Sydney Chefs

Gay Bilson

Gay Bilson

In 1991, according to Stephen Downes' Top 50 Restaurants in Australia the Berowra Waters Inn was "Australia's equal top restaurant" -- 18.5 out of 20; and three hats and 19 out of 20 from Leo Schofield in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide -- "put plainly this is the best restaurant in Australia," said the arbitor of Sydney's taste in restaurants.

Where did you learn how to make desserts?

Gay Bilson: I had never cooked before working with Tony [Bilson] at Bon Gout.We were there from 1973 -- 76 and started Berowra in 1977", said Gay Bilson.The food at Bon Gout was Tony's with an amateur input from me -- I did the first courses and desserts and I did the dishes and the books because there was no one else to do them.

Self -- taught from books, I learnt as we went along. Looking back, now I feel such an old lady about it all -- Bon Gout seems so incredibly amateurish; so basic; I suppose by the end of it we were doing something OK but now, looking back it seemed we had an amazing cheek to think we could do it.

Where did the refinement come from at Berowra Waters?

I've never thought about that -- no one has ever asked me that -- it didn't come straight away; first we had to cope with the complexities of running a kitchen across the river -- the distance and the huge problems of supplies, staff etc.

I suppose we improved because if you have an audience that appreciates what you are doing you want to do better; you want to improve yourself.

We went through several stages; I suppose one pivotal time was when we had Lee Stone Herbert working for us. His father has Gravestone Manor in England and he came from a very professional background -- he had trained properly and had worked with the Roux. He was with us for two and a half years and really he taught me how to cook -- I'm not sure that Tony would agree with that. Lee was with us over 10 years ago and had a great influence on me and helped enormously in refining skills.

We had a couple of gastronomic tours and they were enormously important but I can't really say to what extent they influenced what we did or helped in the process of refinement. But strangely we only thought of going to France for gastronomy -- not to Italy. Now I would think of India as it's now my love; I am fascinated by the country and I love the smells and spices, I would love to try to prepare their dishes -- I remember years ago when we were out on the Hawkesbury together on the boat and I talked about loving curries and you asked me why I didn't cook them -- and I said I can't do that -- I can't possibly do curries. It seems so strange now to have held that position.

Lee left and there was a period without anyone special -- just help -- and then Janni Kyritsis joined us and we are now in a period of full pelt influence from Janni. He has been with me eight and a half years. We work as an extremely good team -- he practises and I preach.

Janni learnt through personal obsession; he is a great practical technician and exercises the same passion to work out the way to do the deep -- fried pork hock as he does in pulling apart the Hobart mixer to repair it. My admiration for him is beyond bounds -- he has an extraordinary work ethic and sets the most amazing example for the staff. He just keeps on going and has an absolute moral attitude towards things. Maybe it's his poor Greek background that has taught him that there should be no waste.

I have a young boy who does first courses; a wonderful woman, Liz Nolan, who for the past four years has worked as Janni's other hand and a couple of others who do lots of mise en place. There is also a very young boy (16) who is trying to do desserts and has amazing talent. We are so close as a family that it would be hard to bring in an outsider. So we are six plus me.

At the moment three of the boys are going to Tech and there is a fourth about to start which is causing some problems re ratio of trained cooks to apprentices.

What other chefs do you admire?

The two most important in Sydney are Phillip Searle and Damien Pignolet; there are others about whom I have some prejudices, etc., but those two stand out.

Damien is fairly eccentric. There won't be another Damien and Claude's depends on him and his eccentricity -- another Damien won't be bred in these times, someone so absolutely passionate about food. Yes -- the audience is for the bistro with the open kitchen -- showing off the fashionable trade of cooking -- the popularisation of the chef.

It would be interesting to go around Sydney and look at how many sauces are made with any real preparation and not done at the last moment -- how much real technique is there?

Phillip Searle is incredibly important -- his talents are so far beyond most of his peers that most of them simply don't understand what he is doing. He is working in apparently totally new ways of putting things together and doing things which have never been done. I have watched him produce things which require a craft that most people simply wouldn't bother to put themselves through -- in moulding and setting things in extraordinary shapes. Its more craft than cooking -- some amazing ice creams that involve extreme care in moulding and setting; a brain terrine moulded into a wonderful shape -- it's sculpture, living art. He also produces some stocks with wonderful flavours -- plates food as no one else. He has a great eye he combines art and craft.

I know that his restaurant doesn't work but that is somehow irrelevant to his talent -- it's not an excuse, that's a different problem. He is rather like an artist not appreciated in his own life time but the tragedy is that the food will be gone and thus not appreciated.

His work should be documented; it's as important as recording someone's pots and paintings and sculptures. He is so meticulous in his work and presentation.

What is Berowra's food?

Refinement without refinement meaning over -- refined dishes. I just want to serve people a good meal -- there is nothing precious about how we feel about it.

I am against hosts of flavours together on the plate -- if a dish is something it should only be that and not lots of extraneous flavours.

Why the popularity of the bistro?

If you took say 35 ingredients (the trendy list) and did a mathematical calculation of various combinations and possibilities; you could say come up with 70 dishes without thinking about why you should be putting certain things together. There is no feeling or rationale except perhaps that the cook has been to San Francisco and heard about these things and so off they go with it -- because it seems a fashionable idea.

I want food to be intelligent and there are not many who want to give it that thought.

Due to the fashionable rise of cooking as a career without any training behind it and due, in some part, to yuppie life style -- the food writers really only reflect the way the public want to dine -- it's fairly superficial.

There are lots of kids who really want to learn properly and are interested in the intelligent approach but there is a dearth of people able to teach them so they drift into pubs and trendy bistros and that's all they can get taught because there are not enough real cooks to teach them. It's very sad.

Gay and Janni left Berowra Waters at the end of 1994 and took up residence in the Bennelong Restaurant in the Sydney Opera House in 1995. It is Australia's most prestigous restaurant location. Here they provided some of Australia's very best food. Unfortunately, they seem to have fallen foul of Sydney food politics being awarded a derisory two hats in the 1997 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide. The food is worth far more than that!

Janni and Gay parted company towards the end of 1997 when Janni left Bennelong to start his own restaurant, MG Garage. Gay has left Bennelong, and the restaurant is now closed (June 1998). Today, April 2001, Gay lives in the McLarenvale near Adelaide Suth Australia.

MG Garage is open for lunch and dinner 7 days. Bookings +61 (2) 9383 9383.


Mietta O'Donnell
February 1991
Updated December 1996 and April 2001
©Mietta's 1996