In the Australian restaurant scene, Tony Bilson has no equal. Often referred to as the ‘Godfather of Gastronomy’, over the past four decades he’s operated some of the most memorable restaurants this country has seen, think Kinselas, Berowra Waters Inn, and Bilsons. Along the way he has not only helped re-define how Australians eat, and dine out, but has mentored some wonderful young talents that have gone on to be incredibly influential in the food industry – Tetsuya Wakuda, Manu Feildel and Guillaume Brahimi to name a few.
As a child of hoteliers in Victoria, Tony grew up with the smells of food around him all the time. He learnt French recipes from his mother’s cooking and further piqued his culinary interests by reading Escoffier. At the same stage, he became enamoured with the Belle Epoque, and so was drawn to the arts. As a young man he immersed himself in Bohemian Melbourne in the 1960s.
Tony bought his first restaurant in 1969, La Pomme d’Or in Melbourne, before relocating to Sydney in the halcyon days of the early 1970s, where he opened Tony’s Bon Gout, which served everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Gough Whitlam, before he and his then partner Gay Bilson, opened the iconic Berowra Waters Inn on the Hawkesbury River with award-winning architect Glenn Murcutt presiding over an amazing transformation of the premises.
From there Tony moved back to inner city Sydney where he opened what was to become a legendary venue, Kinselas, right in the heaving heart of Bohemian Sydney at Taylor’s Square. Then followed a series of Sydney city ventures including Bilson’s at Circular Quay, Fine Bouche, Treasury at Sydney’s Inter-Continental Hotel, Ampersand, Canard and Bilson’s Restaurant at the Radisson Plaza.
Special time, special place
Of all his restaurant ventures, it was perhaps Kinselas that most embodied Tony’s artistic spirit.
“Kinselas was fabulous, I really loved it,” Tony tells me when we sit down for a chat on the Selector Impress set.
“I’ve loved all my restaurants in their own way at different times in my life, but Kinselas was special because it was at a very difficult time in Australia, it was when AIDS hit Oxford St and really what we were trying to do I guess, was to act as a pub for the arts community, but also more for the broader community.
“It was very much to do with arts, performing arts and I also think we broadened the audience for arts companies like the Sydney Dance Company, Sydney Theatre Company, as they all performed there. I met a lot of really good international performers there.
“But it wasn’t that old-fashioned nightclub-type scene, it was very much a Melbourne boheme scene, which is where I came from. It was based on the Le Chat Noir in 1890s Paris and it was terrific.”
“Bilson’s was fabulous too at Circular Quay, it was a really ground-breaking restaurant. There were other things, too. I was a consultant for the state government in 1988 and we did all the restaurants under the government value such as the Opera House, the State Library, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Centennial Park – 35 different outlets in total. In all of those places, we changed the whole way food was served to the public. That was a wonderful thing to do.”
No small change
Although admitting that phenomenona like the celebrity chef explosion, the proliferation of more products on supermarket shelves and the education of consumers have been major upheavals for the restaurant world, the biggest change Tony says he’s seen from his time in restaurants is not to do with food.
“I think the biggest change has probably been in wines,” says Tony. “If you look at the Australian wine industry, from where it was in the 60s when really there were only about five major brands, the amount of wine companies and wineries has grown exponentially.
“Additionally, I think Australians are now far better educated in wine and food. In the old days, most of the service staff would have been immigrants. When I started it was very unusual for a middle class Australian boy to take up being a chef. But I think these days it’s like pop stardom, it’s a different thing.”
A hard game
While all Tony’s restaurants impressed on the food, wine and service side, not all were successful financially. Tony has had his ups and downs over the years.
“I would prefer to have had better advice to be honest,” he says. “The final responsibility rests on me, but there’s no way that I can know all of the complexities when one relies on advice. The financial side is a lot more complex than it used to be, especially since GST came in – the profit margins have been narrowed.”
But through it all, the highs and lows, Tony says he can look back on his career so far with great satisfaction and delight.
“I can’t claim the praise for the successes without accepting the responsibility for the losses too. But sometimes it’s more complex than it appears. If you are interested in it as an art then I think there’s natural risk involved. That’s the way it is and I certainly wouldn’t change anything. I would have loved to have done a couple of other things but that’s OK, that’s life.
“There are a lot of other people that have ups and downs in industries besides restaurants, it’s not unusual, it’s just that we happen to get the publicity.”
Tony talks food
“Carpaccio of eel – people think eel is one of those things to be avoided at all costs. But by taking something like that and making it beautiful, it opens peoples’ minds to new horizons. It is a beautiful dish, so fresh. You taste it and go ‘wow’.
The pheasant, a classic 1800s game dish is only eaten in autumn, the season too for the wild mushrooms used in the dish. I love having a strong sense of seasonality in menus. We used to have rifles when we were kids and shoot rabbits, quail, duck and such, these were the tastes of my childhood. My mother cooked French dishes and I just love those flavours. And as I found out later, these sort of dishes are perfect with a great Burgundy.
The fig tart is very seasonal. Autumn for me is figs and game. Figs may now be available all year but they are at their finest in autumn. This delicious tart is very easy to do. It looks and tastes beautiful.”
Words Mark Hughes