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Eating the seasons

by Dr Anne Sanders, 5 August 2019

Tony Bilson
Tony Bilson, c. 2005 George Fetting. © George Fetting/Copyright Agency, 2022

It’s the tight framing of the portrait photograph that causes a double take. Head cropped at the forehead, a spotlit, personality-creased face emerges into sharp relief from an inky ground, floating forward from the hint of a white chef jacket symmetrically anchored by two button toggles. The image is, perhaps, most strikingly reminiscent of a Japanese Noh mask.

I called photographer George Fetting to ask him about photographing chef Tony Bilson in such a manner. The portrait work, taken in 2005 at Bilson’s eponymous restaurant at the Radisson Plaza Hotel in Sydney – and donated to the National Portrait Gallery by the restaurateur in 2008 – captures the warmth and gregariousness of an elder statesman, one credited as the godfather of modern Australian cuisine. I mentioned to Fetting that the photograph reminds me of a Noh mask. He chuckled, replying that he is fascinated by masks and has a collection; they’re mostly of the tribal Papuan variety, but he also has a few Noh masks.

Perhaps it was a subliminal influence for the photographer in this instance; however, the particular mask whose features most closely resemble this contemporary portrait resides in the collection of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. It is of a rustic elder, used to portray a fisherman, ferryman or farmer in the first act of Noh warrior plays. The V&A website credits the origin of the mask’s title, Asakura-Jo, as a ‘pun on the characters used to write the name, making him the “Old man of the brightening dawn”’. It conjures visions of a sage-like figure.

Peeling back this Japanese mask-portrait connection reveals Bilson’s influence and contribution to the development of a modern Australian cuisine – together with the development of the Australian wine industry – through Japanese and French post-war culinary cross-pollination. Many chefs’ careers have been launched through a connection with Bilson, including that of his previous partner Gay Bilson (of Berowra Waters fame); the internationally renowned Tetsuya Wakuda; Paul Merrony; My Kitchen Rules’ Manu Feildel; and many others.

Raised in Colac, Victoria and schooled in Melbourne, Bilson’s early life was deeply influenced by great cooking – from the extended family’s hotel interests in Sydney, to his mother’s cooking and extensive library (courtesy of regular packages from the Hill of Content Bookshop, including such classics as ‘Fine Bouche: A history of the restaurant in France’), to the location of the family apartment in East Melbourne, around the corner from Georges and Mirka Mora’s Café Balzac. For the Melbourne Grammar boarder, the Moras’ iconic eatery was like a second home, and a Bohemian one at that. Artist Charles Blackman was the dish-washer, and many young, impoverished artists traded works on the walls for dinner at the restaurant. It was Georges Mora who advised Bilson to go to Sydney to seek training at Johnnie Walker’s Bistro restaurant, under the watchful eye of French chef Paul Harbulot. Housed in the basement of the Royal Exchange – the old Wool Market, frequented by French buyers of superior quality merino wool destined for French woollen mills – Johnnie Walker’s was the epicentre of business fine dining, along with his Rhine Castle wine cellar in the same location.

In 1969 Bilson bought his first restaurant, La Pomme d’Or, in Hawthorn, Melbourne. He and his then partner, Gay, returned to Sydney in 1972, leasing a premises in Elizabeth Street. Tony’s Bon Gout quickly emerged as the leading Sydney restaurant, following favourable reviews by influential critics Sam Orr and Leo Schofield. The Bilsons purchased a run-down inn on the Hawkesbury River as their next venture. Through the auspices of Bon Gout’s maître d', Frenchman Alain Chagny, whose family were winemakers in Beaujolais, they travelled to France in 1976. There they were introduced to many of the key chefs forging an innovative new cuisine centred around regional, seasonal menus, where fresh produce and a light touch reigned.

1 ‘Salmis of Partridge with Cabbage Ravioli’ 2009,. 2 ‘Sydney Seafoods with Seawater Jelly’ 2009,. Both by Oliver Strewe.

The forerunner and inspiration behind this ‘Nouvelle Cuisine’ was legendary master of modern French gastronomy, Fernand Point, at his three-star Michelin Guide restaurant La Pyramide, in Vienne, France. Although chef Point had died in 1955, the restaurant –under the guidance of his formidable wife, Madame Point – continued. His protégés, the leaders of the new movement, referred to as the ‘Petits Points’, were among the world’s great contemporary French chefs: Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, Jean and Pierre Troisgros, Michel Guérard and Roger Vergé. Point’s compilation of over 200 recipes, Ma Gastronomie, was published in 1969 and became one of Bilson’s culinary bibles. Through the introductions of the Chagnys of Château du Châtelard in Lancie, the Bilsons met these luminaries and were wined and dined in their three-starred regional restaurants.

French-Japanese culinary cross-pollination began in the 1950s when Japanese journalist Shizuo Tsuji decided he wanted to learn to become a chef, and went to France to train. He returned to Japan to run the Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka, and through his regular visits to France and friendship with Madame Point, encouraged Paul Bocuse ‘an emerging new talent’ to come and study Japanese cuisine. That was in 1965, when Bocuse had just gained his first Michelin star. By 1977, with the international reputation of the Petit Point chefs booming (marking the ascendance of the celebrity chef phenomenon), Bocuse helped Tsuji purchase a French chateau in which to set up a finishing school for Japanese chefs keen to learn the art of French cuisine. As Bilson has noted, with Japanese interest in French wines growing, Japanese chefs adapted French flavours to make their own dishes more compatible with wine, rather than tea and spirits.

The Bilsons returned from France and redeveloped – with architect Glenn Murcutt’s design – Berowra Waters Inn on the Hawkesbury River. Inspired both by the river locale and what they had seen, eaten and learned while overseas, the prix fixe menus at the restaurant introduced a new level of fine dining. Although over an hour from Sydney and accessible only by boat or seaplane, Berowra Waters drew national and international interest, receiving critical recognition of an emerging modern Australian cuisine: bookings were months in advance.

When the partnership split in the early 1980s, Gay continued running Berowra Waters and Tony left to start a new venture, Kinsella’s ( the venue was previously a funeral parlour), at Taylor Square in Sydney city. In 1983 Bilson hired a young Tetsuya Wakuda as sushi chef, training him in contemporary French techniques while encouraging him to experiment. Tetsuya acknowledges that his own style emerged ‘from this marriage of French technique with the Japanese philosophy of using natural, seasonal flavours’. It was a foundation that led him to global gastronomic acclaim: the Gallery’s portrait of Wakuda was taken by photographer Quentin Jones in 2004, a year before the chef’s iconic Tetsuya’s was ranked fourth in Restaurant Magazine’s list of the 50 best restaurants in the world.

In searching for new Australian wines for Kinsella’s, Bilson met the young South Australian winemaker Adam Wynn. Bilson travelled to France and Japan with Wynn in 1991. Adam and his father – Wynn family wine scion David – had established Mountadam Vineyards in South Australia’s high Eden Valley in the early 1970s, following the sale of Wynns Winegrowers. Planting cool climate chardonnay and pinot noir, the Wynns aimed to produce select, high quality wines. Adam completed his thesis on Burgundian wines at the University of Bordeaux and returned to Australia in 1982. Using the French marketing strategy of leading with the best brands as his template, his concern was to develop high-end export markets for Australian wine and food. By the late 1980s Adam had identified Japan as an untapped market (wine in Japan up until that point had been identified solely with the French). Working with a Japanese agent, Toshio Yasuma, Adam planned promotions of high quality Australian cuisine matched with Mountadam wines at the reputable Hotel Seiyo, in Ginza, Tokyo. It was during the 1991 promotion that Yasuma took Adam and Tony to Kyoto to experience radical kaiseki chef Yoshihiro Murata’s revelatory seasonal tasting menu. Murata-san himself had spent several months in France in the early 1980s before deciding to return to Japan and the family kaiseki restaurant, Kikunoi, in Kyoto. As an exchange reprise, Adam Wynn invited Murata-san to Australia in 1998 to perform his magic with Australian seasonal produce.

The gastronomic revolution in the heartland of haute cuisine bore the distinctive elements of a Japanese Zen aesthetic. Comprising a distilled seasonality, the zenith being the refined kaiseki-ryori cuisine from the ancient imperial capital Kyoto, it influenced the development of the degustation or tasting menus in the west. Poetically transcribed as ‘eating the seasons’, the concept of ‘kaiseki’ shares a broad equivalence with the French wine concept of ‘goût de terroir’.  
And Bilson led the charge in the Australian setting. From Kinsella’s, to Bilson’s at Circular Quay, to Fine Bouche, Ampersand, Canard and finally Bilson’s at Radisson Plaza (2003 to 2011), he continued to push the boundaries. At his final, celebrated three-hatted restaurant, one reviewer swooned that ‘he has never cooked with more intelligence and finesse’. Writer Frank Moorhouse reminisced, ‘our gastronomic knowledge developed as Tony went from restaurant to restaurant and as he developed as a chef … He taught us about cheese, about what wines went with what food, the intricacies of French gastronomy, and introduced us to food that we’d not eaten … and most of us, as he developed, we moved with him’.

Bilson’s swansong was a series of degustation menus, ranging from seven to fifteen courses. For Bilson, his gastronomy is art: ‘A craft doesn’t progress to art in short order; it develops, it evolves, it absorbs subconscious delicacies and represents them as new insights and finally it becomes art.’ Seeking new approaches, he melded and adapted classic French technique, sought out the new movement in French cuisine and brought kaiseki-inspired seasonality and presentation into his métier. This honing of the craft, and his mentoring and launching of the careers of so many young chefs, has contributed to the development of a distinctive Australian culinary expression. In his case, there is no mask required. He is the rustic elder – fisherman, farmer, ferryman – a nurturer and conveyer of ideas and creativity, always seeking out the best.

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