The clock strikes 3am. I cannot sleep. My mind feels flustered, my heart is racing and adrenaline still flows through my veins. Never before have I felt so mentally drained, physically exhausted and yet so awake. I struggle to take in the past 14 hours at Sydney’s Quay, one of the top 50 best restaurants in the world. The experience is one big blur of sensual overload. But I must sleep. In just under 5 hours it will start all over again.
There are few better dining room outlooks than Quay’s. To the left, Sydney’s Harbour bridge, to the right, the Opera House. However, when I arrived at work for job 28, it wasn’t the view grabbing my attention. During my travels I have heard nothing but admiration for Peter Gilmore’s outstanding haute cuisine that ranks him among the best chefs in the world. And yet the dining room, for all intended purposes, looked like a high volume restaurant. Either they had blagged their way into the top 50, or I was about to witness a kitchen service nothing short of miraculous.
“Table 5, 4 starters” comes the call. “Qui chef” I answer (a little confused why I was instructed to respond in French). I had barely worked in the kitchen half a day when I was moved to the starter section for dinner service. My responsibility? The amuse-bouche. Pipe some crème fraiche and bergamot jam into a pot, sprinkle over some liquid nitrogen pomelo (a type of bitter grapefruit) and garnish with elderflower blossom. “Table 5, starters up” I call. Easy…or so I thought.
As the diners poured in, the pace started to quicken. “Table 9, 3 starters. Table 20, 4 starters. Table 3, 3 starters”. As the pressure mounted I started to struggle. To make matters worse, the sous chef sent back an order. I had left a mucky fingerprint on one of the cups, and forgotten to put elderflower on another. I could feel my pulse quicken and my temperature rise. I tried to steady my hands, keep my cool and stay focused. I couldn’t let them down. The standard at Quay is high and there is little room for error.
Disaster strikes. The chef assisting me on the section had a nosebleed and is required to leave the kitchen. At this moment it was announced that ‘the tower’ had arrived. “What’s the tower?” I wondered. A few minutes later I found out. “Tower, 24 starters”. My heart nearly stopped….I only had 16 clean cups. I started to panic. How could I possibly meet this order on time? And if I’m not quick enough my pomelo will start to melt. At that exact moment, like a finely oiled machine, the chefs from first course stepped in to offer reinforcement. When the tower arrives it’s all hands on deck. The following few minutes felt like a lifetime, but with seconds to spare we got the tower order to the pass. I breathed a sigh of relief and tidied my station. “Don’t worry mate, only another 4 hours to go” one of the chefs reassured me.
In between the periods of chaos, senior sous chef Rob, despite sending him a few shoddy starters, did his best to teach me the intricacies of Quay and offer tasters of their dishes. I was even privileged enough to sneak away from service one evening for a private audience with executive chef Peter Gilmore to talk about the Quay philosophy and food, of which three aspects stood out; nature, diversity and texture.
Peter believes in letting nature speak which is why ingredients, rather than technique, take centre stage of his fine dining. (Heston’s ‘meat fruit’ is an example of a technique focused approach because the ingredients are hidden through manipulation of form.) As an avid gardener, Peter works closely with his suppliers such as Tim Johnstone, to produce exceptional ingredients that include heirloom vegetables and rare plants. Take the dishes below. To the left, a selection of target beets, albino beets, white turnips and breakfast radishes. Served with wild cherries and nitrogen crème fraiche. To the right, lamb with garlic society flowers, lamb’s seaweed and salty ice.
One of the most striking parts of Australian cuisine is the amount of diversity in their dishes. Not just in the wide range of produce available but also the huge scope of influence from other cultures. Quay proved no exception. Peter taught me about how the Cantonese influenced his texture of sauces, the Japanese his approach to seasonality and old French masters’ use of technique. Quay’s menu represents this melting pot to create exciting original dishes such as their Asian inspired duck breast poached in fermented ume and oloroso master stock, forbidden rice, umeboshi and fresh spring almonds.
On my last night, the pastry chef presented me with their signature pudding, the snowegg – one of the most photographed dishes in the world. On the bottom lies a brûlée cream and white nectarine purée with a white moscato granita. This is topped with a soft poached meringue, containing white nectarine ice cream, glazed in almond praline. There are an awful lot of different textures going on, a signature trait of Quay.
This bowl of heavenly goodness is one of those rare dishes with real theatre about it. Delicately nibbling away, I hadn’t felt this camp since I put on one of my mother’s frocks to perform a Britney song at a rather debauched uni party (the less said about that one the better). Even the toughest bloke would feel like a Disney princess as soon as the snowegg hits his lips.
At the end of my time at Quay, Rob handed me an ice-cold beer, “well done mate, you’ve earned this”. But in all truthfulness, my efforts were barely a fraction of the hard work the Quay team put in to send out plate after plate of total perfection. I said my farewells and stumbled back home, still buzzing and feeling triumphant. Hmmmm this could be very addictive.