Is Pete Gilmore the most admired professional in food right now? Impossibly humble, thoughtful (and funny) it’s hard to imagine a nicer guy with such a soft baritone voice.
With Quay, his multi award winning restaurant going strength to strength, the ‘Snow Egg’ man can do no wrong. Never one to command the limelight, his book Organum is his most personal book yet. In Organum, he shares the journeys behind each dish on a plate – the people, the process and his connection to land, earth and sea.
Organum is such a beautiful book, almost a work of art. Where does your inspiration come from to be able to push the bar to another level?
My first book, Quay was all about the food I was creating at the restaurant. I felt I had a lot more to say. This book expresses what I have learnt over 30 years of cooking and my philosophy as a chef. It explores questions around Australian cuisine and celebrates the fisherman and the farmers and tells their stories. It’s a much more personal book.
You work with a wide range of growers and suppliers; many have been with you for years. How did you first meet them?
Ten years ago I was on holiday in Europe and it was spring. Many of the dishes I was eating used green almonds. I hadn’t seen them in Australia yet they are so crisp and beautiful when they’re young. Most Australian almonds are grown on huge plantations but green almonds are picked two months earlier. They have a milky crispness to them; you can’t crack them with a machine but you need a knife. So I was trying to find someone in Australia. So I went to my chestnut lady! Who told me about Jude an almond grower in South Australia. I rang her up and asked if she would pick them green. She gave it a go. So that’s how it started. Actually, she first sent over almonds picked even earlier (when they were chewy) so there are actually 3 different stages to eat them!
Are there any growers or artisans you would like to work with but haven’t yet managed to get them into the ‘Peter Gilmore club’?
Not really… most people are quite open and sometimes organising delivery can be tricky but we often meet half way and go that extra mile. We can cut out the middle man and pay them more. We recognise they go to extra trouble to provide us with wonderful produce and we are prepared to pay for that.
Your development process can take years; what’s in the development pipeline (Peter’s garden) that we haven’t seen yet?
This book has been a year long project and labour of love. There will be other books and I would like to explore simpler cooking from my garden at home and maybe a new restaurant to reflect that style at some point in the future. In the garden this year I am growing four new types of potatoes, five new beans, heirloom white corn and beautiful kakai pumpkins as an experiment. In fact, Tim Johnstone is now growing them for me. I am playing around with an Italian variety which is a turnip-cabbage cross. There are many possibilities and projects.
What is the creative process for a dish?
It normally starts with the produce. I grow something interesting and look at the stages and tastes of development. When it’s young, does it have edible leaves, shoots or flowers? One of my fishmongers might bring in a beautiful hand caught octopus. Sometimes it’s the other way around. I could be inspired by an interesting cooking technique or fermentation. It’s important to explore and keep them all individually written down or in the memory bank! As a dish starts coming together it changes and you often end up with something completely different.
You talk about the four elements; nature, texture, intensity and purity. When do you know when to stop?
Sometimes I have ten different techniques and flavours on the plate and it’s not until I start taking away that its right. Do I have everything I need to be balanced? Or, if I take away will it be more direct?
How do you start to create a dish which many would describe as artwork on a plate?
It’s part of creative process. Sometimes I want a dish to be sculptural but sometimes it’s dictated by the aesthetics which need balance, texture and flavour. What are the ingredients? The layers? What part do I want to emphasise? It’s different each time.
Do you consider yourself to be a chef or an artist?
I don’t know! It’s a combination of both. A chef needs to think like an artist creating something special and unique but if you are re-creating then you need to think like a craftsman. You are not just feeding someone a nourishing meal but giving people an emotional experience beyond just a physical level.
Many of your dishes tell a story. What dish provokes others to think about what they are eating the most?
I try to achieve that level of thought in all my dishes. Sometimes you make a statement of cultural reference or lineage with nature. It’s like picking your favourite child. Xo Sea is evocative but the smoked pig jowl represents my style perfectly. There are four ingredients (pig jowl, shitake, sea scallop and Jerusalem artichoke) but they have multiple cooking processes. It’s how they work together. On the palate you taste the smoking, the butter infused mushrooms; the texture is pretty incredible from the richness of jamon to the crispy Jerusalem artichoke peeled and fried.
Noma has arguably made foraging cool. Why do you think Australians haven’t embraced foraging or our bush food?
Bush food is often in diverse areas of Australia as opposed to places like Europe which are much more accessible. Samphire and worrigal greens are examples but much of it is restricted due to the laws here. So many heirloom varieties available but often one family or one region have saved it. That fascinates me – if it’s not grown every year, we lose it forever. Diversity is so important. There are hundreds of apples that take centuries to create. Farmers markets need to be embraced.
Are you seeing a broader approach from your diners? Are they more explorative?
Absolutely. Even a cooking show like Masterchef can change a generation of kids who now care about learning to make pasta. Australians are very open minded because of our multicultural society. You can have Thai green curry one night and Spaghetti bolognese the next.
What produce have you fallen in love with?
For me it is variety. But am very passionate about mushrooms I think they are fascinating, so many flavours and you can much you can do with that species. If you go to Japan it blows your mind with what you see, the sheer diversity and flavour is amazing. Australian seafood is something else I absolutely love and we should embrace it and look after it. We need to use different fish not under so much pressure from fishing.
Organum isn’t for the novice cook. If you were going to tackle a dish where would you start?
I haven’t tried to write a book for home cooks, it’s reflective of my cuisine. It’s for passionate cooks and young chefs. A good dish would be summer tomatoes with a golden aromatic broth. It’s such a beautiful dish to create. There are ones that are complex and take three days. But they are broken up so you can tackle a component such as a sauce or vegetable garnish.
Is the ‘Snow Egg’ the greatest thing you created or a curse?
I feel quite privileged to have such an iconic dish that people know and love. Someone said recently that it’s one of the most recognisable desserts in modern culture. Flavours change all the time with the fruit. I still get heaps of customers who saw it and want to try it.
Be honest, you are knackered you have come home from work what is your fast food fix?
I have been known to make a cheese and ham toastie, but if I am hungry I will often create a simple pasta dish, garlic, olive oil..
Try this delicious recipe from Organum: