Quay has achieved the highest rating, three chef’s hats, for an incredible 17 straight years.
Such acclaim could easily coalesce into complacency, but Gilmore took the radical step of completely reinventing his flagship fine diner this year and reopened in July. One particularly notable absence on the new menu is his famed Snow Egg, an intricate and visually spectacular dessert that tested competitors on Masterchef Australia and had become arguably the most famous dish on any Australian menu.
Gilmore talked to The CEO Magazine about the Chef of the Year honour, the importance of reinvention and cultivating a distinctive style as a chef.
The CEO Magazine: Nobody goes into cooking for the awards, but it must be nice to get the recognition of Chef of the Year?
It is nice, especially in a year where we did a major renovation at Quay to really shake things up. To have that recognition is a good thing. Also, maintaining our three chefs hats was a real milestone, so it’s been a very nice year.
Was the revamp a stressful time or did you find it reinvigorating?
A bit of both. It was pretty full on. We were closed for three months and we came back with a whole new menu. We reduced the numbers by 20 people in an effort to make the dining room and the whole experience more personable and intimate. We also decided to do set menu only and it’s the first time we’ve done that. So it’s been quite a lot of change but it’s all gone really well and we feel very happy with it.
Do you take inspiration from the location of Quay?
Well, we’re very lucky to have such a beautiful location and it’s very inspiring to be in. But it also means that we’ve also got to make sure the food is pretty special to draw people’s attention back to the food (laughs).
The White Coral at Quay is already seen as a classic Sydney dish. Did you go through different iterations before settling on the final version?
It took a couple of months to develop and to get it working the way I wanted it to. It was one of the big challenges I had in taking the Snow Egg off the menu, I had to come back with a really strong dessert. There was quite a bit of working out that had to be done but I’m really happy with how it turned out and people seem to be loving it.
What was the inspiration for your new cookbook From the Earth?
For many years I’ve worked very closely with growers and farmers. I’ve also been growing vegetables in what I call my ‘test garden’, my back(yard) garden for almost a decade now. So, I wanted to write a book that emphasised how special vegetables are and the variety of incredible heirloom vegetables there are out there.
I wanted to celebrate some of the incredible vegetables that go back hundreds of years and that have been developed over time and to make vegetables the hero. I think it’s really important that we value the sheer variety of incredible vegetables that we have.
With a lot of heirloom vegetables, if we don’t use them, we lose them. A lot of those vegetables are only kept alive by one grower or by one family.
Do you find working in your test garden relaxing?
I do. It’s almost meditative. If I have a day off, I try to get out there for at least a couple of hours. It is a release from the pressure of the restaurant business, for sure. Most days off you will find me there, planting, re-planting or weeding or just generally sorting it out.
I try to grow things from all different parts of the world and try different varieties out before I get my growers to grow them on a much bigger scale for the restaurant. So, it’s linked to what I do but it is also something that I really enjoy.
In an earlier interview with The CEO Magazine (Jonah’s Head Chef) Matteo Zamboni said he admired your food because he could see a photo of one of your dishes and instantly identify it as yours. Are you mindful of having a distinctive style as a chef?
Yeah, I think over the years I have really developed a style. I was probably an early adaptor of incorporating a lot of botanicals in my cooking and the use of herbs and flowers and having a really organic feel. That is a big part of my DNA as a chef.
That’s a really nice compliment actually, that someone could recognise my dish. It means that I must have a reasonably unique approach to what I do, that’s really nice.
What other Sydney restaurants have you enjoyed lately?
Sixpenny just received their third hat (at the 2019 Good Food Guide Awards) this year, which I think is long overdue. (Sixpenny Head Chef) Daniel Puskas’ food is fantastic. I try to eat there at least once a year and I love what he’s doing very much.
I think Ester and their new one, Poly, are both excellent restaurants. It’s very creative food, really pushing boundaries. I personally love going to Spice Temple and Automata. There is certainly some great stuff going on in Sydney at the moment, it’s very healthy.