We spent much of our time in Australia last year writing about the fantastic food scene and formidable restaurants and talking to the finest chefs, from Dan Hunter to Ben Shewry – as well as great global chefs, from Rene Redzepi to Massimo Bottura. One of the chefs we got to spend time with was Chef Peter Gilmore of Quay restaurant in Sydney.
For writers who review restaurants, there are a few commonly held beliefs of what makes – or doesn’t make – a great fine dining restaurant. One of these truisms is that big restaurants that seat, say, more than fifty diners per lunch or dinner service will generally not be great restaurants. Another is that restaurants with astonishingly good views generally don’t have astonishingly good food.
Quay restaurant offers extraordinary views of Sydney Harbour, the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge and can average close to 100 customers for lunch or dinner service. However, it belies those restaurant-reviewing truisms by being widely recognized as Australia’s best restaurant.
For food lovers visiting Sydney, dining here easily ranks above climbing the Bridge or seeing an opera when visiting the sun-kissed city. From the first sip of Champagne – and this is a restaurant where you’ll want to pop some bubbles – to drinking in the views, a meal at Quay is something to savour.
The year 2012 was certainly one to savour for Quay, ranked as Australia’s top restaurant in San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants (at number 29) and voted the Best Restaurant in Australasia. Local recognition was no less significant, being named 2013 Restaurant of the Year by Australia’s two leading restaurant awards, the Australian Gourmet Traveller Restaurant awards and The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide awards.
Despite all this acclaim, Quay’s chef of over ten years, Peter Gilmore, remains the quintessential chef’s chef. He doesn’t front a chain of restaurants. He doesn’t endorse stock cubes or have a line of pasta sauces in supermarkets. You will never tune into morning television to see him flirting with TV presenters while whipping up a dumbed down version of his carefully considered dishes.
One television appearance he did make on an exceptionally popular Australian cooking reality show teetered on making the chef a celebrity, much to his surprise. “Being recognised on the street was weird at first…,” Chef Gilmore confides to us in his deep, smooth voice as we stroll through the light-filled dining room towards his busy but calm hub of a kitchen. However, it’s clear that people do recognise him. As we pass through the buzzy restaurant, a young teenager dining with his dad fawns over the chef as if he was a bonafide rock star. In culinary terms, he is.
While the restaurant was already extraordinarily busy before Gilmore’s television appearance (there is customarily a six month waiting list for a Saturday night table), the exposure saw Quay’s waiting list grow even longer. John Fink, third generation restaurateur and director of the family-owned Fink Group, which owns Quay, amusingly quipped that they were so busy, “my mother can’t even get a booking”. (See John Fink’s Guide to Eating and Drinking in Sydney.)
Once we’re in the kitchen, Gilmore adds some last-minute touches to his intricate dishes while an endless flow of committed wait staff – some of Sydney’s best – effortlessly juggle dishes while memorizing Gilmore’s little phrases, such as “please take a moment to enjoy the perfume of the dish”, to help diners get even more out of these beautifully balanced plates.
The aromatic dish in question on the day Lara and I dine at Quay is Berkshire pig jowl, maltose crackling, prunes, and cauliflower cream, perfumed with prune kernel oil. While the perfume of the dish is indeed otherworldly, so is the look of the dish. Gilmore’s creations are often strikingly elegant, such as the starters from the degustation menu we sample.
The first, a sashimi of blue mackerel, smoked eel flowers, sea scallops, pickled apple, nasturtiums, and Tasmanian wasabi, and the second, a salad of rhubarb, endive beetroot, purple carrot, rosa radish, kohlrabi, goat’s curd, pomegranate molasses, and violets are so pretty that we witness diners just staring at them for a few moments before even thinking of lifting a fork from the crisp white tablecloth. The pig jowl dish, on the other hand, has diners perplexed about the amazing appearance of the ‘crackling’ before the aromas of the dish prove too much and they dive in, alternating each moreish mouthful with a sip of a notable red wine from Quay’s exceptional wine list.
While that dish sounds heavy on paper, in the mouth it’s a delight, with the tremendous mix of textures and balance of flavours that are the chef’s trademarks. “I really spend a lot of time making sure the ingredients don’t only work texturally or visually, but also on the whole combination – the flavours, the texture, the visual approach, the sense of proportions, the sense of balance,” Gilmore tells us, “Everything about the dish has to have some sort of sense of harmony.”
Chef Gilmore calls his cuisine ‘nature based’ and while that may come across as elementary, the chef’s roots are in, well, making seeds take root. The chef’s unfeigned connection to the land began when he started planting his own home garden over seven years ago. Gilmore explains, “…when everyone was into molecular food I turned my back on it and said no, I want to look towards the garden, towards nature.” His home experiments saw him planting ancient and heirloom varieties of vegetables that Quay later contracted Blue Mountains organic farmers Richard and Nina Kalina to grow in ample volume for the restaurant.
Gilmore’s quest to reintroduce rare varieties of vegetables allows him a contractual exclusive use of that ingredient from his farmers for the first two years of supply. Chef Gilmore also utilises around eight or nine suppliers of specialty ingredients at any one time during the year. While these methods of sourcing produce are building momentum with progressive chefs worldwide, Gilmore had his system in place while other chefs were still engrossed with replicating the foams and spherification techniques that were the legacies of influential Spanish chef Ferran Adrià.
As I watch the chef work in the kitchen, some diners in the restaurant have already finished their main courses and in the kitchen the chefs on dessert duty are not only cramped for space but for time. Of the 14 chefs the kitchen requires to cover a meal service (there are 28 chefs altogether), a few of them are busy preparing desserts – one of which is a tricky dish that they can’t take off the menu due to its popularity, the chef’s famous ‘snow egg’.
Many chefs leave the sweet stuff to a dedicated pastry chef, but Gilmore explains to us, “It all comes from me, because I believe the dining experience has to be seamless, from the beginning to the end, and have the same creative vision all the way through.” Gilmore’s insistence on writing his own dessert menu is essential to making Quay such a complete dining experience.
Later, as the last of the desserts leave the pass, Gilmore meets with a dairy supplier who has arrived and samples his butter before instructing a chef on how he wants an ingredient prepared for a new dish he’s developing. While John Fink has insisted Gilmore blocked out one day a week for experimenting and refining new dishes, creativity doesn’t work to a timetable. The chef tries to strike a balance between reinventing his classic dishes and finding room for new ones to take their place, insisting that anything new on the menu has to earn its presence on the table.
On the day that Lara and I visited the restaurant to interview the chef, Gilmore presented us with a surreal, sculptural-looking dessert he just added to the menu. Consisting of jersey ice cream, salted caramel, prunes, walnuts, and ‘ethereal sheets’ (of different types of milk chocolate), it was enchanting to look at and even more dreamy to taste.
The dining scene in Sydney – and indeed in Australia – is in the best shape it’s ever been with accomplished and adventurous chefs at the helm of great restaurants making the most of Australia’s brilliant produce. Peter Gilmore and his team, along with their producers and suppliers, make Quay one of the most singular dining experiences in Australia, if not the world. It’s the best of bright, beautiful Sydney on a plate. And it has those killer views.
At the end of the month, the 2013 San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants will be announced. We won’t be surprised if Quay – and a few of our other favourite Australian restaurants – climb up the list.
A version of this story appeared in Asia’s Lifestyle+Travel magazine.