Former restaurateur and author, Gay Bilson is one of the guest speakers at the Watermark Literary Society’s 2011 Muster.
How did you find your way from growing up in the suburbs of Melbourne to becoming a restaurateur and cook in Sydney?
Liberated from a stifling working class home by going to Melbourne University in the early ‘60s; never finished a degree. Worked in the cataloguing dept. of the Baillieu Library at Melb. Uni for a few years; loved being surrounded by books. Lived in the US for a couple of years with husband and 2 baby boys in the early ‘70s.
Back to Melbourne, met Tony Bilson (never married, but we had 2 daughters). Neither of us had a job. Drove to Sydney, opened the Bon Goût in 1973, and the rest is … Learned to cook on the job and pivotally made the restaurant work by dint of hard work, as Tony had talent in spades, specifically for French cookery.
I spent much time reading the New York Review of Books sitting on the laundry bags between the kitchen and the dining room late at night.
Your career as a professional cook in Sydney was extensive, spanning 25 years (from 1973 – 1998). What was the most valuable thing you learned about food and people’s relationship to it during these years?
I’ve never thought of myself as having a ‘career’. In retrospect, I learned little about people’s relationship to food – that’s something I feel I know quite a lot more about now that I am 67. The early years, ‘70s and ‘80s, were the period of a new interest in restaurants and chefs by those who ate out, and in this respect we were each learning about each other. The food press blossomed (not the right word, for I have never, ever held it in high regard) then as well, so the media became implicated in reputations.
What were some of your more interesting experiences as owner of the famous Berowra Waters Inn? I would imagine running an establishment accessible only by boat, seaplane or private ferry had more than the usual amount of challenges …
If you have Plenty, then you could read the couple of chapters on Berowra Waters Inn. Off the top of my head, it was the hard slog which has stayed with me, and yes, the bloody water which had to be negotiated every time you wanted to go somewhere or get home or … also, and very personally, the pivotal thing for me was to ask Glenn Murcutt to redesign the building. We had asked someone else to look at it and then I read a piece about Glenn in the National Times, rang the other architect and cancelled him, and rang Glenn.
I have a passionate interest in architecture, always have, so to be able to work with Glenn was a dream and friendship come true. I should say that the project was never properly finished, because of lack of dollars. Also important, the relationships I had with many of the people (and most of them worked there for years) who worked at BW Inn. I stay in touch with many of these people. Also, the mad project when we packed up and cooked for the 1986 Adelaide Festival for a month, taking chairs, cutlery, and everyone who worked at BW Inn except the boatman. A rock ‘n’ roll tour which cost lots, but was memorable.
You’ve been involved with many culinary programs and also spent three months in Sri Lanka as the recipient of an Asialink residency. How did travelling overseas and studying food and its associated culture broaden your culinary knowledge?
I was one of the original convenors of the Symposium of Australian Gastonomy (it is still going, but I only sometimes attend) along with Michael Symons. I’ve also done some marvellous projects which combine feeding with the arts – Loaves & Fishes for the 1998 Adelaide Festival; Plenty for the 2000 Adelaide Festival; directing Alicia Rios’ The Edible Library for the 2002 Adelaide Festival; and also Nourish (where we fed patients in a public hospital) for that festival too. And a couple of terrific projects for The Performance Space in Sydney.
Sometimes I think I was more interested in theatre than food, but wanted always to combine both. Directed an enormous project for the City of Melbourne in 2004, Eating the City (filmed by ABC TV) and recently created and directed One Magic Bowl for the Adelaide Film Festival (commissioned 1,500 bowls from potters at the Jam Factory – you bought your bowl so that you could be given food, and later take your bowl home); did the same for the 4 Plenty events in 2000. All these projects have been about including community and usually had arts funding. I am not interested in ‘foodie’ things like Food Festivals etc. That said, I don’t think I’ll do any more – they take enormous amounts of energy, and I now put this energy into my garden and own kitchen.
Sri Lanka (3 months in 2003) was an exraordinary and privileged experience, but I reneged on a book – although have written a couple of essays.
How did you graduate from cooking to writing – did you see it as a cathartic process, or were you more interested in sharing your extensive knowledge with an audience?
I didn’t graduate from one to the other. I never set out to be a cook, but I have certainly aspired to write for all of my life, even as a child. My main occupation is, has always been, reader, and I read lots of literary criticism – and poetry. I’ve had columns in newspapers over the years, but can’t say I’m all that proud of them. Writing for The Monthly over the last 3-4 years has been rewarding and exacting. I’ve also enjoyed doing book reviews for Australian Book Review.
Your book Plenty: Digressions on Food has won a lot of recognition, multiple awards, including being named the Age Book of the Year in 2005. For those who haven’t read your book, what would you say to encourage them to do so?
I wrote the book for myself (don’t we all?), and don’t think it is up to me to encourage people to read it (and anyway it is now, after a hardback and a paperback, out of print). It is readers of Plenty who will either recommend it or not. It is often seen as a memoir, but that is not how I saw it – much more digressive than that.
In Plenty you state (and I’ll fracture one of your quotes here): “A fine meal has the harmony of a symphony …” What parallels can you draw between the production of a meal, a beautiful piece of music, or for that matter, an eloquent narrative?
Well, firstly I would say that a symphony, a string quartet, an eloquent narrative, are all far greater creations than the best meal. Give me Middlemarch any day over a good meal, but I would choose a good meal over a bad one. At table, I want the food to be wonderful but for the most part ignored in conversation – pay the cook the compliments and gratitude that are due, then talk about something more interesting. This is probably a question you’d like me to dwell on but … interestingly, what I want to concentrate on in my talk, Kitchen Stories, is the impossibility of writing with any true poetry about food, the impossibility of transcending its materiality.
More recently, you have written On Digestion. How does this book differ from your previous written work?
On Digestion, although not more than a very long essay, is a mature statement. I’m proud of it, and also proud of MUP for commissioning it. Plenty was written to put things behind me (I firmly believe that when you have written about certain things you can put them down). But also to make a record of certain parts of my reading. The essay I have in Voracious, a collection (Hardie Grant) which is out this month, has laid to rest my furies about food and television! I’ll leave food and television to its abject life now.
The theme for this year’s Watermark Literary Muster is ‘the backyard’. What do you love most about your own backyard, the foodie haven known as McLaren Vale in South Australia?
Ah, the backyard! Better – the land, front, sides and back. We need to grow food everywhere, not just in the backyard. I don’t have a nature strip but if I did, I’d plant food that anyone could take. I love the idea of gleaning, of giving away food, of sharing the glut (in part On Digestion is about this).
I live on nearly an acre. The perimeter is all natives, but there are many beds for food plants nearer the house and many, many fruit trees – 9 varieties of quince for instance, pomegranates, peach, apricot, mulberries, apples, persimmon, lemons, blood orange, seville orange, figs, etc. Gardening, growing food, has been the central education of my late middle age. I feel something approaching tenderness towards my plants and responsibility towards them, but also an acknowledgement that they have an independent life to me.
I live in the present, surely a healthy, sane way to live. Growing food is part of this, but it also teaches you patience, and I’m grateful for that.
I didn’t choose McLaren Vale for any of the above and don’t think it is a paradise for food lovers. Far too many vines when food should be grown, and more and more ugly housing estates. But I do love my patch. I am a solitary by nature, a reader (it is a mistake to think that restaurateurs are necessarily gregarious – it is a kind of performance).