Keeping track of world trends, Quay Restaurant’s Peter Gilmore hasn’t lost sight of his own culinary vision—and the venue has only benefitted. By Rob Johnson
It seems the world has caught up with Peter Gilmore and Quay Restaurant this year. Although steady over-achievers in the various food gongs available around town, this year Gilmore and his team scored the trifecta: Restaurant of the Year for both The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide and Gourmet Traveller, and now Restaurant of the Year at the Savour Australia National Awards for Excellence.
No-one’s ever achieved that before, but Gilmore has a few theories why this perfect storm of praise has hit now. “I do think we’re at the top of our game at the moment,” he says.
“I think Quay’s better than ever in some respects. Sometimes these things just come together. I think from a food perspective, it’s evolving all the time. So the kitchen is putting out some good stuff, but there’ve been improvements at the front of house too. We have lots of bits and pieces that are changing. We work at it constantly, so each year it gets a little better.”
Gilmore is often described by food industry journos as modest. You get that impression from the way he speaks with pride about the work he and his team do, rather than banging on about his achievements. But the facts speak for themselves: when Leon and John Fink hired him to take over Quay in August 2001, it was a one-hat restaurant and he was a 33-year-old chef just starting to build his reputation. Within a year, it was a three-hat restaurant and won its first Good Food Guide award. He has consistently kept it in the top rank of Sydney fine diners without resorting to TV stardom or pumping out a branded cookbook to keep himself and his restaurant in the public eye. In the kitchen, it’s just consistently excellent.
A restaurant is more than its kitchen, though, and Gilmore points out they’ve “put a lot of focus on our front-of-house and service protocols”.
He gets insights into what’s possible while travelling—at least every 18 months, he and John Fink try to get away to Europe to see what’s happening in the top restaurants over there. “Europe still sets the benchmark as far as service goes,” he says. “Fine dining in Europe works at a different level. In Europe you can have a higher ratio of staff to customers. In some restaurants we visited, the ratio was one staff member to every two customers. Even at Quay it would be one staff member to every five customers.”
There are other key differences. Labour costs in Australia are higher than those paid by European restaurants, especially since a number of the kitchen staff will work for free over there to bolster their experience. There is more of a notion of front-of-house positions as career positions, and more possibilities for in-house training.
“But it’s still an inspiring model to look at,” Gilmore adds. “Trying to capture the best aspects of that and trying to interpret it into Australian conditions is what we aim for.
“We’ve put a big emphasis into training. Each night before service we have a briefing, and once or twice a week we give questionnaires to the waiters about the food and so on, and they to be up to the mark or they don’t work at Quay. From that perspective we’re getting better and better.”
That’s not to say Quay is immune from the staffing issues faced by the rest of the industry. “I think the fine dining end is a little better off than the middle end in being able to attract and retain staff,” he explains. “There’s better tips and better wages and the prestige attached to the restaurant’s name. We do attract a different type of employee, but getting good staff is still one of the biggest challenges we face. As an industry we employ a lot of people, and the competition is high at the top end.”
A passion for food
While the commitment to the front-of-house is obvious, Gilmore becomes passionate when he’s talking about the food. He’s had a space downstairs converted to a hydroponic room, so fresh produce will be available to be picked immediately before service. “A lot of the stuff we have just isn’t available anywhere because it’s just too hard to grow or it offers no great return to the farmer,” he explains. “But what I’m most interested in at the moment is a nature-based cuisine. There’s so much diversity in the natural world. The organic farmer we’ve got up in the Blue Mountains, Richard, has so many great varieties of vegetables and herbs. Some of the veges are things like Chinese artichokes, or pure white carrots, or Japanese red carrots, or alpine strawberries. That gives me a fantastic palette to work from and that drives the menu.”
His fascination with produce stems from the time he spent learning his trade in the UK, following his start at the Manor House in Balmain back in 1984 at the tender age of 16. That was eventually overwhelmed by his desire to travel, which is what drove him to the UK.
“I pretty much worked in fine dining the whole time I was there,” he recalls. “What I learnt in the UK was amazing. We were dealing with wild game and wild mushrooms and we’d go wild berry picking at the country house hotel. It was early 1990 and the chef I was working with, Chris Suter, was chef of the year, and there was all that new British food. So when I came back to Australia I was really inspired by that.”
Produce inspires Gilmore, but owning his own place doesn’t. He’s been there done that, long before he got involved with Leon and John Fink. After returning from the UK he started a catering business, Sublime, doing “ice creams and desserts” as he describes it. “But I missed the kitchen,” he says, “so I took my first real head chef’s job at De Beers at Whale Beach. That was my first real media exposure.”
That was where then-Sydney Morning Herald critic Terry Durack discovered him, reporting back that, “De Beers houses a young chef with a real talent for sending out beautifully structured food with innate simplicity.”
After earning his first chefs hat at De Beers, he decided it was time to move on: “I wanted to produce more of the food that I was doing and was confident I had developed my own style,” he says. He’d heard that Leon Fink was looking for a chef for Quay, so he wrote to him. “I think they did take a punt on me,” he says. “They gave me the job before I got the second chef’s hat. They wanted to put a young Australian chef with an fresh style into the restaurant. It was an opportunity that was pretty special, and there’s not many of them that come up.”
He didn’t think starting his own place was viable, given what he wanted to do with cooking: “To open a restaurant like Quay you need $7 or $8m, and I didn’t have that. To be able to reach your potential, you need finance behind you. And Quay had all the ingredients for me to do that.”
He’s still grateful for the opportunity the Finks gave him. “Leon’s been an amazing person to work for,” he says. “Very driven and professional.” And that flows through to the approach taken by the whole team. “Every year we have the energy and determination to make it better,” says Gilmore. Of course, to make it better than this year will be quite an achievement.