din­ner. His girl­friend then left and he was stuck with an empty café. En­ter Granger, a 24-year-old arts school dropout with no ex­pe­ri­ence who wanted to open his own café and fo­cus on serv­ing lunch. But no­body would give him a venue.

“It was a re­ally com­pli­cated site and no one wanted it,” Granger tells WISH from Lon­don. “The land­lord was so des­per­ate he rented it to me for $250 a week. I was just go­ing to do lunch but I put on break­fast be­cause I could open at 7am and I thought I have to pay the rent and make the hours longer. That is why I did it. Break­fast was just an add-on but then break­fast grew and be­came the big thing.”

Granger has just opened his eighth res­tau­rant in Ja­pan, in Osaka, tak­ing his world­wide to­tal of cafés to 18. He has three in Syd­ney, four in Lon­don (known as Granger & Co), one in Hawaii and two in Korea. His tele­vi­sion shows have been aired in more than 30 coun­tries and he has writ­ten 11 cook­books that have sold over a mil­lion copies. The Times in Lon­don lauded his scram­bled eggs as “the best in the world”, The New York Times called them “soft, lus­cious, yel­low clouds”, and in 2016 The Washington Post traced the world­wide ob­ses­sion with avo­cado on toast back to Bills: “The first recorded sight­ing on a menu might be in 1993 when Syd­ney chef Bill Granger started serv­ing it a café.”

“I am now known as the avo­cado-on-toast per­son and not the scram­bled-egg per­son, which is quite nice ac­tu­ally,” he says, laugh­ing. “It is nice to have some va­ri­ety.” Granger is also cred­ited as the first per­son to put avo­cado on toast in a cook­book, his first, Syd­ney Food. “I re­mem­ber the day I was shoot­ing it, I had a sec­tion on drinks and I had to have some snacks to go with each drink,” he re­calls. “I re­mem­ber think­ing, what do I do as a break­fast snack to go with a Bloody Mary? I thought I’ll do some avo­cado on toast and that is when I first put it in print. We had been sell­ing it at the res­tau­rant for years and I re­mem­ber think­ing, this is so silly, putting a recipe for avo­cado on toast in a book! So I jazzed it up a bit; put a bit of lime and co­rian­der on it.”

The rest is his­tory. Cafés serv­ing break­fast and “smashed avo­cado” on toast spread around Aus­tralia and the world (Gwyneth Pal­trow put it in one of her GOOP cook­books). The dish even be­came a sym­bol of the grow­ing re­sent­ment be­tween mil­len­ni­als and baby boomers in 2016 when de­mog­ra­pher Bernard Salt wrote in The Week­end Aus­tralian Mag­a­zine that young peo­ple should stop pay­ing $22 for smashed avo­cado on toast at “hip­ster cafés” and in­stead save the money to buy a house. The pas­sage was in­tended, Salt says, to satirise baby boomer at­ti­tudes; but it was taken lit­er­ally and it ex­ploded on so­cial me­dia. “Bernard Salt can pry my smashed avo­cado from my cold dead hands,” wrote one devo­tee on In­sta­gram.

No one is more sur­prised at the loyal – okay, slightly ob­ses­sive – fol­low­ing of the dish than Granger. But the self-taught cook thinks the pop­u­lar­ity of avo­cado on toast (and break­fast in gen­eral) is more to do with the life­style here and the trend over the past two decades to be fit and eat well. “It is the Aus­tralian at­ti­tude to life,” he says. “Peo­ple are in­ter­ested in health; they want to get up early, go for a surf and eat healthy. And be­cause the cli­mate is so mild, it makes you want to eat fresh food. I think that life­style has gone global.”

Granger’s wife, Natalie El­liott, thinks her bet­ter half is be­ing a bit hum­ble. “Bill has a knack of ze­ro­ing in on culi­nary zeit­geists,” she tells WISH. “He has an un­canny sense of how to cre­ate the per­fect en­vi­ron­ment to en­joy a cof­fee, drink or meal. I think the cult of the ‘Aussie café’ is at­trib­ut­able to Bill. The fast way to cook soft, curdy scram­bled eggs was cre­ated by him, the com­mu­nal ta­ble to spread your news­pa­per over and share your meal with din­ers you didn’t know was some­thing he pi­o­neered and he was the first to have avo­cado on toast on his menu. More re­cently, no one knew what a poke bowl was when he put it on the menu about five years ago.”

El­liott, a tele­vi­sion pro­ducer, may be slightly bi­ased, not only be­cause she is mar­ried to Granger (they have three daugh­ters to­gether) but also be­cause she has worked along­side Bill to ex­pand the busi­ness over the past two decades across four coun­tries. She pro­duced his hugely pop­u­lar cook­ing shows for Fox­tel’s Life­style chan­nel and, ac­cord­ing to Granger, is key to his suc­cess. “It might be Bills but it is very much the Bill and Natalie show. She is the pro­ducer, I’m the di­rec­tor,” he told The Aus­tralian in 2014. The cou­ple met just after Granger opened his café in Dar­linghurst in 1993 and El­liott re­mem­bers think­ing her first im­pres­sion was that he was “gen­er­ous and kind and smi­ley”.

Granger looks like he has just walked out of the surf at Bondi beach; he is the quin­tes­sen­tial Aus­tralian. One Times jour­nal­ist in Lon­don de­scribed hav­ing to put on her sun­glasses to pro­tect her eyes “from Bill Granger’s beam­ing toothy grin”. Leo Scofield, a prom­i­nent Syd­ney food writer and arts pa­tron, says not only was Granger ex­port­ing good, clean, fresh, healthy food from this coun­try to the rest of the world, he also looked the part. “He is tall, blond and sunny, all the iconog­ra­phy of Aus­tralia,” he tells WISH. It is some­thing of a sur­prise to hear, then, that Granger ac­tu­ally orig­i­nates from the much-less-sunny Mel­bourne. He grew up in Men­tone, in the city’s bay­side sub­urbs, and his fa­ther, grand­fa­ther and great grand­fa­ther had butcher shops.

Granger did not want to fol­low in their foot­steps. He started off study­ing in­te­rior ar­chi­tec­ture at RMIT Univer­sity but did not like it. He did love cook­ing (he used to go through old Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly cook­book cards and make din­ners for his fam­ily) and he en­joyed go­ing to iconic espresso bar Pel­le­grini’s in Mel­bourne with his mother Pa­tri­cia. So he de­cided to take a gap year to fig­ure it all out. He worked at de­part­ment store Ge­orges in its fi­nal years be­fore head­ing to Syd­ney for a hol­i­day in the late 1980s. “It was Septem­ber in Mel­bourne and you know Mel­bourne in Septem­ber, it is still grey and mis­er­able,” he tells WISH. “Then I came to Syd­ney and the sun was shin­ing and the light was in­cred­i­ble. I was sud­denly se­duced by it, I fell in love with the phys­i­cal­ity of the city. I thought I’d bet­ter find a rea­son to stay here so I ap­plied to arts schools.”

He was ac­cepted into all the ma­jor ones but de­cided on the Univer­sity of NSW be­cause of its lo­ca­tion in in­ner-east Padding­ton. Granger be­gan wait­ing ta­bles for some ex­tra cash at the café across the road from cam­pus, called La Pas­sion du Fruit, and run by the leg­endary Syd­ney chef Chrissie Juil­let. He loved it. He was in­spired by Juil­let and the Mediter­ranean-in­spired food she was cre­at­ing. Juil­let let him open the café for busi­ness at night. He was just 22.

“Be­cause my fa­ther and all my fam­ily had a chain of butcher shops, I think I al­ways knew that I wanted to work for my­self,” Granger says. “So I thought maybe I would do a res­tau­rant or a café. At that stage in Syd­ney, you only had a few places where you could get cof­fee and most of them were in Le­ichardt.” He fi­nally got the Dar­linghurst site for $250 a week, got a $20,000 busi­ness loan with the help of his grand­fa­ther and got to work set­ting up his café. Granger’s in­te­rior de­sign back­ground meant how the venue looked was im­por­tant to him, so

“He has an un­canny sense of how to cre­ate the per­fect en­vi­ron­ment to en­joy a cof­fee, drink or meal.”

he worked with his friend, de­signer Brian Kier­nan, and they put in a large com­mu­nal din­ing ta­ble. “I wanted to do some­thing re­ally beau­ti­ful and it was the 1990s so it was min­i­mal­ism. And the good thing about min­i­mal­ism is that it was cheap to do,” Granger laughs.

Next was the food. He started with his now fa­mous scram­bled eggs as well as toast with sides (hello, avo­cado) dur­ing the week and ri­cotta hot­cakes and corn frit­ters on Satur­day. And de­spite his lack of ex­pe­ri­ence, he had no nerves. “Maybe it was the ar­ro­gance of be­ing young, be­cause every time I open now I feel sick in the stom­ach, I worry about it, but back then I didn’t,” he tells WISH. “That was the good thing about go­ing into busi­ness when you are young; you have no fear, you don’t know what can go wrong. Whereas now I am older and I know what can go wrong.”

It didn’t go wrong and Bills was soon at­tract­ing a ded­i­cated lo­cal crowd, es­pe­cially in the morn­ings for break­fast. Peo­ple were com­ing in on their way to work to have a cof­fee (which Granger had to im­port from Mel­bourne as there were no cof­fee roast­ers in Syd­ney at that time) or have meet­ings or even work on the com­mu­nal ta­bles. A few years later the site in Crown Street, Surry Hills, came up and Granger opened the sec­ond Bills. Lo­cated at the base of a ho­tel, it served break­fast, lunch and din­ner seven days a week – a “big learn­ing curve” for Granger and his team.

Next Granger found him­self writ­ing cook­books and film­ing cook­ing shows for Fox­tel with El­liott’s help. His show went world­wide and Granger got a call – via a friend – from a tal­ent agency in Ja­pan who wanted to ex­pand their client list and rep­re­sent a chef. Would Bill be in­ter­ested? He was and he spent the next two years do­ing pop-up restau­rants to boost his pro­file in the coun­try be­fore open­ing a res­tau­rant in 2008. “I was try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate vis­ually about the way we live in Syd­ney and the way we live in Aus­tralia. We thought about cap­tur­ing that sun­shine and light and so we de­cided we needed to be on the beach,” he says. “So we found a venue in Shichiri­ga­hama [down the coast from Tokyo] and when I got there it re­minded me of the north­ern beaches, of home.”

De­spite Ja­panese din­ing tra­di­tion­ally be­ing a more for­mal and pri­vate ex­pe­ri­ence (of­ten restau­rants have lit­tle cor­doned-off rooms), Bills took off in­stantly. Cus­tomers would wait eight hours in line to ex­pe­ri­ence this very dif­fer­ent and very ca­sual way to eat – and they were equally ob­sessed with the ri­cotta hot­cakes and the corn frit­ters. “It just got crazy,” Granger says. “It blew us away. Ja­panese aren’t big on restau­rants where you see a lot of peo­ple. Then sud­denly you have this res­tau­rant over­look­ing the beach, which is light and airy, and peo­ple fell in love with it.” Ja­pan is still Granger’s big­gest mar­ket – hence the eighth res­tau­rant, in Osaka.

Lon­don was next and Granger and El­liott de­cided to pack up their lives and head to the other side of the world in 2009 after com­mut­ing back and forth pro­mot­ing Granger’s books and tele­vi­sion shows. “We moved with three kids, six suit­cases and with lit­tle more than a dream to open there,” re­calls El­liott. “We landed in Soho and the ho­tel was mind-numb­ingly ex­pen­sive so it forced us to get a house within a week,” adds Granger. The res­tau­rant took a bit longer – two years, in fact, to get the right site in Not­ting Hill. There was al­ready a chain of Bills so it was called Granger & Co. Peo­ple warned Granger against serv­ing brunch but it again took off (in spite of the dras­ti­cally dif­fer­ent cli­mate to Syd­ney and a lack of early ris­ers) and now he has four restau­rants across Lon­don.

So as he cel­e­brates 25 years since he opened the doors on his first café in Dar­linghurst and kick­started a world­wide gen­er­a­tional ob­ses­sion with avo­cado on toast, what is Granger plan­ning to do with his next 25 years? “Oh my god,” he says, laugh­ing. “I also am nearly 50 and I can­not be­lieve it! I have re­ally en­joyed how our busi­ness has grown or­gan­i­cally. It was great to do all the me­dia [cook­books and shows] but as I have got­ten older, I am first and fore­most a restau­ra­teur. So I am look­ing at an­other res­tau­rant in Korea. I would like to do some­thing in the US but the time has to be right. And I would still love to do a lit­tle bak­ery. I love bak­ing and I love bread.”

One thing is for sure; what­ever Granger does next you can bet there will be a queue of mil­len­ni­als will­ing to spend their hard-earned cash on his fab­u­lous food in­stead of on a mort­gage.

“I was try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate vis­ually about the way we live in Syd­ney, so we de­cided we needed to be on the beach.”

Granger with his mother Pa­tri­cia Bruce out­side the very first Bills in Dar­linghurst; avo­cado on toast with co­rian­der, lime and chilli; the new res­tau­rant in Osaka

A Ja­panese break­fast bowl with green tea noo­dles, sesame-crusted avo­cado, tofu and mush­room dashi, left, and tapi­oca chips with co­rian­der yo­ghurt and tara­masalata

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