Changing of the guard at Jacques Reymond

Larissa Dubecki

Is there life beyond fine dining? Jacques Reymond is about to find out. Those closest to the notoriously driven perfectionist (who remains, at the age of 60, a 15-hours-a-day workaholic) have been busy speculating how he will cope when he steps away from his restaurant in four weeks' time. Will there be tears and regrets? Will The Five Stages of Loss and Grief make an appropriate Christmas present?

''It will be hard,'' he says of December 22, his first post-restaurant morning. ''I will have a meditation and let myself be open to cry, to be depressed, to be joyful.''

The Buddhist-inclined Reymond, whose thick French accent defies his 30 years in Australia, is - at least going by the broad smile - more excited than sad at the prospect of life on the other side of the pass. He plans to spend more time with wife Kathy, their four grown children and infant grandson; his beloved motorbikes will see more of life outside the garage.

Jacques Reymond with all the dishes in his degustation menu.
Jacques Reymond with all the dishes in his degustation menu.  Photo: Photo by Justin McManus

But Reymond's cooking career is not about to be mothballed for a quiet life of Sunday drives and lawn bowls. His restless energy would drive him (and the long-suffering Kathy) quickly mad, so work will continue in a stripped-back form.

''Maybe a small factory to produce some really good items - dishes sous vide, dishes patisserie.''

Consultancy work is an obvious outlet. ''People have approached me already. I tell them, I am taking January off with my family. Call me in February.''

'Call me in February': Jacques Reymond - going, but certainly not gone.
'Call me in February': Jacques Reymond - going, but certainly not gone. Photo: Eddie Jim

Reymond received two standing ovations at the Age Good Food Guide awards in late August. The first was when he retained his three hats, bringing his 27-year total to a near-perfect record of 80; the second was when he detonated the retirement bombshell.

He was magnanimous enough to share his moment, announcing to the room that his two longstanding chef offsiders, Hayden McFarland and Thomas Woods, will be taking over the grand Victorian-era Windsor mansion. Settlement day, January 7, is coincidentally Reymond's 61st birthday, and it will reopen as WoodLand House on January 15.

Reymond, who will be their landlord, says the succession plan has been meticulously planned over the past 18 months. It began organically, when each chef approached him independently. ''Thomas came to see me and said, 'I have been here for eight years, how do you see my future?' I said, give me three months and I will get back to you. Two weeks later Hayden, who has been here six years, came to see me with the same question.''


The torch-passing will, Reymond hopes, keep the flame of fine dining alive. It's a flame that's flickering and dying, according to many industry seers, but Reymond is adamant they're wrong.

''Fine dining has never been as healthy as it is today,'' he says defiantly. ''People have realised that for a bit of extra money you get an exceptional experience. We have never been as busy as the past two years.''

There is one concession, however: ''It's very different to 30, 40 years ago. You can't take on a restaurant like this on your own any more. It is too much work. It will be a wonderful partnership, and I am very happy this house keeps going on.''

It is the neatest of solutions to a restaurant indivisible from its chef-patron; a man who still does the rounds of the dining room at the end of each service, greeting diners and posing for photographs.

Reymond's impact on the Australian dining scene certainly deserves more space than this, but any consideration of his ''composite cuisine'' must begin in Brazil, where the chef first encountered ingredients such as coconut milk and lemongrass, ''… a big discovery for my artistic side''. Australia was where he had the chance to make it happen. After five years at Mietta's, the jumping-off point was ''one restaurant, four children and no money''. Yet it worked, and quickly. Sleepy Melbourne, then with little personality and innovation (says Reymond) quickly embraced food that might clumsily have been called fusion. Tracking further and further off the classical French path, he wowed diners and critics with exotic ingredients and combinations. Later came the introduction of small plates dining to better showcase his food. All commonplace now, but revolutionary at the time.

It's a mark of Reymond's character that he introduced his last menu six weeks before stumps, when lesser mortals would have been taking it easy on the home stretch. The 18 new dishes include two desserts that bookend his culinary inspirations of Brazil and Australia. Always a cheerleader for the use of indigenous ingredients, his dish ''memory of Australia - the bush'' uses lemon myrtle and wattleseed, native plum and bush mint. In typically pretty style, it mimics indigenous art with its use of crimson dots. It's a tribute, Reymond says, to the country that gave him the chance to spread his wings.

''I can't thank enough this country and its people for allowing me to do what I always wanted me to do with my life,'' he says. ''In France I couldn't have done what I needed to do. I don't think I would have achieved what I achieved in any other place.''

Jacques Reymond's last dinner service will be on Saturday, December 21.