For Peter Gilmore, executive chef of the venerated Quay restaurant in Sydney, an empty plate represents a canvas just begging to be dressed. Embodying the artistic philosophy ‘food inspired by nature’, Peter looks to the natural world when searching for inspiration for his delightfully confounding menu creations. In his ten years as the creative genius behind Quay, the affable cuisinier has helped elevate the restaurant to become the sparkle in Australia’s culinary eye – ranked 26th in S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2011. But despite such plaudits, Peter’s true pleasures lie in simple fare, satisfied customers, and moments spent with his hands in the soil of his veggie garden.
What was your childhood dream?
From the earliest time I can remember ever seriously contemplating anything, it was to be a chef. I think I’d really made my mind up by the time I was 12. I used to wrestle my dad to get the barbecue tongs – and he used to burn the steaks anyway, so it was much better if I cooked! One of the big things I really wanted to do was travel and I knew that if I learned to be a chef, I could potentially travel the world.
Having grown up in Sydney, what are your fondest food memories?
There are so many. My mum, Dawn,is a really good cook and loved dinner parties and entertaining. Growing up in the 70s, some of my earliest memories do really revolve around food. I remember getting up at 11 o’clock at night and watching my mum prepare food for parties, and I wanted to be a part of it. There was always just this general feeling of hospitality revolving around good food. I’ve even got a photo of myself sitting on the kitchen table when I was about 18 months old – licking Pavlova beaters – which now hangs up at home.
How have your travels influenced your approach to food?
I think I was 19 when I first left to go overseas and I went to London. It really opened my eyes to what was out there. I was working with great produce like wild mushrooms, game and things I hadn’t been exposed to in Australia. Travel in general does wonders for you and really is a great eye opener.
What has been one of your own memorable eating experiences during your travels?
There’s a very famous French chef called Michel Bras, of Bras Restaurant, and his son Sebastien now runs the kitchen. Sebastien came out and cooked with us about three years ago and did a guest dinner at Quay. So when my wife and I went overseas, we visited Sebastien and had a wonderful meal at Bras Restaurant. But the highlight was after dinner, when Sebastien came up to us and told us that his father, Michel, had invited us to his house to cook lunch for us. To me, Michel Bras was the most amazing chef in the world, so to be eating lunch at his house was amazing. And what was so beautiful about it was that we sat in his kitchen at a big old table with a roaring open fire and we had some local cheeses, salami and pate to start off with, and then he cooked this very simple grilled asparagus with bread, morel mushrooms and cream. We finished with a big bowl of freshly picked strawberries and cream – it was a very simple lunch but it was probably one of the best meals I’ve had in my life.
How did you come to form your ‘food inspired by nature’ approach?
About seven years ago, I moved into a house with a backyard for the first time and I had the opportunity to start growing some herbs and some vegetables. I absolutely fell in love with growing veggies and seeing how you can plant a little pea in the ground and watch it grow up a trellis into beautiful pea flowers. First I was just hooked on growing things at home, but after looking through seed catalogues I realised how much diversity was out there and I saw how little was available in the general marketplace. There was this great diversity of produce – I started growing ten different types of radishes in my garden, but I could only buy one or two at the market. There’s a great variety possible, but I had to go out and find someone who was willing to grow stuff for the restaurant on a bigger scale. I ran into Richard and Nina Kalina, who were growing berries up in the Blue Mountains and I asked them to grow vegetables for the restaurant. It started with a couple of vegetables and then we added more and more veggies with every season. It really helped me have a much bigger palette to work from and also fundamentally shifted the way I thought about presenting food and how I dealt with the creation of my dishes. They’ve become much more organic and free-flowing – reflecting nature. I’ve also got a lady down in South Australia who sends me green almonds in the post, and I only buy my almonds from her. The network of small farmers and producers out there is incredible and, to find specialty produce, you really need to go out and research.
Tell me about The Growing Room …
It’s a converted cool room downstairs from Quay that we put hydroponic lights in. That way we can have certain herbs, and things like pea flowers and mountain spinach – all these lovely little greens – that can be growing right up until they are put on the plate. It’s kind of a way of bringing the country into the city, and it’s only a small element of what we do but it gives us some great freshness.
What is success to you?
Success can be measured in a lot of ways. The way I measure it is when I go out and see a customer and they tell me that their meal has been the best thing they’ve eaten in their entire life. That’s what we do it all for. Those sorts of comments from people really make all the effort and the work that you’ve done worthwhile. You’ve touched them on an emotional level, and giving someone the greatest meal of their life is an incredible accolade to have.
What has been your greatest challenge?
I think it’s really just being able to stay on the path and not sell out – to keep working at a high-quality level. You have to accept long hours and crappy money while you’re in the training and learning phase, so you have to be steadfast and strong and know that things will open up in the future.
What inspires you when you are creating things for your menu?
All sorts of things. The natural world really inspires me. I’m working on a new dish at the moment with a really beautiful sashimi of flathead that’s been caught in Corner Inlet in Victoria. The inspiration I’ve used for the dish is trying to imagine the environment that this particular fish – the rock flathead – lives in. It actually feeds on crustaceans and seaweed, and so the dish is going to have a black-lip abalone, periwinkles and a wild oyster cream, with a whole lot of beautiful greens like sea cabbage and nasturtium. I really want to create an idea of the flathead’s environment on the plate. There’s also another dish that’s been inspired by the coral gardens of the Great Barrier Reef.
Where do you find peace in life?
In the garden at home. I run a bit of a test garden at home, with four ten-metre raised garden beds. Just getting your hands in the soil and grounding yourself is a wonderful thing.
What are your words of wisdom?
Take your time. Don’t be in a rush to be a head chef somewhere. Learn your craft and your skills and work with some really good people. And then let all the experiences brew – once you are a head chef you rarely get the opportunity to go back and learn from other chefs.