Ben Williamson, executive chef, Gerard's Bistro
Success is feeling happy and fulfilled in life ...
If you’ve pierced a fork into the slow-braised lamb breast with radish leaf cream, fresh and pickled radish and preserved orange from Gerard’s Bistro, or dunked a stick of freshly baked sourdough into hot spreadable Calabrian salami at Gerard’s Bar, you have head chef Ben Williamson to thank. As the culinary craftsman behind both menus, Ben has brought experience from working in kitchens across Australia and the Middle East to team up with local restaurateurs the Moubaraks to launch the two coveted James Street venues. This weekend, Ben’s cheffing prowess will once again be on display as his recipe for Murray cod, mussels and oysters in kishk is revealed in the appetite-inducing publication for the Gallery of Modern Art’s new food, film and art exhibition, Harvest. Before the exhibition opens this Saturday June 28, Ben took a break from feeding the bellies of Brisbane to chat to The Weekend Edition about trash cooking, food films and his favourite local hangouts.
How would you sum up your basic food philosophy?
Honest, fresh, balanced.
What’s your favourite ingredient to work with, and why?
Currently … buttermilk. Lately, I’ve been told I have an unhealthy obsession with it.
After a long shift in the kitchen, how do you like to unwind?
Currently … with a glass of wild ferment rousanne. Again, I’ve been told I have an unhealthy obsession with it.
Can you share a spot of advice with the home-cooks of Brisbane?
Using less of better ingredients is better than a lot of cheap options.
You’ve worked in restaurants across Perth, Sydney, Bahrain and Brisbane, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt in the kitchen so far?
To never stop the evaluation and refinement of what you do and always surround yourself with strong like-minded people that have your back unquestionably.
You also spent time crafting the in-flight menu for first-class Gulf Air passengers, what’s an interesting fact you learnt about cooking food that’s served in the air?
The ability to taste salt, spice and sugar is greatly reduced in flight and acidic flavours are heightened, so it was necessary to over-season to a degree. Strongly spiced foods were always well received. Being a Middle Eastern airline, this wasn’t a problem. Maybe that’s why I’m a bit of a salt fiend these days!
What inspired your move to Brisbane in 2009?
I met my wife while I was in Bahrain and she grew up here. We moved back to Perth after Bahrain for a short stint and I realised I still wanted a change. Brisbane was a no-brainer and I’ve not regretted the decision. I love this city. It’s been good to me.
What do you love about living here?
I think it’s a great city and well on the way to rivalling its southern competitors. It’s great to be part of that.
You’re the man responsible for the brilliant menus at Gerard’s Bistro and now Gerard’s Bar, what’s your favourite dish on either of these menus?
Other than the cauliflower and bekaa wing flavour bombs in Gerard’s Bistro, the brisket to share is probably never going to come off the menu. The idea behind it was to present the ultimate ‘make your own’ kebab, or shawarma. In Bahrain, it was the go-to hunger meal. There was a dodgy street full of vendors we called ‘Shawarma Alley’ that I’d go to almost daily when I was in town – it was so simple and so good. They were smaller than the kebabs you’re used to here, about the thickness of a 20-cent piece and packed with flavour. As it was so busy, it was always fresh. Fresh flatbread off the saj, grilled meat, garlic sauce, onion and herbs – that was it. The brisket is the massively tricked-up homage to that, using the same flavour principles, and the Moubaraks’ mum makes the saj bread for us daily. The awesome meat cabinet in Gerard’s Bar is another stand-out for me. We have some great artisan producers of smallgoods in Australia and I’m proud to be able to showcase the great variety to people in a fun way.
You’ve contributed a recipe for freshwater Murray cod, mussels and oysters in kishk to QAGOMA’s publication for the upcoming exhibition, Harvest. Why did you choose this particular dish?
I chose this recipe for the Harvest publication because the kishk that’s the basis of the dish is a little known by-product of cheese and yoghurt making in Lebanon. The whey that’s separated from the curd is mixed with burghul and fermented, worked, then dried in the sun over a number of weeks, then crumbled into a fine powder or pellets. They then have it for the winter months when the goats or sheep don’t produce milk. It’s traditionally re-constituted like porridge with lemon, garlic, chilli and ground lamb or chicken. It’s really nourishing and has a great funky/sour flavour. In a way, it’s a form of ‘trash cooking’. The process of conserving product all year round is called ‘mouneh’ in Lebanon and central to their food culture. I thought this would be a great talking point for the exhibition.
You note that you have deep appreciation for the Lebanese custom of turning a by-product into something of worth – is this an approach you like to employ in the kitchen?
Absolutely! We have very little waste in the kitchen at Gerard’s. It’s good for business and honours the products and producers that have contributed to us. We get almost all of our beasts in whole and don’t throw away any part at all. Almost everything is made in-house in the Bistro and we’re working towards making this absolute.
What other Harvest exhibition events are you looking forward to?
The film festival! I remember watching The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover when I was younger and I can’t wait to revel in the nostalgia!
You were born and bred in Western Australia; what were you like as a child?
My mum says I was a happy, loving boy … when I wasn’t at school.
What’s your personal definition of ‘success’?
Feeling happy and fulfilled in life.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement so far, in work or in life?
Maintaining a work-life balance with my beautiful wife and kids. I pull a lot of hours.
Only a Brisbane local would know … the entire city stops on Origin night.
FAVOURITE WEEKEND SPOT TO:
Perk-up … Bare Bones Society, Jindalee.
Relax … Scrumptious Reads, Fortitude Valley.
Dine … Tartufo, Fortitude Valley.
Catch-up … Lychee Lounge, West End.
Be inspired … Gallery of Modern Art, South Bank.