At 14, Guil­laume Brahimi hated school. It may be hard to imag­ine Aus­tralia’s best known French chef ever fail­ing at any­thing, but there was a time when his prospects were not so bright. He was dyslexic, used to get two out of 20 on maths tests, spent hours in de­ten­tion and was told by his prin­ci­pal that it was a waste of time to con­tinue classes. The thing that saved him was food; or more ac­cu­rately, the com­fort pro­vided by cook­ing and shar­ing meals with his fam­ily. “Go­ing to school for me was full of fear be­cause I was not good aca­dem­i­cally,” he tells WISH of his child­hood in the sub­urbs of Paris. “But this fear dis­ap­peared when school fin­ished and I was go­ing home. I re­mem­ber go­ing home and eat­ing roast chicken and just the smell. Smell, it is so im­por­tant, it is like a se­cu­rity blan­ket. For me the smell of food meant that ev­ery­thing was go­ing to be okay.”

Brahimi loved cook­ing, whether it be help­ing his mother in the kitchen or go­ing to the lo­cal mar­kets with his grand­mother to source in­gre­di­ents. His life changed when he left school at 15 to get an ap­pren­tice­ship in a restau­rant. He went from be­ing bad at ev­ery­thing to re­ally good at some­thing. A few weeks into his stint at award-win­ning bistro Aux Char­p­en­tiers, the head chef made him make a tarte tatin. They were so im­pressed with his dessert they let him take it home. To say it was a wel­come change from home­work scrib­bled with red marks is an un­der­state­ment. “I was the proudest per­son bring­ing that ap­ple tart home to my par­ents,” he re­calls. “I cre­ated that. It was a prod­uct of my work. And from that mo­ment on, as they say, the rest was his­tory.”

The ac­claimed chef will turn 50 next year and is soon to open his fourth restau­rant, on Ge­orge Street in Syd­ney’s CBD. It will be the third ca­sual bistro-style eatery for Brahimi (he has one in Mel­bourne and Perth) as well as his fine-din­ing restau­rant in Padding­ton. It comes a few years af­ter he walked away from the restau­rant where he built his rep­u­ta­tion in this coun­try: Guil­laume at Ben­ne­long. Sit­u­ated at the most fa­mous ad­dress in Aus­tralia, the Syd­ney Opera House, it made ev­ery good food list, won three-hat sta­tus in Aus­tralia and was named by Condé Nast Trav­eler as one of the top new restau­rants in the world.

“There was so much emo­tion about Ben­ne­long be­cause I put my heart and soul into it,” Brahimi says about his de­ci­sion not to re-ten­der for the restau­rant in 2013 af­ter the Syd­ney Opera House trustees in­di­cated it wanted more ca­sual, higher-vol­ume op­tions – that is, break­fast, lunch and din­ner and not fine din­ing. The con­tro­ver­sial move left the premises va­cant for 18 months, caused scores of sen­sa­tional head­lines in the me­dia and af­ter the ini­tial ten­der win­ning group pulled out, it was fi­nally re­opened by an­other well-known Aus­tralian fine-din­ing chef, Peter Gil­more of Quay.

“We tried ev­ery­thing. We opened the bar to the pub­lic seven nights, did seven lunches, but at the end, you are what the cus­tomer wants you to be and they wanted Ben­ne­long to be a fine-din­ing restau­rant,” Brahimi says of his 12 years run­ning the restau­rant. “We needed to do wed­dings and we needed to do func­tions to make it vi­able as it is a busi­ness at the end of the day. If they [the Syd­ney Opera House] don’t want to do func­tions, then they have to sub­sidise it.”

“It’s too hard. My old­est daugh­ter is a very tal­ented cook, but she is 16. I want them to go to univer­sity.”

Brahimi ad­mits he should have taken a year off af­ter Ben­ne­long but didn’t want to lose the “amaz­ing team” he had work­ing for him. In­stead he set about find­ing his next ven­ture. “I thought I needed a place with a view, a spe­cial venue, but I was wrong; you can­not com­pete with the Opera House so I needed to do the op­po­site of that,” he says. The chef opened an in­ti­mate fine-din­ing restau­rant in Padding­ton in an old ter­race house, also called Guil­laume. It was again met with critical ac­claim. It was also just streets away from where he ran his first es­tab­lish­ment a few years af­ter ar­riv­ing in Aus­tralia in the early 1990s, called Pond, in Kings Cross.

Brahimi made the un­ex­pected leap from Paris and work­ing for renowned French chef Joel Robu­chon at his Miche­lin-starred restau­rant Jamin to this part of the world af­ter be­ing con­vinced by friends of his par­ents to come for a holiday. The mad rugby union fan was im­me­di­ately taken by our beaches, sun­shine and sport­ing cul­ture and six weeks later he had a work visa and a re­turn flight. Ac­cord­ing to Brahimi, Robu­chon was shocked upon hear­ing of his de­ci­sion: “I said ‘I am go­ing to Aus­tralia’ and he said ‘What? I have never heard of that restau­rant!’ ”

Not all his first im­pres­sions of this coun­try were good; he was not a fan of the food. It was the late 1980s and the chef was some­what dis­mayed to dis­cover for the first time that bread was square and had a shelf life and that peo­ple ate only sand­wiches for lunch. His worst mem­o­ries are of the atroc­i­ties en­acted on seafood. “Lob­ster mor­nay and oys­ters Kil­patrick. I was like ‘oh my god, what is wrong with a beau­ti­ful lob­ster, what is wrong with a beau­ti­ful oys­ter?’ ” Brahimi says of that time. “It was not about pro­duce at all and we never fol­lowed the sea­sons.”

Brahimi also could not speak a word of English when he ar­rived. But he was not de­terred. He taught him­self the lan­guage by read­ing the sports pages of the news­pa­per ev­ery day for five years. He was de­ter­mined to make it here. “I wanted to show my par­ents,” he says of his mo­ti­va­tion, “They were very proud, they came and saw me and they thought Syd­ney was pretty okay.”

His first job in Syd­ney was work­ing at Nikko Ho­tel in Potts Point. Used to work­ing at least 70 hours a week in Paris, he was sur­prised he only had to do a much more civilised 7.30am-3pm day. This free­dom al­lowed him to in­dulge in his other pas­sion: rugby. And it was his rugby friends (who were also fu­tures traders) that filled his din­ing room at the early days of Pond. Within months he won over din­ers and crit­ics and scored two hats, and his French cui­sine (es­pe­cially his “Paris Mash”) be­gan to at­tract se­ri­ous at­ten­tion. Next was turn­ing Bil­son’s at the Over­seas Pas­sen­ger Ter­mi­nal into an award-win­ning restau­rant (now Quay) and then came Ben­ne­long.

“All of my chil­dren were born while I was Ben­ne­long,” he says of his four kids: Con­stance, 16, Honor, 13, Vi­o­lette, 10 and Loïc, 4; “so it was a big deal for them as well. When Con­stance was young, about five years old, they went to Taronga Zoo on a bus with her school and the teacher pointed out the Opera House and Con­stance said, from the back of the bus, ‘no, no, no, no, that is Dad’s restau­rant!’ ”

De­spite Brahimi’s im­mense suc­cess (in 2014 he was awarded the Knight of the National Order by the French gov­ern­ment), when asked if he would like his chil­dren to fol­low in his foot­steps, he gives WISH a re­sound­ing no. “I hope not, I hope not. It’s too hard,” he says. “My old­est daugh­ter is a very tal­ented cook, but she is 16. By 16, I was al­ready in the work­force. I missed out on so many things when I was young. I want them to go to univer­sity, en­joy that. I re­gret that, but that is the way it was for me. I was not good enough aca­dem­i­cally but if you have po­ten­tial to go, then go.”

So did he ever imag­ine at age 14, when he was fail­ing ev­ery­thing and dread­ing go­ing to school, that he would be where he is to­day? “No, no, no,” he says in­cred­u­lously. “I still pinch my­self now. I am so lucky and priv­i­leged that I get to call my restau­rants Guil­laume.” And could there one day be a Guil­laume in Paris? “I would love that. I am not say­ing it is hap­pen­ing now but would it not be the pin­na­cle for me if I could open a restau­rant in the city that I left when I was 23?”

Bistro Guillaume in Mel­bourne’s South­bank, where you may wish to try the char­grilled salmon with braised radic­chio, beet­root and bal­samic, then a rasp­berry and rose mac­aron

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