It’s fair to say that chefs are known for a pinch of arrogance. Perhaps it’s the mixture of a fast paced environment, immense time pressure and the aspiration of perfection in fine dining establishments, baked in the literal heat of the kitchen. Rising through that, day in day out seems to warrant a certain pride and passion.
As we chat, executive chef Peter Gilmore is patient and the picture of calm. It’s in between lunch and dinner at famed Quay restaurant in Sydney. Staff are ironing tablecloths and cleaning the dining room. There’s banter being exchanged and a relaxed air that is surprising at such a renowned restaurant. I can smell something enticing from the kitchen and there’s no whiff of pretension to sour the aroma.
The décor is understated as the view speaks for itself. Floor to ceiling windows wrap around the restaurant with the icons of Sydney on show: the Harbour Bridge on one side and the Opera House on the other.
Although Gilmore may arguably be Australia’s best chef, he certainly isn’t the country’s best known. He’s not an overexposed celebrity chef, so the average cook or food enthusiast may not even recognise him, but fine diners’ eyes light up at his name. They have good reason: he has been at the forefront of the Australian food scene since taking over Quay restaurant in 2001. Quay has been on the S Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants for the last five years and named The Best Restaurant in Australasia three times.
Gilmore’s food philosophy has always been ‘food inspired by nature’ and it’s something that has become more developed throughout his reign, not least since he moved into a new house around nine years ago and had the chance to start a decent garden.
“One of the first veggies I grew was fresh peas and I realised that I could use the blossoms of the pea. It was a revelation because I hadn’t seen them before and they tasted beautiful and they look great and I thought ‘why isn’t anyone using this amazing resource?’ I went to commercial growers to see if they would pick blossoms for me and they just laughed.”
Gilmore became obsessed with rare and heirloom vegetable varieties—ordering them from overseas and growing them in his home garden. He eventually found a farmer who would custom grow for the restaurant things like sour Mexican cucumbers and pink turnips, right down to a specific size.
“He will bespoke grow for us, essentially. It all starts in my garden at home, my test garden. For example, last spring I grew 12 different types of beans to see if there was something interesting amongst these new beans. It may have been the bean flower, the bean shoot, the immature bean, it might be a variety that you normally dry but for three weeks of the year the fresh beans are just incredible. You never know what is going to come out of it. When I find something that I really love I then get my commercial grower to grow it on a much bigger scale for Quay.”
His passion for fresh produce even led him to convert one of the restaurant’s cool rooms into a “growing room” where herbs and edible flowers are picked directly before service. This incredible attention to every detail is evident as it takes him five minutes to describe a single one of his dishes, a pig cheek dish slowly cooked overnight, cold smoked then, when ordered, heated with butter infused with juniper berries and bay leaves.
“It is so flavoursome, so succulent and soft it almost falls apart. We shave fresh wood-grown shiitake mushrooms, so that it almost becomes the texture of abalone, then we have raw sashimi scallops from Western Australia dressed in a salted seaweed stock. It almost mimics the fat in the pig cheek as well from a textural point of view. Then the whole thing is topped with Jerusalem artichoke skins, which have been rehydrated and fried, [acting] as a form of crackling and adding this really beautiful earthiness. So there are only four ingredients but it’s all these layers of techniques that go into cooking the dish that make it a complete dish. It is all about the mouthfeel, the textural and the flavour components that come together to make a new sensation. There is a certain elegance to the end product.”
This is the latest incarnation of a dish that he has been reinventing for 12 years. His constant drive has been one of the keys to Gilmore’s success.
“One of the main factors is not resting on your laurels. The creative aspect is the thing that drives me the most. Coming up with new sensations and flavours.”
His interest in food was sparked as a young child as he attended cooking classes with his mother and was “always mucking around in the kitchen.” By the time he was 12 he knew he wanted to be a top chef. He worked at kitchens in both the UK and Australia before Quay, but without any particular mentors.
“I feel that I have taught myself to be where I am now. I’ve learned through reading, experimentation and just pushing. Michel Bras would definitely be up there as a food hero, with Alain Passard. I really love modern contemporaries René Redzepi and Andoni Aduriz. Both those guys are really pushing boundaries and I feel that my work is running parallel to what they are doing in Europe. [With] a lot of chefs around the world this interest [in nature] sparked up almost as a movement about eight years ago. If you are looking for a godfather for this type of food then you have to say Michel Bras.”
Being located so geographically apart from those he calls contemporaries has not stopped him from being an important part of this nature-inspired movement.
Gilmore says that the Australian food culture fostered his approach.
“I think it’s quite dynamic really. One thing that we really have going for us is our multicultural society. I was brought up eating all sorts of food as a matter of course. One night mum would be making a classic Italian ragu and the next night she might be playing around with Chinese beef and black bean sauce. Australia not having a single strong food tradition has led to a generation of very open minded chefs. We are open to new ideas, techniques and produce from different countries.”
Despite enduring success, Peter has resisted the temptation to open more than one restaurant, keeping his focus on Quay. His first cookbook was released in 2010, Quay: Food Inspired by Nature. It is a true reflection of the complexity of his dishes and certainly not for an average home cook.
“There is a lot of dumbing down out there in the food world when it comes to publishing and I think some people want to know how these things are achieved. So in a way it’s like a behind the scenes look at the lengths we go to, to make a dish taste beautiful.”
To keep at the cutting edge, Gilmore has reduced his hours in the kitchen and spends more time on research and development, be it in the garden or experimenting with techniques in the kitchen.
“I realised that really the most important thing was coming up with new ideas, because that is what people are actually coming for: what’s new this season, what’s a new flavour experience or a new mouthfeel experience I can have at Quay.”
PHOTOGRAPHY © Phu Tang; Luisa Brimble; Belinda Rowland & Shane Rosario