Viewpoints from Aussie Cuisine
The dining space at The Opera House is the quintessential destination dining location, and ideally, should present overseas travellers and local diners, with a sophisticated Modern Australian Cuisine experience.
Simply showcasing native ingredients is not sufficient, and Chef Peter Gilmore’s ability to integrate them into his dishes in a meaningful way, is the key.
The ability of the Fink group at Bennelong to source premium ingredients, in logistically controlled timeframes, enables it to present the produce to diners at its peak.
The legacy of both Bennelong and Chef Peter Gilmore will empower the next generation of chefs to further explore and interpret Modern Australian Cuisine.
By David Prior
“I feel a gigantic responsibility to get it right,” says the Australian chef Peter Gilmore as he surveys the cathedral-like dining room of Sydney Opera House’s Bennelong restaurant, which he newly helms. It is a highly scrutinized stage; and in the 42 years since the Sydney Opera House first welcomed diners at Bennelong, a succession of high-profile restaurateurs have run the famous kitchen — and ultimately been brought undone by the unique pressures of operating under the iconic white sails.
Early signs suggest that the chef, undeterred by what industry insiders call the “Bennelong curse,” has made good on his pledge to create “somewhere we can all be proud of: a great Australian restaurant, for our greatest building.” And his success begs the question of what qualifies a restaurant as uniquely Australian. “To be a chef here is to have the freedom of being able to cook without labels,” says Gilmore, who together with his backers at The Fink Group also runs Quay, one of the country’s renowned fine-dining restaurants. “We are way beyond the idea of ‘fusion.’ The food here is an open-minded natural mix of our multicultural heritage and the provenance of our unique produce.” Once masters of mimicry, Australian chefs are now more self-assured about their place on the gastronomic map. It is an energy that continues to attract food writers and chefs eager to explore this new food frontier like chef Rene Redzepi (who plans to relocate Noma to Sydney for a 10-week stint in January).
Gilmore’s menu features a startling array of ingredients endemic to the country, from its fabled animals to obscure bush fruits and plants, and the influences behind the dishes effortlessly traverse the globe. Rock oysters are embellished with a granita of lemon and native pepperberry; a whole head of John Dory is smeared in umami butter and served with Tokyo turnips and the desert plant saltbush; and duck is roasted and paired with pickled cabbage, miso and seaweed from nearby shores. Neither Asian, European nor entirely indigenous, it is rule-breaking food that at its best embodies cosmopolitan Australia.
The search for a new Bennelong was drama-filled and tinged with superstition — a result of its fraught history. In 2013, the Sydney Opera House Trust opened the tender for the space, controversially calling for cuisine that was more accessible and utilitarian in scope than what was served by Gilmore’s predecessor, the Frenchman Guillaume Brahimi. For 12 years, Brahimi offered elegant dishes that stood up to the drama of Utzon’s room, but were criticized for their haute cuisine nature and lack of connection to the new wave of Australian food. Similarly, in the 90’s, the legendary restaurateur Gay Bilson was criticized by the public for bringing esoteric, high gastronomy into the space. “The Opera House is owned by taxpayers,” Bilson says. “Being ‘ours,’ a dining room there is expected to do the impossible and satisfy all tastes, all purses.”
Though contentious, Bennelong may be the Holy Grail of Australian restaurants. The spectacular concrete ribs, towering blades and slanted windows of Utzon’s design form the exquisite dining room. Theatergoers visit for a quick, exquisitely rendered snack at the Cured and Cultured bar, and one-time visitors can dive headlong into Australia’s priciest meal: a 12-course degustation with spectacular views of the harbor city (for $650 per person). “I don’t think even we really knew what Australian food was until relatively recently,” admits Gilmore, adding that now, “we’re confident in our identity.”
Prior, D. (28 September 2015). Defining Australian Cuisine at the Sydney Opera House. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/28/t-magazine/bennelong-sydney-opera-house-restaurant.html