Quay conquers all


Photo: Nikki To

Can Peter Gilmore and the Fink Group team do no wrong? Quay continues to reign supreme winning Restaurant of the Year for an unprecedented third year in a row. By Frank Leggett

“Whenever I pop in at Quay, I always catch myself,” admits John Fink, creative director of the Fink Group. “It never fails to shock me that I’m involved with such a posh restaurant. I keep expecting the fraud police to arrive, tap me on the shoulder and say: ‘That’s enough pretending, mate. You don’t deserve to be here. On your way.’”

Fortunately, the fraud police aren’t required because the Fink Group, which operates Quay (as well as Bennelong, OTTO Sydney and OTTO Brisbane), won not only the Fine Dining Restaurant award at the recent national Savour Australia Restaurant & Catering HOSTPLUS Awards for Excellence, but also the big gong—Restaurant of the Year. In fact, the team has now won this prestigious award three years in a row.

If Fink is a little taken aback every time he walks into the restaurant, he was blown away when Quay scored this accolade. And so was the executive chef, Peter Gilmore. After working at Quay for the past 15 years, the celebrity chef has never stopped experimenting, improving and reimagining.

“Quay is always going to be a place for fine dining,” says Gilmore, “but it’s nice to push the boundaries of food and service. It’s now a little more interactive—and it will continue to evolve.”

He’s been working closely with two farms in the Sydney region over the past decade to produce specific vegetables. Johnstone’s Kitchen Garden in Hawkesbury and Epicurian Harvest in the Blue Mountains town of Hartley provide Quay with seasonal produce. “I want unique, heirloom vegetables on my menu that can’t be found in the general marketplace,” explains Gilmore. “The partnership with these farmers has worked very well.”

It’s also important for wait staff to be fully knowledgeable about the produce used in the creations of the menu. There’s an education process in place at Quay so they know the origin of the produce and how it has worked as an inspiration for some dishes. Staff are also involved with tastings and are present to hear about suppliers’ products.

“You can’t bombard diners with information, but it’s certainly mentioned on the menu,” says Gilmore. “If anyone asks a direct question, our staff are very happy to talk about it.”

The partnership between Gilmore and the Fink Group is a perfect mix of creativity and astute financial management. “The Fink Group is very focused on percentages across the board in all our restaurants,” says John Fink, who also works with three chef partnerships—The Bridge Room and Firedoor in Sydney, and Beach Byron Bay. “We’re very conscious about all the fixed and variable costs that goes into running a business. It’s all about generating genuine new revenue on the top line and improving the profitability performance of the restaurant.”

Fink is a man who has learned on the job. He left home at 15, took a job in a kitchen just three days before the chef walked out. Fink was suddenly thrust into the role of chef. “That was my apprenticeship,” he recalls. “I’ve been working ever since and continuing to learn on the job. My father, Leon [the renowned restaurateur and entrepreneur] is my mentor and has been my boss for the past 35 years.”

“There’s a lot that goes into the back story of any new additions and it all starts with that moment of inspiration. It’s a thrill that helps keep things interesting.”—Peter Gilmore, executive chef, Quay

Even though Fink is dyslexic in regard to numbers (called dyscalculia), he has worked hard to overcome the problem, particularly when he has to read spreadsheets.

“I get up every day and look at spreadsheets, analysing the performance figures and working out what that means for the business,” says Fink. “I then delve deeper into problems to find out why things aren’t optimum. There may be some doubling up in purchasing or there was something wrong with the stocktake. There’s always a physical reason for a number not being right. Whatever’s happening on the page is a direct indication of what’s happening in real life.”

Winning Restaurant of the Year marked the third time in a row Quay has won the award. An outstanding menu and a spectacular view of Circular Quay are an essential part of its success, but so is the unique working environment. Peter Gilmore, chef de cuisine Robert Kabboord and their sous chefs schedule regular staff training. With 32 chefs and a total of 65 staff, an efficient rostering system is also a vital component of their success.

“We have a four-day-on and three-day-off roster that really helps with the retention of staff,” says Gilmore. “They’re long days but having three days off provides plenty of relief. Unlike a lot of primary restaurants, we’re quite large. We do about 100 covers, so it’s a lot of work spread around a lot of staff.”

Along with producing two cookbooks, Organum and Quay: Food Inspired By Nature, Gilmore also runs his own iPad app, leading users through the creation of eight of his most outstanding dishes. His Instagram account has 40,000 followers and keeps home cooks informed of any changes in the restaurant. He also posts new dishes, new ideas and any inspiration.

“Social media is important in marketing restaurants these days,” says Gilmore. “It’s a very useful tool for business and all the chefs around the world—as well as the general public—are connected with each other.”

After 15 years at the top of the game, Gilmore remains motivated and enthusiastic about all aspects of the business. “Working with suppliers and developing new products is exciting and great fun,” he says. “There’s a lot that goes into the backstory of any new additions and it all starts with that moment of inspiration. It’s a thrill that helps keep things interesting.”

Gilmore travels around the world for inspiration and to keep abreast of trends and developments in the restaurant scene. He was recently in New York to celebrate Quay’s inclusion on the World’s 100 Best Restaurants List, and is looking forward to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards in Melbourne next April.

“It’s still in the planning stage but we’re hoping chefs and industry leaders will visit and have a look at what Australia’s doing,” says Gilmore. “There will also be many food journalists and bloggers accompanying the chefs, producing a lot of attention on Australia throughout that year. I’m sure it’s going to be a great event for tourism and for our industry.”

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