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.
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