Our columnist talks to the Australian restaurateur and BBC Saturday Kitchen regular about his signature dish, lack of training and how to make customers look great.
Bill Granger has been credited with bringing smashed avocados on toast to the world – he first put them on the menu of his Sydney café in 1993. The fabulously popular, self-taught Australian restaurateur, TV chef and style-setter watched me cook one of his signature breakfast dishes, as we discussed his childhood, love of lighting, and feeling awkward in fashionable restaurants.
Emma Was food a big part of your childhood?
Bill No – sadly. My family were shopkeepers. When I grew up we only used to eat out on birthdays. I didn’t travel abroad until I was 21 and was blown away by the glamour of restaurants.
E Why didn’t you train as a chef?
B I studied architecture but then took a job as a waiter in my second year at college. The owner invited me to help out in the kitchen – and my life changed. It was the only time I worked for someone else. After that, I opened my first place.
E Do you think not being trained has been helpful? Has it freed you up to do something different?
B I think it means I get to see a bigger picture, and my interest in architecture, my family and our travelling all feeds into my restaurants. I see the world as a small place and I don’t see the differences, more the similarities.
E You now have 19 restaurants around the world: are they all the same?
B No. A lot stays the same, but I really think about the location, so the local culture and their eating-out history informs what’s happening there. I want to make all my restaurants culturally appropriate.
E So are all the London ones the same?
B No – because I also want to make them tribally appropriate. My four London restaurants, Granger & Co, are all different because they’re all serving different types of Londoners. In Chelsea, people go out a lot and they’re more dressed up. So I glammed up the restaurant: we used velvet and marble, there’s a bit of glitz, it’s more international – people in Chelsea love that. In Notting Hill, people come in after they’ve walked the dog, or on a day they’re working from home, and it’s more relaxed.
E In the Notting Hill branch, there are always queues – people are prepared to stand outside for an hour to eat there! Why on earth?
B I’ve been in the business 25 years but I still don’t know why that particular restaurant always has queues. The business of restaurants is entertainment. If you just want food, you can eat at home or get something delivered. But if I go to a restaurant, I want to be transported. Being a restaurateur is a bit like being a film director – pulling together different things to make an event; the chef’s mission, the interior designer’s vision; the front-of-house attitude; lighting; music; flowers – and all those elements get processed through my eyes.
E It’s interesting. Normally chefs talk about the food, not the experience.
B It’s so important to feel liked when you go out to eat. There’s nothing more intimidating than walking into a restaurant that’s cool and fashionable. It makes me feel awkward and uncomfortable and that’s not a good way to start a meal. I’ve left plenty of restaurants before ordering because I just don’t feel welcomed there. So it’s like creating a good dinner party – you’re not just thinking about the menu, it’s the whole story which is so important. And I try to understand it from everyone’s experience. I think, ‘Is my grandmother going to be comfortable here, and my kids?’
E I wonder if you had trained, if you’d still be so focused on the customers rather than your food.
B When I first started, my stepfather said, ‘Remember, the customer is the reason you’ve got a job.’ So I’ll go into a new restaurant before we open and sit in a different seat at different times of the day – morning, lunchtime, early afternoon, late afternoon, night and late night. And I’ll change the lighting at all those times so the customers will look great. It makes a difference. Who doesn’t want to look good?
E How eco-friendly are your places?
B We’re pretty good. We’re cutting down on plastic, and all our food waste gets taken away and composted.
E What about using local and seasonal food?
B Local and seasonal is hard in the UK because of the climate. In Sydney it’s easier, but avocados don’t grow in the UK and people want to eat them.
E What are you going to do about it? Having invented avocado on toast, would you take it off the menu?
B It’s really hard because that’s what I’ve built my business on, and business is about consistency.
E What’s the next big thing going to be for UK food?
B Well, ‘health’ isn’t going away. We all want better quality, we’re all more aware of nutrition. And I think the idea of mixing up food from different cultures is getting interesting again. But one big change that’s happening with food is an understanding that we’ve got to be careful we’re not appropriating someone else’s culture. A chef in Australia opened an Asian restaurant, and he’s had a lot of flak because he’s not Asian. You’ve always got to be aware of privilege and that’s now extending to food and the way we take things from other cultures.
E Does that mean you can’t cook Asian food in your restaurants now?
B Well, you’ve got to be careful and take it from the right kind of places and not try to own it. I spent a long time in Burma and was inspired by a mohinga, which is a Burmese fish soup. I did one on the menu with some chicken and tomatoes, but then I got a letter from a Burmese chef who said that it wasn’t right and I shouldn’t call it a mohinga. So now it’s called spiced chicken soup. It made me think: I was excited by the culture of that food and wanted to spread the word, but it’s not necessarily my role to do it. We’ve got to keep learning. I think of myself as a liberal, open-minded person, but there are expressions I’ve had to change. I ask my teenage daughters about these things. The younger generation has a completely different view and I think it’s good.
E This recipe of yours that I’m cooking – is it culturally appropriate?
B Well, it’s a mix – my mix. It’s got a bit of Middle Eastern cuisine with tahini sauce and zhoug, a bit of healthy vegetarian with the courgette fritters, a bit of Greek with the halloumi and some Australian sunshine food in the kale salad.
E I could happily eat this dish every day, forever.
B You know, my friends are scared of cooking for me, so this is really nice.
E How often do people invite you over for dinner?
B Not enough.
E If you do get asked, do they ever make your recipes?
B Never. But I would adore it if people cooked my dishes for me. That’s why they’re my recipes. I love this food.
Find the recipe for courgette fritters with halloumi, quinoa & zhoug in the July 2019 issue of BBC Good Food magazine.
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Good Food contributing editor Emma Freud is a journalist and broadcaster, director of Red Nose Day and a co-presenter of Radio Four’s Loose Ends.