In the 1960s, the decade in which Tony Bilson was completing his secondary education, Melbourne Grammar boys were inclined to become stockbrokers, or possibly surgeons. But never chefs. Such a career would have been unthinkable. In spite of which, Tony Bilson thought of it.
In 1971, Tony started his own restaurant, La Pomme d'Or, deep in suburban Camberwell. Though critically acclaimed, it didn't prosper. But it did produce another middle class Australian chef, Jules Lavarack, who was later to become a partner and chef in the original Mietta's in 1974.
Tony, with Jules as sous chef, moved from La Pomme d'Or to the Albion Hotel in what was then a rather more bohemian 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 centered 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. The Albion ran its course. Tony and Gay left for Sydney in Tony's inheritance - a Porsche convertible of great style, but uncertain disposition.
Next, we heard they had started a restaurant in downtown Elizabeth Street, Sydney, called Tony's Bon Gout. All sorts of amazing stories filtered through to those left behind in Melbourne but, from a distance at least, it seemed that Tony and Gay had lifted the Labor Party from their pubs and clubs into trendy bistros - a huge leap in sophistication, and a social and political milestone.
Berowra Waters, the sacred dining room perched on the edge of the Hawksbury, came next. It was a move up-market, and eventually it lead to a split between Tony and Gay. In 1981,
Kinsela's, the funeral parlour in Taylor Square, attracted Tony and his financial partner Leon Fink. They converted it into a multi-layered theatre, bar and restaurant.
It was a business far ahead of its time, staging, amongst other important theatrical events, one of the first appearances of Graeme Murphy's Sydney Dance Company. Leo Schofield could be seen tapping his Italian leather shoes on the scrubbed wooden floor of the bistro, while the glitterati watched each other in the first floor bar. And then came the grandest vision of them all - Bilson's, perched next to the International Terminal on Circular Quay, its splendid harbour view interrupted only by the contours of the Opera House.
A falling out between Leon and Tony saw Tony start a far more modest establishment in East Sydney. Next he took over the stoves at the prestigious Treasury Restaurant at the Hotel Intercontinental where he remains as consultant.
Whatever next? We will all just have to wait and see, but in doing so, let us not lose sight of the fact that Tony Bilson is a chef who creates food as memorable as the situations in which he sometimes finds himself.
He has, quite simply, changed the lives of many of us through the medium of food and wine.
He has an extraordinary ability to capture the spirit of the age in which he happens to be functioning. The Albion in Carlton had all the excitement of a time of ferment; Tony's Bon Gout crystallised the changes taking place in Australia during the Whitlam years; Kinsela's brought together the full cultural spectrum of restaurants and theatres in the evolving Oxford Street precinct; and Bilson's on Circular Quay gave Sydney the opulent style it sought in the late 1980s.
An extraordinary track record, but there is more. Using these social upheavals as springboards, Tony taught us about food. He 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, and you had to eat the food and drink the wine. His influence on Sydney in particular has been profound; he's been at it longer than most, and he's still going. He is truly the Godfather of Australian cooks.
Tony gave a very funny speech after his dinner at Mietta's. It was also longer than expected which made me realise that letting the chef relax on a stool with a drink was perhaps not a good idea when dessert had still to come. His speech was as expansive as his style of cooking. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of French cooking. His table is as generous as his spirit. Tony's recipes are for experienced cooks with healthy kitchen budgets. The quantities for stocks are for a commercial kitchen (to serve 60 approx.) with amounts per person of the primary ingredient. I have added in some explanations in brackets which come from Larousse, the indispensable reference to French menu terminology and cooking terms. If you get the chance to meet and talk to him he could explain all those brilliantly himself.
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
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