Guillaume's dining mecca sails into sunset

Esther Han
Final curtain: A relaxed Guillaume Brahimi at his restaurant on New Year's Eve.
Final curtain: A relaxed Guillaume Brahimi at his restaurant on New Year's Eve. Photo: Anthony Johnson

The midnight fireworks didn't just close 2013, but marked the end of the much-lauded restaurant, Guillaume at Bennelong, housed in the southernmost sail of the Opera House.

''The day has arrived and I feel good about it,'' chef Guillaume Brahimi said, in a quiet moment of reflection before the New Year's Eve dinner service began. ''We're ready to turn a page. Our legacy and history in this building is done.''

After a turbulent year once the Opera House Trust announced it wanted its flagship restaurant to be more accessible in price and opening hours, and Brahimi announced in turn he would not tender for the new restaurant, he said he was ready to close this chapter of his career.

At the 6pm staff briefing, Brahimi said he wished the new leaseholders, Stokehouse, the best of luck, adding that no one would ever want to see a restaurant fail.

More than 100 guests enjoyed canapes and champagne from 7pm before sitting down in the three-hatted restaurant to be served the first course of basil-wrapped yellowfin tuna infused with a soy and mustard vinaigrette. "A classic," Brahimi said.

The seven-course degustation menu, which featured spanner crab and duck confit, was Brahimi's greatest hits collection. A seat at the event cost $1100, though guests were guaranteed a priceless vantage point for the fireworks.

Bookings for the New Year's Eve dinner service opened on September 1 last year, and were sold out by the end of the day.

Head chef Jose Silva recalled stacking new plates and bowls as a junior cook in the week's leading up to the restaurant's opening in November 2001.

Now, each time he sees a sign of a restaurant pack-down, the reality of the impending closure hits. ''We're all mixed emotions,'' he said, pointing to the kitchen where 15 cooks were toiling in the heat.


''The copper pots are gone in the kitchen, some of the blenders have been packed away, and the wine on the floor has been sent to storage,'' he said. ''I'm really treasuring this service tonight.''

He was miffed to hear the announcement in just the past few days that there would be another fireworks display at 10.30pm, he said. ''There was no warning, it does slightly change things.''

First-time Guillaume at Bennelong patrons, Danielle Forster and Sam Glynn, from the Sunshine Coast, were awestruck by the views as they gazed at the Harbour Bridge from the landing early in the night.

"My father lavished us with tickets, and it's the only our second time in Sydney. The service is second to none. We get in and we're drinking $300 champagne," said Ms Forster, who soon returned to table 33, which at 10 people was one of the largest groups of the evening.

At 7.45pm, chefs gathered in the kitchen's larder section to carefully place a small bundle of lettuce at the centre of every plate. The balance of colours - green and purple - had to be right.

Another chef placed a single portion of basil-wrapped tuna on each bed of lettuce, tilting it here and there to perfect its look.

Sous chef Kirsty whipped out her mobile phone to snap her fellow troops at work, saying "It's our last night!", before placing it back in her pocket.

Guillaume Brahimi stationed himself near the kitchen exit where he remained for the entire length of service. With guests seated and the tuna dish prepared, the waiters dashed into the kitchen and lined up in front of him.

"1, 2, 3, to table 33," Brahimi shouts to one, who responds with a "yes, chef" before picking up and delivering three plates to the group of 10 in the centre of the dining floor. "4, 5, 6, to table 33," he said to the waiter next in line. "Yes, chef!"

Spanner crab served on top an avocado and cucumber puree is served as second course, followed by the "royale" dish of asparagus, lobster and truffle.

Brahimi remains in his spot, in the interface between the sweltering kitchen and dining floor, as the 9pm fireworks light up the night sky. A few of the kitchen crew are curious, putting their face close to the window and angling their heads to catch a glimpse of the fireworks. "You can see a bit of it if you crouch a bit," says one.

While 106 guests marvel at the firework display from the top landing, restaurant manager Daniel Laurence-Rogers is hurrying the wait team to replace all the wine glasses and the cutlery, and neatly fold up the napkins.

At 10.45pm, the kitchen is preparing to dish up the sixth and final savoury course: shiro kin wagyu rib eye beef, with shimeji mushroom and Paris potato mash on the side. Jose Silva spills rich merlot sauce on top of the beef as the final touch.

Brahimi, realising far more mash was required, called out: "We need more mash! Mash, mash, mash, mash." It's promptly delivered.

By 11.15pm, mini copper pots of chocolate soufflé, accompanied by a spoon of cherry ripple ice cream, are sent out to the diners. Brahimi is pleased the desserts have been served by 11.30pm, as planned.

"Clean up, clean up! Faster we get cleaned up, faster we're out of here," shouts Silva, as his team gives the kitchen a thorough scrub-down.

"I've never seen this kitchen been cleaned so quickly," utters one chef.

At 11.43pm, the head sommelier, Chris Morrison, appears in the kitchen with a bottle of Perrier-Jouet grand brut in one hand and two champagne glasses in the other. He deftly pours a glass for Brahimi and another for Silva and exits.

The two men lift the glasses up together and take a good sip. "That's it, it's all done," Silva says to Brahimi, who nods with a smile of satisfaction.

Minutes before midnight, the kitchen crew, all changed into fresh clothes, are hugging and reminiscing at the outdoor landing. A giant sail of the Opera House looms above them. They behold a magnificent view of the harbour.

After the fireworks, food critic Simon Thomsen heads to the kitchen to persuade his good friend, Brahimi, to come out to the dining floor and mingle with thankful guests. He succeeds.

Guests are handed a black bag with a complimentary, signed copy of Brahimi's cookbook, Food with Friends.

Brahimi, noted by critics for his ''elegant, considered and persuasive'' food, told the Herald that the tears fell when he made the decision to not compete for the Sydney Opera House tender.

The New Year's Eve service was a great way to end, he said. ''You can't take away the awards we've won, the number of people we've made happy. We've done it,'' the 46-year-old Frenchman said.

Still buzzing from being a crew member of Perpetual Loyal, which came second in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race on Saturday, Brahimi said he was most proud of achieving his vision of elegant fine-dining through Bennelong.

On New Year's Day Brahimi will leave for Los Angeles where he will join his wife and four young children. The day after, the restaurant team will return to pack up the restaurant and prepare to depart for good four days later.

Brahimi's new Paddington restaurant guillaume will open at Easter.