Peter Gilmore, executive chef at Quay and Bennelong restaurants in Sydney, loves nothing more than messing around in his vegie garden at home.
Right now, one of Australia’s most celebrated chefs is experimenting with cucumbers.
“This season I am growing five different types of cucumbers. Little ones, crisp cucumbers, different types of Japanese cucumbers to see what has the best flavour when cooked,” he explains.
“Last season I got my farmers to grow six or seven types of winter squash pumpkins, also to see what is the ultimate flavour from the best heirloom pumpkin that I could find. There is always something new to discover.”
So-called garden to plate restaurants, which grow and harvest their own vegetables or fruit to serve to their foodie customers, have been around for a while.
Gilmore, 49, doesn’t have the luxury of restaurant gardens at the two Sydney restaurants he heads up, Quay and Bennelong, because they rest on either side of busy Circular Quay.
“The biggest change in my career came about 10 or 11 years ago when I moved into a house with a back yard and I planted a garden. I started with herbs and simple vegetables. The whole idea of growing things deepened my knowledge about produce.
“Ten years ago you couldn’t buy a purple-coloured carrot. Carrots were orange, that’s the way it was. I started to realise that not only were there purple carrots but there were white carrots and yellow carrots and red carrots and beautiful pink turnips and incredible greens.
“By growing them myself, and then asking my farmers, who I was starting to build a relationship with, to grow them for my restaurant, my palate was boosted by different produce.
“Other chefs started to ask the same thing from their suppliers. Then more farmers started growing them and, before you know it, the diversity occurred. I feel that I was a catalyst for that change.”
Gilmore’s drive to entice diners with colourful dishes served in differing and tantalising ways is a prime reason for his avid following among gastronomes.
Under his hand, Quay restaurant in Sydney has won three hats from Fairfax’s The Good Food Guide and three stars from the Gourmet Traveller Restaurant Guide for an impressive 15 years on the trot. It has also been in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, with five years in the top 50.
The wow factor is a big part of his popularity. Gilmore’s trademark dish is the snow egg, a dessert that lies brooding in a deep glass bowl.
He experiments with different seasonal fruits in it. Diners have relished its textures and flavours for 10 years but it became a megastar in its own right seven years ago when he presented it as a “pressure test” challenge for the finalists on the long-running TV show MasterChef.
“Something like 4.5 million people watched that episode,” recalls Gilmore. “A lot booked to come and have dinner at Quay afterwards because they really, really wanted to try the snow egg. They crashed our website. We filled out about six months of bookings, especially lunches. We had people ringing to order a takeaway snow egg.
“I honestly believe I could have made $1 million if I had set up a stall outside the restaurant. It’s something people still come back for. We can serve 100 people in the restaurant on any day, and I would say 50% order the snow egg.
“Something doesn’t stay popular for that long if there isn’t something genuine about it that is delicious. You have the fruit mixed with cream at the bottom, which is called the ‘fool’. That is a traditional English dessert with fruit and cream mixed together. Then you have the granita made from the fruit we’re using at the time, and then the snow egg itself sitting on top of the granita.
“It has the two half hemispheres that come together with ice-cream in the middle, wrapped in toffee biscuit and coated with icing sugar.
“Texturally, it is beautiful. There is a slight temperature change. It is very refreshing. At the moment the granita is strawberry, in another month or two it will probably be white nectarine and then in another month it will probably be cherry.”
Gilmore credits his mum and dad, Dawn and John, for his creative flair and love of food. His father was a window display artist for menswear stores, and Dawn often entertained at home. He was always under her feet in the kitchen, reading her cookery books and tagging along to cooking classes.
The first dish he recalls cooking, at age 11, was steak covered with red wine sauce. John liked his steak well done but this time it was prepared medium and covered in onions that helped to mask that fact.
“He told me it was the best steak he ever had,” says Gilmore. “I said, ‘That’s because it’s medium. You should eat it that way from now on.’ ”
His parents suggested he become a chef, so he found work experience at the Manor House, a large, established restaurant in Balmain. Later they offered him an apprenticeship but a year before graduating he got itchy feet and headed for England.
It was while working at a country house hotel in the West Country that Gilmore realised the importance of produce.
“It was all about the wild mushrooms, the wild trout from the river and picking berries in the season. Vegetables were being flown in from France. They were things I hadn’t been exposed to before. There was game. It
widened my world.”
In an era when chefs were bursting forth to be among the glitterati like movie stars, Gilmore never sought a mentor.
“I discovered a lot of things for myself by actually doing things in the kitchen – working and reading.
“I worked for some good places in the UK when I was young but not really big-name chefs. There were chefs like Marco Pierre White and others but I never had the urge to go and work for them.”
Back in Australia, he completed his apprenticeship and later worked in a guesthouse, Avonleigh in the Blue Mountains, for about eight years with his wife Kath. She ran the business and he looked after the food. “That was where I found my own style.”
He cites his parents as being the most influential people in his life.
“Without a doubt. One thing they taught me was the value of quality. The idea of enjoying your life and being passionate is more important than what you have at the end of your life.
“That’s the way they live, and I think it’s important to do a bit of both. You have to be sensible when it comes to finance but you also have to live your life and enjoy it.”
Some time later the Fink Group, which owns Quay and Bennelong, enticed him to join it as head chef. Restaurant reviewers had been raving about his food after he turned his hand to running the De Beers Restaurant at Whale Beach. He was just the person it needed.
Gilmore has no regrets.
“I haven’t had the need to do my own restaurant, because I haven’t had my creativity limited. I have a very open book as far as deciding in what direction we go, and what is on the menus in both restaurants. As part of my deal, I have a profit share arrangement, so it’s like being a partner without having equity. I am comfortable with that.
“It has worked out well for me because I don’t have those financial worries. It has allowed me to concentrate more on my creativity and my job. If that had been limited or I couldn’t express myself the way I wanted to, then I may have gone into my own business. But because that hasn’t been a problem, I haven’t had the need to.”
Apart from the experiments with cucumbers, he doesn’t specify what new experiences diners can expect. But one trend is the use of theatrical presentations.
“At the fine-dining level, I have seen a lot of restaurants using theatre more. There might be a centrepiece that the dish is served on that relates to an ingredient.
“I recently went to a restaurant in San Francisco that had baby corn covered in miso butter but it was served on a bed of different types of corn grains. It was in a little box. There is also more use being made of shared food at the start of a meal. You start by sharing snacks. Then you move onto individually plated food after that.”
Watch this space. And be sure to leave room for the snow egg.