Is this the most thrilling restaurant seat in Australia? From Monday to Saturday, four lucky guests – who have paid $550 for the privilege – are ushered into the bowels of Bennelong, the fine diner at the Sydney Opera House.
Through the secret door and across the floor – past executive chef Peter Gilmore himself – there are four seats lined up at the window in the kitchen.
This is a chef’s table like no other. In front of us, the harbour in all its twinkling glory. Above us, a mirror that showcases what is going on behind us. But there is only one place to look.
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The background noise is of knives clattering and pots crashing. Chefs huddle over marble benches in the $1.4 million kitchen. It’s not at all frenzied; this is a big kitchen and no-one is on top of anyone. Instead, there is a quiet, focused urgency in the room.
We start with some housekeeping. Diners are asked to direct any questions to the group’s host, rather than the 20-odd serious young chefs (tonight, they are mostly men) cooking behind us. Need to use the bathroom? Please let your host know and he will accompany you in safety, lest there are hot plates rushing by.
And then onto business. A glass of 2006 Pol Roger is set in front of us, before Gilmore, he of countless Best Restaurant awards, crosses the floor, dishes in hand. The redclaw yabby, he explains, will come off the shell easily. Grab a buckwheat pikelet, smear it with lemon jam and cultured cream, pop on the yabby and enjoy.
Eight courses and matching wines. For three hours, we indulge in exquisitely plated fare that has been prepared just metres away. How did we get so lucky to have Gilmore in the kitchen tonight? “I’m here 50 per cent of the time,” he says, gesturing across the harbour to Quay, the three-hatted restaurant where he spends the remainder of his time. “I’m usually here on Friday nights.”
In between cooking for almost 150 people in the main restaurant upstairs, he brings over dish after dish. “These are the last of the truffles,” he says, as he reveals a wedge of slow-cooked pumpkin with cheese, truffles, seeds and grains (which sommelier Russ Mills has paired with a glass of 2014 Vasse Felix chardonnay). Despite the pressures of the kitchen, he is generous with his time, volunteering tips and tricks. “You can put truffles in your eggs but you really need to put some of the truffle in with your butter. Leave it in the fridge for a couple of days then cook the eggs in that butter. And for even more flavour, grate some extra truffles over the top. Perfect scrambled eggs.”
The dishes are usually similar to those on the menu upstairs but they get a little extra love. A giant prawn raviolo, for example, comes with bright pops of golden ocean-trout roe and umami broth in the kitchen, while the coconut petals that accompany the famous cherry lamington are served straight from the liquid-nitrogen server. “We like to represent the food we’re doing upstairs so some dishes will be the same,” says Gilmore, “but we throw in a few unique additions.”
Seeing diners react to his dishes as he presents them has been a new experience for the chef. “I really like the interaction and talking to people about the food,” he says. “There’s a huge fascination with what happens behind the kitchen door. To see a commercial kitchen in full flight is quite interesting. It’s certainly a unique atmosphere.”
We’ll second that.
Photography by Brett Stevens
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