When it comes to Sydney restaurants, Quay is hard to beat. It’s been awarded three chefs hats by the Good Food Guide 12 years in a row, and named its Restaurant of the Year five times, including in 2017.
The restaurant’s location, overlooking Sydney Harbour on the upper level of the Overseas Passenger Terminal at Circular Quay, certainly helps. But executive chef Peter Gilmore believes one of the most important factors when it comes to achieving such recognition is passion – both his and his team’s.
“I think it’s paramount really to never rest on your laurels as a chef,” he says. “It’s about reinvention and constantly trying to push the envelope with new ideas. I try to keep evolving and to be passionate. I think when you lose your passion that’s when the inspiration can dry up.
“But in the world of dine dining and high cuisine food you never really stop learning. There’s always something that you haven’t done or experienced and new flavours and textures to be discovered. I have just remained passionate because I love it, and as long as that continues I will continue to do what I do. There are times when it’s difficult and there’s a lot of pressure. At the end of the day with a good team behind you and if you love what you do it’s something that’s achievable.”
Gilmore says being one of only three restaurants in the city with three hats is a great honour for the business and staff.
“You need to have a certain level of service and ambience but I think the most important thing is to have original cuisine,” he says. “It needs to be a unique experience, something that’s quite special. That evolution of ideas and the food backed up by great service… It needs to be a complete restaurant at a very high level.”
Born and bred in Sydney, Gilmore started his apprenticeship at 16 and spent his 20s working in kitchens in regional NSW and overseas. He was head chef at De Beers Restaurant at Whale Beach before moving to Quay in 2001.
While he was already well-known in the industry, he became a household name when his snow egg dessert featured in the final of top-rating reality TV show MasterChef. “In a way, chefs have become celebrities, but that’s not the most important thing for me,” he says. “It’s important for the business to have a reputation that’s solid and it’s part and parcel of being a chef today, but it’s not what I aim for or seek.”
Gilmore is often invited to attend and speak at festivals and other food events overseas, and tries to take the opportunity up a couple of times a year to learn what’s happening in other parts of the world and tack on an extra few days to check out new restaurants.
“I think it’s really important as a chef to travel and experience different cultures and get inspiration,” he says. “I’m very passionate about the natural world and about produce, so a lot of the inspiration comes from new produce. It might be that I just discovered heirloom Japanese radish with a red interior and that inspires a new dish. Sometimes I might go somewhere and see a new technique or a traditional technique that you can apply in a different way. Sometimes it’s going to an art gallery and looking at a sculpture.”
It may sound time consuming for someone who runs two restaurants – Quay and Bennelong, on the other side of the harbour at the Sydney Opera House. But Gilmore says it’s crucial to make time and schedule it in.
“I have one day a week that I devote to development,” he says. “I’m in a lucky situation that the restaurants I look after I have very good staff. I have good head chefs that I can rely upon for the day-to-day management of the kitchen. That gives me the opportunity to do the development that I do.”
He works 55 to 60 hours per week, spending two days per week at each restaurant.
“A few years ago we moved our kitchen team to a four-day week with three days off,” Gilmore says. “The industry is pretty notorious for very long hours so we tried to get the hours down by doing that and that seems to have helped us a lot with staff retention and having a good work-life balance.”
While he changes the menu often, Gilmore believes it’s also good to have two or three signature dishes that people hear about. “They’re usually a well-constructed dish that people enjoy,” he says. “Equally it’s very important that the rest of the menu evolve all the time.”
At Quay, one of these is obviously the snow egg. “People still come in and that’s one of the main reasons they come even ten years later,” Gilmore says. “It’s crazy. It’s lovely. It’s also really nice to have something that’s special, you could say it’s become iconic really. It changes with the seasons so there’s a different fruit combination that you use. Currently it’s strawberry and in a couple of months it may be guava.
“The other dish that has always been on the menu in some form or another is a combination of pork and some kind of seafood – earth to mouth to sea. Currently it’s smoked pig jowl served with shaved razor clam meat from South Australia topped with sea cucumber crackling and a smoked pork jus.”
Naturally, Gilmore is hoping for continued success in the 2018 Good Food Guide, with the winners to be announced on October 9.
“I think the awards are seen as a benchmark for the industry in a lot of ways,” he says. “There are a lot more voices these days than there used to be, but the Good Food Guide awards have a special place in the minds of chefs and restaurateurs as really setting the standard.”