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Mon 6 Jun 2005 04:00 AM

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A Zen appreciation of good food

Australian celebrity chef Tony Bilson flew into Dubai last month to head up an Australian promotion at the Palm Grill at InterContiental Dubai. Caterer Middle East caught up with the antipodean gourmet to discuss cook books, inspiration and the synergy between food and the arts.

|~|Bilson,-TonyL.jpg|~|I love being a mentor, says Bilson|~|Ask an Australian which restaurant they would most like to dine in and they will tell you Bilson’s at East Circular Quay in Sydney. The owner, chef Tony Bilson, is famous across the continent for breaking the mold when it comes to his interpretation of French-inspired dishes.

He started his career somewhat late in life, beginning as a dishwasher at Johnny Walker’s Bistro in Angel Place, and was promoted to chef eight months later.

“I always wanted to be in restaurants, it wasn’t being a chef so much as being a restaurateur. My parents had hotels, so my family was involved with this. I got involved through reading at an early age, when I fell in love with Belle Epoch,” Bilson explains.

“When I was at school I met a French guy who had come out to Australia, and he was very much involved in the arts. I love the whole mixture of the arts community and restaurants. I think that food and wine is part of culture too, and I have always seen it on an equal basis to the other arts, such as literature.”

Bilson soon realized his ambition to be a restaurateur. His first restaurant was La Pomme D’Or (The Golden Apple), which he bought from a French couple in Melbourne. There, he broke the mould of serving traditional counter meals and instead served ‘pot au feu’ of veal shanks and other French-inspired dishes.

“My inspiration was French chef Alain Chapel. I was very lucky to be introduced to him in Australia in 1975. Alain Chapel took regional, good honest cooking and transformed it into an elegant, contemporary expression of regional origin. That has been my role model,” he explains.

It is that combination of traditional, hearty cooking and fine dining a la carte that Bilson brought to the menu at Palm Grill.
“Its interesting to look at the dishes that we are doing here [at the InterContinental], there are a couple that we call Assiette, because there really isn’t a term for it. In English it is platter. An Assiette is where we do an individual animal cooked in many different ways. For example, with beef we will have oxtail, sirloin and filet of beef. This captures the essential flavour and quality of the beef. Then we put a sophisticated sauce with it that displays our skills.

“Take duck as an example. In the old way, if you ordered duck you would expect the usual Peking Duck. If I serve Duck now, the drumsticks are roasted slowly in goose fat, the breast cooked rare with the skin on, so you get different textures and different flavours. In my mind it is a sort of Zen appreciation of the duck,” Bilson comments.

The Assiette proved a popular menu addition at the Palm Grill, with diners from across the emirate coming to see the master at work. It was Bilson’s second time in the city, and he hopes it will not be his last. “Dubai is a developing scene, and it is developing very quickly. I think it is going to be fairly interesting. I would like to do some more work here,” Bilson says.

“I think that in a few years’ time you will look back on today as a time of enormous flux laying the basis for what the future will be. There’s no doubt that because of the sheer number of restaurants there will be here in 20 years, there will be a strong gastronomic culture here.”

Back home in Australia, Bilson is expanding his culinary empire. His outfit is launching an outdoor catering division, and has already been awarded the contract to undertake the in-house catering for Merrill Lynch.

In addition to that, the creative culinarian is branching out into wine production. “We are looking at starting a winery just outside Sydney. It will produce cool climate wines. The plot we are looking at is at 1,200m, so it will be a May pick, lower alcohol wine,” he explains.

As an experienced chef, now operating several restaurants in Sydney, Bilson is now focusing on passing his art on to the next generation of chefs.

“I love being a mentor. I have great confidence in my knowledge and it’s great fun showing other people the opportunities that they have. I especially like working with young chefs in the kitchen. I don’t get caught up in the day to day running of the restaurant,” he explains.

And his advice to young chefs just embarking on a career? “Aim high, and go and eat in the best restaurants in the world. If you haven’t eaten the best then how will you know what it should taste like?” he says.

For young chefs looking to taste the best, Bilson’s at East Circular Quay in Sydney, must be on the list. For those not ready to travel ‘down under’, Tony Bilson will no doubt be back in Dubai at some point in the near future.||**||

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