A very social chef who enjoys using his craft for the pleasure of others
Tony Bilson doesn't like to wait. He's always been at the forefront of new ideas, he never holds back to let others try things out first. Years ago it was with new style French cooking, then with the adventure of far flung 'Berowra Waters Inn', entertainment combined with a cafe at Sydney's 'Kinsela's', and so on, until now with the bold luxury of 'Ampersand' restaurant and the innovative Commissary Kitchen at Cockle Bay.
He started La Pomme d'Or' in Melbourne in 1971 which, though critically acclaimed did not prosper. But it did produce another middle class Australian chef (Tony was a Melbourne Grammar boy and in those days it was unthinkable that he should have a career as a chef), Jules Lavarack, who was later to become a partner and chef in the original Mietta's. Tony and Jules , went to what was then the 'Albion Hotel' in Carlton. Instead of conventional counter meals Tony served a pot au feu of veal shanks and other French inspired dishes and the after 6pm clientele from 'Jimmy Watson's' wine bar over the road, loved it. Much excitement centred around the food, the transformed pub and the times - the dying days of Vietnam, and the feeling that, just possibly, it really was time.
Tony, often in love, finally found someone who shared his love of food and cooking. Her name was Gay Morris, later to become Gay Bilson together they took off for Sydney in Tony's inheritance - a Porsche convertible of great style but uncertain disposition.
Somehow they opened. 'Tony's Bon Gout' onElizabeth Street. In that very scruffy premises they did some amazing things, not the least of them being the transformation of the eating habits of the Labor Party, taking them out of their pubs and clubs into a simple but sophisticated food environment.
From there it was upwards gastronomically and outwards geographically to Berowra Waters. Gay and Tony subsequently split and Tony started Kinsela's with Leon Fink, landlord of Bon Gout, whilst Gay remained at Berowra where she was later joined by Janni Kyritsis. 'Kinsela's', the old funeral parlout on Taylor Square, was converted into a multi-layered theatre, bar and restaurant. It was a business far ahead of its time. Tony choreographed and masterminded the marriage of food and people. His food was ancillary but essential to the excitement of the place. You had to be there.
For Tony, the next venture, again with Leon Fink, was the opening of the spectacular 'Bilson's', now called 'Quay', on Circular Quay. There was ; a falling out with his partner there,,between the partners then t Tony openined of 'Fine Bouche' in East Sydney, followed by a period as executive chef of the 'Treasury Restaurant' at the Hotel Inter-Continental. A reflective couple of years followed with his second wife, Amanda, the publication of more books and the parenting of two children.
Then the evolution of the concept of the 'Commissary Kitchen' in partnership with Ted Wright, previously general manager of The Regent. Tony's 'modest' aims there are simply "to revolutionise the whole fast food business, and put it on a quality basis. We have what we call a 'design workshop' where we sit down with the client, work out what their needs are - turnovers and flows of food, and then design the food to fit into that. Some of the food is finished off at point of sale. But a lot of the stuff is fully cooked." The kitchen is also producing a range of meal components and developing fast food concepts. Tony feels very strongly that although restaurant cooking has developed well in Australia, domestic cooking has suffered. "If we can lift the quality of the prepackaged supermarket stuff, then I think that is a good thing. It's important to widen the ability of people to have great food." He has some 30 staff working in the 'Commissary Kitchen', and about 45 at 'Ampersand'.
The kitchen at the Cockle Bay restaurant is one of the finest in Australia. The set up and staff are extraordinary and it is producing very high quality food. Recently t its direction s changed with French trained Japanese chef, Haru Inukai, now in charge. Tony expects the balance of flavours on the menu to alter, though the basic influences remain French and Japanese. The previous chef, Pascal, had "a slightly sweeter palate", and Tony plans to alter the balance a bit and bring in more wine-flavoured dishes. With the 'Commissary Kitchen' up and running, he is spending more time at 'Ampersand' and is working hard to make the restaurant "more responsive" to the market. He also wants to get more flexibility into the menu, particularly with the use of fish. In August 1999, he became a registered buyer at the Fish Market and either he or one of his chefs will buy there directly, rather than go through suppliers. It is all part of a process of "loosening up what we do"; trying different varieties, getting new ideas which can only come if you actually do the shopping yourself. So many chefs shop by phone and though there are very good, expert suppliers, it is never the same as gaining inspiration yourself.
The other major change Tony is planning is to "re-invent the lunch experience". As usual he has ideas aplenty, "maybe Hibachi grills on the terrace, lots of small salty dishes, fishy things." But it's typical of Tony to talk in terms of 'the experience', because for him the art of cooking is to turn the 'banal food object' into a celebration, a metaphor for the joy of being alive. "It's a fabulous craft to be involved in...it is so ephemeral. A great dish today, shit tomorrow. I think there is a metaphor in that."
Alain Chapel now dead, of Mionnay, France. Paul Harbulot, was chef at Johnny Walker's, Sydney; Michel Guerard, author, chef-owner of Eugenie-les-Bains
A 1996 interview with Tony Bilson
Mousse of foie gras with consomme riche
Amuse bouche of oyster terrine
Sea scallops with scallop roe ragout
Twice cooked snapper with a light rouille
Assiette of beef, sauce bordelaise
Baked duck with tomato and herbs
Caramelised apple tart with muscat icecream