FIRST IN CLASS
SINCE THE WORLDWIDE HIT OF GUILLAUME AT BENNELONG, GUILLAUME BRAHIMI’S NAME HAS BEEN SYNONYMOUS WITH EXCELLENCE. YOU WOULDN’T GUESS THAT FROM READING HIS SCHOOL REPORTS, BUT ONCE HE DISCOVERED HIS TALENT, NOTHING COULD STOP HIM.
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