Chef Q&A: John Fink and Peter Gilmore of Quay

Becky Paskin - 16/01/2012

For the first time since the World's 50 Best Restaurants list began, Sydney's Quay was listed as Australia's only entry at #26, after neighbour Tetsuya's dropped 20 places to #68. Now a 50 Best list stalwart, having been named the best in Australasia for two consecutive years, business partners John Fink and Peter Gilmore are seeking new ways to ensure the restaurant's future as one of the best on the planet, from evolving menu favourites to dreaming up new TV shows...

Quay is the only Australian restaurant in the World's 50 Best Restaurants - what does that mean to you? Peter -

It was a surprise for us that we were the only ones in the top 50, but we'd prefer there to be another couple of restaurants because we believe what Australian restaurants are doing is quite progressive. John - This is an exciting time for Australia because we aren't restricted by the European culinary traditions which restrict a lot of vision. That's why the people who break out are so accepted. Here in Australia we are developing an Australian cuisine and it's exciting to be a part of it. Ben Shewry (of Attica) is a part of it, even the smaller restaurants are doing it. We were the first restaurant in Australia to grow our own produce and now the corner shops are doing it, but we were leading the way. Now Ben's doing that in Melbourne and we're a part of that -  its a global movement.

If Australian cuisine is developing, how would you describe it now? Peter -

We are defined by our multicultural society and lack of a strong culinary tradition of one focus. We don't have a traditional French cuisine behind us. A lot of chefs have been trained to use French techniques but it doesn't rule everything we do. We are open to new ideas and techniques. There's a sense of adventure and development that's been around for quite a while in Australia, but it's coming to a maturity now where we are refining what we do. The most interesting chefs around the world are developing their own personal style and that's coming through more than national styles. It's impossible to say all modern restaurants in Spain have the same style, because they don't - they are all going on slightly different paths. Mugaritz is doing something completely different to what El Bulli did, and the same can be said all over the place. Rene (Redzepi) started the whole foraging thing in Scandanvia at Noma and that's been picked up by other people doing different twists on it. There's very much a personal cuisine movement amongst chefs. With Australia it's about great produce and freedom of expression.

Like Rene you take inspiration from nature and now others have adopted that ethos too. With so much global competition how do you ensure Quay stands out? Peter -

We've been doing the nature thing for a while; we were one of the earlier ones to do it, here in Australia for sure. Around the same time Rene was doing his thing we were doing our thing working with gardenerrs exclusively and having heirloom vegetables grown. It is being picked up all over the place and I guess the way to move ahead is to continue sourcing  potentially new ideas. I do a lot of research finding heirloom varieties that just aren't being grown. We were using a lot of flowers five years ago and now everyone's doing it, which meant I had to move on to other things like using rarer herbs or utilising more beautiful small vegetables and making that the feature of a dish. So it's taking the development of texture and flavour and looking for nuances that are different.

Where do you grow the majority of your vegetables?

Peter - The majority is grown up in the Blue Mountains about two hours from Sydney and are delivered to us. Because its a cooler climate things grow slower which makes them so much sweeter, even things like French breakfast radishes taste so much better grown in the soil up there. We also work with a few farmers to grow herbs for us and we currently have pea flowers growing in our growing room here at Quay. 97% of what we use is sourced from Australia. We're lucky to be on a big continent and have a lot of diversity. We're also lucky in that the availability of local produce is quite vast and translates through the seasons. The strawberry season lasts five months in Australia because it starts up in Queensland and goes right down to Tasmania. So we dont have to buy in things like asparagus from other countries because we can grow it here for longer periods. John - We are lucky to live in Australia but we've got to source from the continent or make it happen. When we started farming six years ago theres was one carrot in Australia - the orange one. Since then Quay has introduced five different varieties of carrot and now I'll go get my groceries on my way home and there are bunches of purple carrots in supermarkets. But we were the first ones to introduce that to the country.

When you got into farming did you have any idea what you were doing? Peter -

Not a lot. I had started growing things in my back yard two years prior to that, and Nina and Richard, the people we first approached to do this, had a berry farm in the Blue Mountains and we asked them to grow some stuff for us. I spoke to about four or five farmers but they weren't interested. I asked them to grow pea flowers for garnishing but they didnt understand; they wanted to grow actual peas en masse. But we developed a good relationship with Richard and Nina and it went from there.

How often do the menus at Quay change? Peter -

It depends. Things change with the season so I guess  five or six dishes will change every quarter but new ideas can happen in a week when others can take months. I always have a philosophy to not throw the baby out with the bath water. Some dishes tend to evolve rather than completely change through subtle changes throughout the year. Sometimes a new dish comes along that is so exciting and you want to put it on the menu and you have to sacrifice an old dish. It's a hard decision and a balancing act - the menu needs to stay balanced.

What is your signature dish?

Peter - There are a few but the pig jowl is a good one, and an example of how my dishes evolve as there's an old pig jowl and a new one. The old one has a maltose crackling with prunes cooked in pedro ximinez and cauliflower cream, but the new one's interesting too - a smoked pig jowl with shitake mushroom, scallops, and jerusalem artichoke skins. It's a lovely dish but the one with the maltose cracking is my favourite. 

You released the first Quay cookbook in 2010, but did you envisage it having such a big response?

Peter - I hoped it would do well overseas, but as Australian restaurateurs we weren't sure because we are so far away from everywhere. But it did well, about 6000 copies sold in the UK. We wanted to do a really beautiful job and represent the food we do here, so it took a year to photograph because we did it with the seasons. John - It's a statement about what the restaurant stands for so it was very important to get it right. Peter - I used the French Laundry cookbook as a model for ours. In Australia we had never heard of the French Laundry and then all of a sudden this book is on the shelves and it tells the story about the restaurant and all of a sudden you want to go there. So I knew ours could potentially have that sort of power if we made a beautiful book, so thats what we did. John - We didnt compromise on things, like the thickness of the paper and quality of the cover, We wanted the cover to feel like something and in the end they over delivered. It's such a beautiful piece of work.

What else is in the future for you both?

Peter - At the moment we are looking at a second book, and the possibility of a second restaurant. John - There's also a pilot working in the back of my head for a TV show, a concept that ties in with Pete's philosophy about plants as food and their heritage. Like a history of vegetables. We'll throw a bucket of money at a pilot next financial year and put it on the web. I'll do a series of videos for our site and sew them together for a pilot. But we're still kicking ideas around. The second book would tie in with that too.There's a shift happening now where we are looking to do something else. Pete and I have dreamt about doing something low-key, a casual restaurant, with a small room for just 40 people. I'm looking at three venues a week for potential sites but it has to be just right.