The chef and owner of Berowra Waters Inn talks about where the real margins are, and why there’s always room at the top
When I left school in the late ’70s hotels were the places to work in Europe—there was the kitchen brigade system of 20 to 30 cooks, so you got a broad knowledge of banqueting, butchery and pastry. It was thorough training. These days Australia hotels have all but died in terms of dining, and if you go to work in most restaurants you’ll only learn what they do. You won’t get a broad-based experience.
When I arrived in Australia in 1988 it was all about ‘Australian cuisine’. I was always a voice saying ‘there is no such thing—it’s the same as Californian, South African; the country is too young to have a cuisine’. But there is an Australian way of dining—not much pretention. At Forty One we did away with the silverware, and the waiters had open neck shirts for a time.
‘The restaurant is the star’ has always been my principle. In fine dining we’re not in the business of selling food, we’re selling memories. The service, the view, the decor, the food together all matter. When we opened Forty One we drummed into the staff ‘forget the view, it’s a bonus.’
Berowra Waters Inn was the first meal I had in Sydney. I was on my way to Singapore and I landed in Sydney, hired a car and drove up. It was 1982, so it was in its heyday and Tony [Bilson] was still in the kitchen. I thought it was a magical spot and thought ‘one day I’d like to have this’. Thirty years later I got it.
I had considered taking on Berowra back in 1995 when Gay Bilson decided she would pull out. But at that point it had been open 20 years—people didn’t need to travel there any more. When it came up again, 10 yeas had passed. I knew I was going to be closing Forty One—the lease was up and I hadn’t intended to stay 18 years.
“The younger guys aren’t aiming for three-star palaces. They’re not viable. They’re opening simple places with very good food, served well.” Dietmar Sawyere, Owner, Berowra Waters Inn
Then we started renovating, which is so hard on a river. We ended up spending twice as much. I contacted Glenn Murcutt who kindly gave us access to the original plans. His original concept was a verandah by the water, so that was my starting point. Take it back to the original vision, but a 2007 version. The first time I dined there it was really dark after dinner, so I’ve opened up the kitchen so there’s some light about the place.
The food has been pared back and isn’t anywhere near as fiddly. At Forty One I had a brigade of 18; at Berowra there are six of us. So it’s high quality but simply layered complexity in the flavours rather than the plating.
There’s always room at the top. Aim for it, slot in, make everyone else move down. When we started Forty One there was really only a couple of other places—Rockpool and Tetsuyas. The city needed somewhere the well-to-do could go. There’s a lot more opening now.
But fine dining doesn’t mean all the bells and whistles. It can be fine dining at any level. That’s changed a lot, especially in Europe. The younger guys aren’t aiming for three-star palaces. They’re opening simple places with very good food, served well.
Here we don’t have the ability charge for fine dining: Forty One, Quay, Berowra Waters are cheap compared to comparative restaurants in other cities in the world. We have high labour costs and for the last few years, very high food costs, so the margins are hammered.
I love eating bistro food. It was one of the drivers for opening Ad Lib [in Pymble]. It’s open all day and it’s a place you can go if you have kids. In Europe, where there are true bistros, people just go to eat, not necessarily for a huge dining experience. You also get a better margin into the company.
I was only 29 when I opened Forty One and I was the youngest executive chef at the Regent. Now I’m one of the old boys, but I’m still under 50. In Europe at the three-star Michelin restaurants there are guys in their 70s and 80s, so it’s not to do with age. I do something I love so I’ve never worked a day in my life.