If gastronomy is the appreciation of good food and wine, Australia has no bigger gastronome than Tony Bilson. The 67-year old started at an early age. Raised by a family of hedonistic hard drinkers – even uncle Lionel the priest “drank good Scotch” – his family’s love of a good drink and fine restaurants “seeped into my fabric” he says in the opening chapter of his memoir Insatiable: My Life in the Kitchen.
By the age of 12 this “middle class boy bitten by the cooking bug” had read Auguste Escoffier’s Introduction to Modern Cookery and Pierre Andrieu’s Fine Bouche. He would cycle across Melbourne as an independent teenager to indulge in asparagus vinaigrette and jugged hare at Balzac Restaurant owned by Georges and Mirka Mora – a key couple in Melbourne’s restaurant and cultural scene. By the time of his expulsion from boarding school in his final year (for smoking) he was cooking for girls from the Esquire cookbook “my bible at the time” dressed in Arabian robes brought back from Egypt by his father, and as a first-year student at Monash University – where he read economics and politics – he invested in a Sunbeam frypan “to continue my successful strategy with the young women”.
Behind the scenes
Bilson sets the scene for a good-humoured and honest back-stage tour of his life as a world-renowned chef and restaurateur – from his bohemian explorations, to an indulgent gastronomic tour of France just after the birth of Nouvelle Cuisine, and a professional career that nurtured his hereditary culinary streak (his grandmother was a pastry cook) but fuelled alcoholism and bouts of depression.
Bilson charts the evolution of global and Australian gastronomy alongside his professional and personal revelations: from the influence of Escoffier, to the birth of Nouvelle Cuisine, and the technical innovations of contemporary cooking, all the while noting the great French chefs that influenced his cooking and his own influence on Australia’s gastronomic scene.
Bilson visited France for the first time in 1976 with his former wife Gay, just as the philosophy of Nouvelle Cuisine was inspiring some of the country’s great chefs to break from traditional rules and experiment for themselves. He devotes two chapters to his tour of France at this time, where he ate at the best restaurants, embraced an itinerant education in wine, and generally absorbed as much as he could of the gastronomic developments of the era.
Back home these innovative chef-mentors inspired his cooking at Berowra Waters Inn where confit of salmon became “part of the lexicon of contemporary dishes”.
“The cooking at Berowra was still derivative of French regional cooking but had loosened up and was more simply presented on the plate,” Bilson says.
“We were beginning to create our own school of influence.”
Indeed, Berowra was the launchpad from which a number of Australian chefs commenced their culinary ascent, including Neil Perry and Sean Moran. It was at Berowra that Bilson established his credentials in the new world of contemporary, creative cooking. But it was at the original Bilson’s restaurant that he developed his own unique culinary identity. He says of this time:
“And so it was through the wonderful palate education I had received from my mentors that I could now properly put it to use to create the style of dish that I wanted. Not [Paul] Bocuse’s or [Alain] Chapel’s cuisine but the beginnings of my own definitive flavours and insights.”
Embracing Escoffier’s aphorism that cuisine changes with social and technical change, Bilson was often ahead of his time. Kinsela’s was the first restaurant to include Japanese dishes in a contemporary menu, and at his restaurant Ampersand a separate preparation kitchen was at “the forefront of international restaurant trends”. It was here, in the late 1990s that he was cooking dishes on mass in individual vacuum-packed pouches at 60 degrees Celsius – a technique known as sous-vide, which is all the rage today.
“The technology combined with the artistry changed the way bulk food was prepared in Australia,” he says.
It is at this point that the reader starts to fully comprehend the imprint that Bilson has left on Australian gastronomy. He wasn’t just a mover and shaker; he was an orchestrator. He is highly critical of Len Evans and Brian Croser who shaped an Australian wine industry that was populated by cheap mass-marketed wines, at the expense of artisanal style French wines – a move that he says was driven by commercial greed. In steering some winemakers to make the kind of wine that he wanted to sell at Berowra, his work was “an essential component in the wine evolution”. He is credited with influencing Yalumba to plant the first Viognier in Australia.
The main man
Bilson’s life story is set against the social and political tensions of the times and the ever-changing Australian cultural milieu. He expresses his views on gay marriage, the legalisation of drugs, and the Gulf War. He shares with the reader amusing tales of wild bohemian days – and nights, when he wore his hair long and dressed in skin-tight trousers, velvet shirt and a full-length fur coat. It was a time of torrid love affairs, lots of drugs, and a homosexual dalliance. Readers may never look at today’s bow-tied culinary boffin in the same way again.
He rubbed shoulders with the rich and culturally famous, including classical ballet dancers, artists, writers and musicians, and hob-knobbed with some of the world’s best chefs. He name-drops an impressive number of culinary and cultural celebrities and tracks the coming and goings of the main players in Australia’s restaurant industry.
He battled alcoholism, broken relationships, and restaurant boom and busts. Bilson describes his personal and professional lows, often in a muted, matter-of-fact style. At times if feels like he is holding back, but that’s his prerogative. His writing is at its most descriptive when he talks about Berowra and the Hawkesbury River. He describes “the semaphored lapis-blue streak of a kingfisher” diving in the sun, and the arrival of the mullet to spawn – “the great shoals churning the surface of the river silver” – with the sensitivity of a poet and the eye of an artist.
Indeed, he peppers the chapters with phrases that capture his philosophy of cooking as art – the “ballet of service”, a wine with the essence of the “flowering fruit trees of Van Gogh”, and an oyster was transformed into a piece of Victorian mourning jewelry by a teaspoon of black Oscietre caviar – and describes the theatre of the experience of dining at Berowra, which “placed the guests firmly on the restaurant’s stage.”
Bilson skillfully guides the reader through the complex issue of the relationship between gastronomy and art, managing mostly to avoid being labeled with the “dreadful epithet of wanker” which he was conscious could be “hurled in his direction” when discussing this topic during his career.
His poetic language is over the top at times and the use of the word “epiphany” and terms such as “zen-like” to describe great gastronomic moments is repetitive and tedious. But Bilson has dined on the fabled dish ortolan – “one of the best meals of my life”, and drank Chateau d’Yquem – “possibly the greatest wine I have ever tasted”, so perhaps his repetitive terminology can be overlooked.
Throughout Insatiable Bilson describes the theatre of the restaurant and himself in artistic terms. By the end of the memoir he is the “conductor rather than the first violinist” at Bilson’s where Diego Munoz runs the kitchen. If restaurant dining is the theatrical experience that is described, then Bilson is certainly one of the key Australian choreographers of his time.