Gay Bilson was born in Hawthorn, Melbourne in a house owned by her grandmother. Her mother worked when she was young and then not. Her father was a foreman in a family owned factory. Schooling was first at a suburban state school, then a girls only public high school. This interview is in two parts, firstly, notes from her email reply, and next from an oral history at the National Library of Australia. The first part is reply to the email:
‘I wonder is it something to do with the generation of which Tony and I were part of choosing to cook and also being articulate about it?
‘In retrospect I don’t think we were particularly articulate but we did talk about it. And the press were ready to listen. Things don’t happen in a vacuum, things have to be ripe for change – a burgeoning middle class, lots of travel. I remember people used to say we learned from migrants (Italians in particular) but that’s completely wrong. We only began to celebrate migrant cultures after we had travelled (your Wogfood!).
‘And me? I had begun to cook with great interest before I met Tony (Melbourne 1973) but had no thought of cooking professionally. We drove to Sydney in a clapped out Porsche with around $9 between us, and the Bon Goût was born because a man Tony knew worked for Leon Fink who owned the Mansion House building. The chapter on the Bon Goût in Plenty is a good summation of this era.
I knew nothing and learned on the job. Tony knew what he was doing (basic French food) but in retrospect the food was, let’s say, confined. But we did make friends of our diners, Labour Party people and journalists and artists and writers, a version of cafe society I guess (although Germaine Greer, brought to the BG by Margaret Fink, sneered at the idea that this was Oz cafe society!). I reckon the change you’re interested in began in those years. Patrick Juillet was part of it- the glamour and the sleaze!
NATIONAL LIBRARY OF AUSTRALIA
Oral History Section ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
Recorded interview with GAY BILSON
Interviewer: Heather Rusden
25 March 1994
When asked what the kitchen meant to her at an early age, she replied ‘Having to do the dishes… I didn’t want to stir the cake mixture, I suppose I wanted to lick the bowl… I do remember perhaps when I was 11, 12, 13, making some sort of pikelet and also making a cream puff pastry and sensing of gratitude on the part of the people who then ate it, congratulation and gratitude. I have said often and written often that one of the reasons I found such fulfilment in a business which is really to do with feeding people is I love the thanks.’
Of her grandmother’s kitchen she said ‘it seemed sort of musty and old-fashioned but it certainly wasn’t a kitchen where a lot of cooking was done. But I do have a very strong memory of sitting on … there must have been a mat on the floor of this kitchen and eating my grandmother’s porridge with linseed and raisin in it and loving it. It seemed to me to be the kind of food that was offered with love, I mean the food of comfort and domesticity and a generous bowl of porridge and I liked its smell.
‘I lived in the kind of house where if I were, for instance, to have studied medicine and become a doctor a halo would have been strung above my head and angels’ wings on my back because of that very middle class attitude towards professions like medicine.’
She studied Arts at Melbourne University, and became a cataloguer in a library. It as here she recalls her first experience of ‘eating out’
‘…the first time I ever ate in a restaurant – if you could call it a restaurant – was the cafeteria at Melbourne University Union Building when I went there in 1962. My first real date, I suppose, was at an Italian restaurant in Lygon Street in Carlton – this would be 1963. I suppose I was enchanted by the accoutrements and paraphernalia but I don’t think that’s got anything to do with my ending up as a restaurateur.
‘I watched friends I had made when I was living in Carlton and Parkville and at Melbourne University inviting people to dinner and to me showing enormous sophistication about setting the table and things like that. I wanted to do that too. So I started reading recipe books I guess, I started inviting people to dinner and going to far too much trouble and probably not cooking anything terribly well at all but I don’t think I made any great mistakes of taste.
‘I would still say now that I certainly don’t view myself primarily as a cook, which is why I asked you to describe me as a restaurateur. I’m interested in all the details of the table and the table in the dining room and the dining room’s place in its environment – it’s a sort of Gestalt of the whole experience of eating. My contribution, I like to think, is one of good taste inthe serious definition of that term, not its lesser and trivial definition.’
Bilson married her first boyfriend, had two children in the mid-sixties and went to live in America where he worked for IBM. When the marriage ended, she came back to Australia in 1972.
‘Well, I suppose you’d say it was the beginning of my career. I actually went back and worked for two days in the library. I bumped into Tony Bilson in a pub in Carlton where he had a restaurant – this is the end of 1972 probably. We went to Thredbo where he got a job cooking in some lodge’s restaurant and then to Sydney because someone had offered him a space to have a restaurant in, which became the very grotty and unsavoury Tony’s Bon Goût. I was by then pregnant with a child by him and began a decade – or more than a decade – of crazily hard work.’
HR: Were you enjoying the work in the kitchen?
GB: I loved the satisfaction of it all. It seems to me I’m not – I possibly am now – I’m not naturally gregarious but in fact I love dialogue. I mean, I love talking to someone across a table and suddenly by having a restaurant I found I was where I wanted to be.
It was during this time that Tony and Gay first went to France.
‘What was happening in France then, and which filtered to Australia, was the removal of stodginess and heaviness in French cooking. I do think that people likeMichel Guérard are wondrously creative and inventive and he, for example, is a truly great person of his time in that profession. It was a sort of French revolution within one area of culture because one of the things we tend to forget is food is part of our culture. We took notice of it here because we were still under the impression that the only really fine food that we could aspire to was French food and I would still say there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.’
After three years, Tony and Gay Bilson sold Tony’s Bon Goût and went to Berowra Waters. Tony left her, and she went on to create what was called, at the time, one of the world’s best restaurants. After that, she took her chef at Berowra Waters, Jani Kyritsis to Bennelong in the Sydney Opera House.
‘I have very strong ideals about the way the food is served, how we treat the diner, across all levels of what it needs to run the restaurant, including the whole aesthetic of the dining room and sense of welcome and leave taking and all that sort of thing. It doesn’t suit everyone but I won’t compromise. I’m not going to have someone say to me, well, the majority of the Australians want this, therefore if I’m to be a successful part of this market I’m going to give them what they want. We’ve never worked like that, so in that sense we’re part of a small group of people who please the few but those few are enough. I mean, Australia has an extraordinarily small population and I’m incredibly grateful that there are enough people to enjoy eating there, that we have enough support to keep on going.’
An interview with Tony Bilson
Tony Bilson was born Tony Marsden in Sydney. His parents, Jack and Evelyn Marsden owned the Collingwood hotel in Liverpool. When his father was killed in a car accident his mother married Bob Bilson, who adopted Tony and his two sisters. His interest in food and restaurants is inherited from his mother ‘I wanted to be a restaurateur from the time I was thirteen’ Bilson told me ‘it was an entirely literary decision. One of the first books I remember was Fine Bouche (a history of the restaurant in France by Pierre Andrieu, translated into English in 1956).’ From those earliest of times, Bilson’s influences and inspirations have been French. After finishing school at Melbourne Grammar, and graduating from Monash University in Politics and Economics, he took a job at The Reserve Bank. His mother died at that point.
TB: I was a lot before Damien. I went into it in ‘62 I didn’t have permission really. my parents didn’t want me to go into cooking. But my mother died and my stepfather remarried a woman that none of us liked – I didn’t have much to do with him after that – I was really an orphan at 20 so I was free to go my own way.I’d worked in the Reserve Bank in the days before computers – so to work your way up through stockbroking and reserve bank you were on a filing cabinet for 3/5 years at least until your mid-twenties. That doesn’t seem like a long time now but at 20 it’s a lifetime to be dealing with filing cards and the people working in accounting I found dreary – I was far more interested in the arts.
I’d done French up to matriculation and I was aware of French culture. My mother subscribed to New Yorker, and I was a reader. We didn’t have TV when I was young and I read about restaurants. My mother had a terrific library and in that library were books about NY restaurants, the Belle Epoch which I really loved – it was a lot to do with sex too.
Q: Did the arts include cooking in those times?
Well they sort of did because of [hotelier, restaurateur, art dealer] George Mora’s involvement – Balzac was a big change for me. He had the Melbourne art establishment in the Reeds [John and Sunday whose home Heide was a centre for the avant garde artists of the time] and others flocking to George’s restaurant which embraced a bohemian culture which included fee love if – you want to call it that –and a libertarian lifestyle. At school I had John Brack as a teacher. It was interesting seeing the film on the Reeds yesterday, while there was there a knowledge of artists which included Tucker, Nolan et cetera and the Boyds people like Brack and Pugh and that group were outside of that.
Q: Was there much involvement in gastronomy with the Reed crew?
TB: A lot of the arts involved in Balzac, the people who were included Phillip Jones who inherited Heidi from the Reeds
Q: Would it have happened if you had grown up in Sydney?
TB: Except there was Rudy Komon. Rudy introduced Len [Evans] to Fernand Point. He took Len to the Pyramide. The sommelier at the Pyramide taught us all – they had wines going back to the 1850s – and it was all thanks to the dollar in those days, these wines were incredibly cheap – we were drinking all the great years that’s where we learnt. And then [English wine merchant] John Avery came out and he was very knowledgeable of course. Len used to get a lot of his wines from John Avery. A lot of the old burgundies that we used to drink came from Avery’s Later I was involved in the push – in Melbourne I used to share a house with Adrian Rawlins. I was always a libertarian, I don’t know why but I always was. My sister was married to a ballet dancer at the Australian Ballet, my claim to fame at the time was that I taught Rudy [Nureyev] the twist.
Q: So it was through bohemia?
TB: Yeah it was very much a bohemian thing. Melbourne and Sydney seemed to go through stages – I think Melbourne has another spurt on now. Although I haven’t had a decent meal down there for yonks. And I’ve never agreed with that [superiority of Melbourne] actually if you look at the people who get hailed as great chefs it’s the sound of one hand clapping.
The railway lines between Ballarat and Melbourne had first class clarets and champagne and Escofferian menus on the trains- there was the Hotel Menzies – it was the place when I was a kid. My father went out and shot four hundred quail and we did a dinner at Menzies as a fund-raiser for Bob Menzies in ’56 I think. Compared to what was going on in Europe
There were some good restaurants in Sydney in the sixties – where Doyle’s is was a terrific seafood restaurant. Romano’s and Prince’s were all run by Italians of course. In terms of real gastronomy I don’t think they were very good to be honest. You were more likely to get good food in great houses, a bit like England.
Leo [Schofield] was a very good critic. The thing is Leo was the one critic that had really good international experience in great places. Leo didn’t know much about wine but at least his ambitions were high – I went to a dinner for Jim Spigelman last night and the wines were just shocking. He had an old Riesling that was completely fucked and he served it … Leo did know his foods and did know his wines in a general sense just not in the Len Evans sense.
Q: Manners – at the time we all went – what’s he doing?
TB: That was the other thing for me I was thinking of going to a Swiss Hotel school but my mother died on me.
Bilson came to Sydney in 1965 and began working for restaurateur and president of The Wine & Food Society, J.K. (Johnny) Walker at one of his restaurants Rhinecastle (the other was The Angus Steak Cave) Cellars, first as a dishwasher.
TB: Johnny Walker had good experience in Europe – the chefs he employed Paul Harbulot and Jean Ansourian – he was taught by Escoffier’s sous chef – they both knew their classical stuff really well [as did] the chef who had Bouillabaisse in Melbourne – there were chefs doing one star provincial – not [Michelin Guide] knives and forks – but there were some pretty good French restaurants at the time. The hotels were mostly German chefs and that was a different scene – properly garnished schnitzels with anchovy and boiled egg on top.
An interview with Anne Taylor
Anne Taylor began her life as a chef/restaurateur somewhat later than the other interviewees, but the restaurant she opened in Sydney’s Taylor Square, Taylor’s, was highly regarded by other chefs.
Q: A little personal history – growing up education.
AT: born in Cobargo on a diary farm on the far south coast of NSW, Jewish grandmother , German grandmother both obsessed with food. So there was lots of growing and bartering. We lived ten miles inland and so we went to Bermagui for oysters and fish every week and my dad’s farm had a talc mine on it and the man who had that mine had the right to do whatever he wanted to on the farm as farmers will tell you now but he was very nice and he had an oyster lease at Merimbula where I think the best oysters in Australia come from and so each week he’d bring us a hessian bag of oysters which we had so many we’d eat what we could raw and put them in the oven till they opened and eat more. In a bowl with a spoon. When people say to me between four people shall we share a plate of twelve I think oh Jesus. The women in my family were all good cooks and we had abundant food.
I went to Bega high school, didn’t do brilliantly because I wasn’t all that excited about school but well enough to go to University at NSW where I was going to be a teacher but when I saw the other people were teachers who just wanted to get married and not do anything I thought I better find something else to do so fortunately got a good enough result to get a Commonwealth scholarship so I started in a PhD then I asked did I really want to spend my life in academia so by that stage I’d bought a little house in Taylor’s Square on Taylor Street on my Commonwealth Scholarship and my part-time job at the Old Tote and Parade theatre because I was majoring in drama and I had a tenant who was a lecturer in business finance at NSW and he said one day ‘you should get a job! Write out your curriculum vitae’ which I didn’t know what that as, ‘ and my secretary will type it for you.’ And that was for the Film Censorship Board. So I became a film censor, and having always thought of film as an inferior art form I became addicted to it.
Q: What were your parent’s expectations for you? Did they make them clear?
AT: Yes, to be educated and not be dependant on a man, t be able to look after myself. I suppose to do better than they had.
Q: Did they see being dairy farmers as not good enough?
AT: Yes. They wanted me to be able to have choices in life. They didn’t say you have to go to university. They just assumed I’d be a school teacher, something professional. But I think like all parents they want their children to be happy and fulfilled. I think they assumed I’d get married and have children. And were probably a little disappointed that I didn’t. given my time over again I may well have thought to have children because now its acceptable to hire a nanny or get someone to look after them. In my day intelligent women had to do things themselves. Its not something I sit around ad feel regret about.
Q: You’re in Taylor Street and you’ve got a little house and you’re now a film censor. Is that a paid job I thought it was a volunteer thing.
AT: It’s a highly desirable job. There’s a board of review which consisted of people like Caroline Jones, Rowena Danziger. In my day it was a fantastic job./ I did eventually get sick of kung fu crap and we also did TV. Our first office was in the Imperial Arcade and there was a frozen yoghurt place at top of the stairs I’d always be running up to get an ice cream.
I think this was 1975 0r 6. I dropped out of Uni after a year and a half. I could always go back and finish my PhD if I felt so inclined.
Q: what was your thesis?
AT: On an English 17th Century Nathaniel Lee how his dramas differed from renaissance plays in that his was the new baroque style.
Most days we all went out for Chinese lunch. It was in the days when Greg Doyle had his first restaurant in the city in a pub and Patric Juillet was in the imperial arcade. We had lots of money we’d all go out for lunch every day. I can’t tell you what’s its like sitting down at 9 in the morning and seeing a French film like Providence where John Gielgud was always reaching out for a close up glass of Chablis and the droplets of condensation dribbling down the side you’d find yourself reaching out for the glass – so we’d all have to go out and have Chinese banquets for lunch. It wasn’t an expense account and because we were working we wouldn’t be like journos and have a bottle of wine and a beer chaser followed b\y a whisky. We were all relatively sober. I made some good friends there.
In 1976 I took my first trip to Europe – the UK, France Italy and Greece in six weeks and I think I lost 10kkgs in London because the food was so appalling – scotch eggs and ham in a pub – and then when I got to France I devoured all those wonderful things which I’d never had before, regained weight and when I got to Italy it was an absolute revelation and transformation that veggies could taste so fantastic. And that’s when I thought ‘I could open an Italian restaurant! in Sydney and serve food like this’
I was of a generation where all my friends were reading Elizabeth David and then Marcella Hazan came out and of course Julia Child – most weekends were spent going to each others houses making croissants and making all kinds of exotic dishes. And of course I was of an age and a time when if you wanted to do something in Australia you didn’t need a million dollars you just worked hard and did it.
Q: What I’m saying here is that you and your friends were early foodists.
AT: Yes. We were addicted to food and we went to restaurants too – I certainly did at lunchtime – but we all tried to impress each other and learn from each other by cooking and quite difficult things. There were lots of books around then that gave you instructions on how to bone a bird and how to make smoked salmon. Your peers weren’t critically judgemental, they’d make suggestions how you could improve it so I suppose my life was Musica Viva concerts and cooking and going to the theatre and films during the day. Although we were allocated films, if there was a particularly good film we’d re-run it in the lunch time so we could all watch it. So I got to see all kinds of films which are no longer imported to Australia.
[back from Europe] By this stage I’d met Ian [chemical engineer McCullough] who then worked in corporate planning for Esso he thought opening a restaurant was an interesting idea and set it up with a business plan. I thought I won’t have to pay a chef because I can do it myself and if we buy a building we won’t have to pay rent and you just hire staff and of course I’d never really thought about how important is the matter of a whole team working together – if you’re serving fantastic food and the room’s dreary and your staff is bad people aren’t going to come back. Look we were both bright enough to learn quickly from our mistakes, friends were very supportive, people like Damien Pignolet and Gay Bilson when I started out were extremely supportive.
Early in the piece Anders Ousback came to the restaurant. I’d known Leo through a mutual friend and Anders gave all kinds of practical advice very directly – ‘don’t do that1 the colour of the room is appalling1’ George Freeman was a customer we said to him could you do a colour scheme for us, we haven’t got any money and we want it next week sort of thing and he said sure.
We opened in 1982 having bought that building near Taylor’s Square. S that’d essentially how it happened. In my day you didn’t need vast amounts of money. We didn’t know about leasing you just paid as quickly as you could. Of course 38 years ago or whatever I had a little more physical energy than I do now. A lot of restaurateurs came to the restaurant and were really nice to us. I’m forever grateful to Peter and Greg Doyle were really kind, really decent people. It wasn’t celebrity chef stuff in those days.
In some ways I think John Alexander was responsible for individuals and what they could offer people for a good time. I’m not saying that’s bad he just wanted to fill newspapers. I was more shy in those days, now I don’t care. Just sort of articles in the paper, and Leo. It was all promo. Most of the time I was so bloody tired. In those days we used to go the Flemington Markets twice a week at 5am. After a year of that I could barely walk I was so exhausted.
Q: Two questions. It seems to me that an Australian chef has to make a couple of decisions – first of all what am I going to cook? You can do that by falling back on your heritage as did Damien or you can decide to be a contemporary Australian cook or you can choose a nationality. Did you think of that at the time?
AT: Look that was the food that I’d suddenly been transported by. Given my time again I’d probably be able to say its contemporary Australian with a largely Italian influence. That’s because I don’t make reduced stock sauces.
Certainly these days I’d never go in for these exotic combination with hours of labour and turning little bits of watermelon into rice capsules which explode. I’m a real food person based on taking the best ingredients your budget allows not fiddling with it too much and serving it. In some ways it now seems – and it happened to me too – you need to have a higher income to pay for your staff and all the other thing s and you make more labour intensive food and it sort of goes to justify the extra cost so that people can’t say I can buy a grilled chop and serve it at home and it cost me $4 how come they’re charging $25. You’ve got to have so many staff in the kitchen. We started out with Ian and me and a dishwasher and what was called a cold larder person – we’d serve 35 to 50 people and you did it all yourself. And the waiting staff all helped. There was a sense of family a small group of people all learning to each others chores.
Q: For somebody who’d cook for the most 5/6/7 friends how did you transform yourself into a professional cook?
AT: With great difficulty. Some customers would undoubtedly say yes, waiting for ever for our bloody food. Ian actually went and got a job in a pub restaurant to see what it was like so Ian was more methodical – after all he’d worked in a laboratory and he knew a lot of it was to do with organisation I mean I remember him saying to me at one stage you’ve got to learn to cook ore than ne pan at a time! I did quite quickly learnt to do that. You’re under enormous pressure and you learn to cope or you don’t. So now, for me to cook dinner for ten people is easy. It’s largely to do with organisation and short uts and what can be pre-cooked and having a good sense that you have to be perfectly prepared and know where every thing was. After 4 years we then started employing other people to cook with us then after 5 and a bit years I was in that car accident and that took me out all together. Ian still cooked although he largely became an over seer, standing in the kitchen making sure that people did what they were supposed to do being a caller I suppose.
Q: The last question – how did your parents feel about you being s chef?
AT: They were delighted – they were surprised. They were entirely ignorant about restaurants they’d been to the local Chinese and when I was a student Mum and I would go to smart restaurants. But they had no idea of what the financial situation was they jus thought that Ian was a money person he could manage this. I’d been bought up to think that if you couldn’t use your brain you used your hand – and now when I look at many of the so-called chefs I can see that they have very good skills with their hands and they’re bright too. There’s still a vast number of so-called chefs who just churn out shit and crap and who actually don’t want to be creative geniuses they just want to follow set things and do it as well as thy can and if they’re sick somebody else replaces the because its all fairly standard formula. I think my parents knew I was trying to do something different from that. Like al parents they believed if I said I could do it I could. I was 35 or something, if it didn’t work I’d do something else. I was full of optimism then. When I ,look at people now who need to have $2million to just have an acceptable fitout and all of the other stuff that goes with it and they can lose their life savings and their house and everything it seems to me a huge risk which would always be hanging over you unless you have people with money who want to back you.
Q: It must be a wonderful thing to create a restaurants you’ve done and have it running like an efficient machine?
AT: Yeah I’d only really come to think of it in more recent years – we sold in 1996 – over 15 years since we left the industry. It was Jani Kyritsis who said to me you made a really beautiful restaurant. I just hadn’t thought of it. I suppose now I’m older I think well, I did. And many of the people I met then have become close friends and I’ve known them for 30 years or something. We were united in our love of the dining experience which is theatre in a way. In me twenties when I wanted to open a restaurant I just wanted to cook and it was difficult to learn that it was more than me cooking what I wanted to cook that you actually had to justify somebody wanting to eat what you cooked and taking pleasure in spending money on it. I hadn’t really thought of that. Occasionally people say you could open a restaurant again – apart from being too old I still think there’s a great opportunity and place for a small establishment in a suburb where the rents are lower and you just cook one or two dishes for the night and people come along and have their dinner and can buy a glass of wine for a few dollars maybe spend 30 spend an hour there and go home. I’m horrified now when I go out and it’s a hundred dollars a head for two courses with an ordinary glass of wine. I mean how many people earn that much money?
 This is incorrect. Point died in 1955, Evans did not begin to work for Komon until 1965.