Owner and chef of Bilson’s Restaurant—and Francophile—creates a symbiotic mix of food and wine to achieve a gastronomic artform.
“I’ve just come back from France where I did a series of interviews with chefs. I was trying to find out how common my experience was. I’d ask ‘when did you make up your mind your wanted to be a chef?’ Most said, ‘When I was seven’. I was pretty much the same.
“When I was 20 my mother died. I was working at the Reserve Bank and I thought, ‘bugger this, I really want to be a chef’. I went to work for Johnnie Walker in Sydney. He had a fantastic bistro and the chef there was Paul Harbulot. He was a really terrific French chef and he was also a very interesting man. He taught me the professional aspects of cooking and Johnnie Walker taught me to taste. Different people taught me about wine but mainly Rudy Komon, the art dealer.
“My heart has always been in doing the best thing that you can. My heart has always been in trying to give people a memorable experience.
“Great cooking, great gastronomy is art, there’s no doubt about it. I love it because it’s ephemeral. As I say to my painter friends, at least I don’t have my bad paintings sticking around. I love it because you create memories.
For me the artistic high ground is in French cuisine. I hold that creativity is a core construct of French cooking and it’s not for any other cuisine. And the relationship to the wine culture is the cultural high ground. That, for me, is more interesting than fusion cuisine. The construct of flavours and its relationship to wine is the creative high ground of cooking— that’s the end of the story.
“The art of the chef is to take his sophisticated knowledge of flavours and produce and create dishes that enable the guest to have an insight into the intrinsic zen-type beauty of the things they’re eating. This is an act of love. It’s putting something together to create something that’s beautiful, to be appreciated by someone else. (The painter) John Olsen talks about his wandering lines—getting rid of the intellectual mechanics between your brain and the pencil. I think for a chef it’s the same. If you try to construct a dish to a fashion you won’t get it.
I’ve always been doing fine dining. It’s just been in different venues. In Kinsellas we tried to divide it, which was a mistake. In the outside area we had a brasserie, inside we had fine dining, when in fact people wanted both: some people wanted a truffle sandwich, some people wanted fish and chips and they wanted to have it at the same table. I think it’s better to have one big menu and have a whole range of prices on it.
“The whole nature of restaurants is making partnerships. Restaurants are to do with working together with people who share your vision, or whose vision you share, and working together as a co-operative to achieve that. You must have people (staff) you trust and if they’re doing things wrongly you have to be able to discuss with them the way you would like to have it done.
“A good business partner also shares the vision. Secondly, they take responsibility for their own actions and, like a good marriage, excuse faults. I think good financial partners offer guidance and support. I’ve never had a project that’s run to budget, they always go over or under budget. You have a model and if it doesn’t work, you have to change the model and make it work. If you don’t make a profit, you’re just not there. it’s as simple as that.
“But just because you’re making a loss doesn’t necessarily mean you should alter the business. Sometimes you need courage to follow through on an idea because you know what you’re doing is right, and it’s taking longer because of circumstances. For example, 9/11. Suddenly everyone’s staying home, watching TV for two months and you’re running huge losses. You don’t put television sets in restaurants. You sometimes need the courage to see things through.