Full steam ahead for last days at the house

It's the Thursday before a rugby Test and for the sixth year in a row, former Wallaby Phil Kearns has brought 150 rugby buffs to Guillaume at Bennelong for lunch. Chef Guillaume Brahimi, who played club rugby and cooks for and travels with the French team, couldn't be more excited.

It's been a big week for Brahimi, who, after 12 years, revealed his restaurant will close in six months to make way for a more ''accessible'' food outlet.

The announcement came after a consultant's report, commissioned by the Sydney Opera House Trust, into dining at the arts centre. The Bennelong dining room was put out to tender and when it closed on Tuesday, Brahimi announced he had not submitted a bid.

He wanted to stay, but only on his own terms.

''I accept the decision of the trust. I just have a different vision,'' he said.

The business, he says, is the strongest it's ever been. Forward bookings were up 12 per cent on 2012. This week email bookings jumped from 30 to 150 a day.

The news came as a shock to many. Guillaume at Bennelong has been successful for so long, ever since it was named best new restaurant in its first years by the SMH Good Food Guide. It now has two hats and is regularly listed in Australia's Top 10 restaurants.

In the troubled 40-year history of the site, where long-term success eluded even the legendary restaurateurs Gay Bilson and Janni Kyritsis, of Berowra Waters Inn, it's an impressive record.

''Guillaume is the only person who made it a success,'' Kyritsis said. ''The food he produces is the most appropriate for a place that is an icon of Australia. If they're talking about more casual food, they're insane. It's a shame and sad.''


On Thursday, as the rugby faithful were due to arrive, Brahimi was focused on the food. At 11.30am, he joined restaurant manager Daniel Lawrence-Rogers, who's been there since the start in 2001, to brief the floor team.

There's a new entree: duck rillettes. ''It's a bistro dish in my fine diner, to show people we know how to do bistro,'' he tells them with a grin.

Brahimi heads to the kitchen, where 14 chefs hustle in the heat, ready to serve 450 plates of food. When the first order trickles in at 12.20pm, he calls out: ''Two salmon, one duck, three scallops, two fish, two lamb, two beef.''

''Oui chef!'' the team shouts in acknowledgment.

Service begins at 1.03pm. With 90 seconds to go, waiters line up. Six chefs move along assembling the scallop dish: puree, four scallops, shiitake mushrooms and spinach, baby herbs.

Brahimi grabs the dockets, calls the first waiter and then he's off, like a cross between a machine-gun and race caller.

''Two salmon, 1, 3. One duck, 2, I need one duck!'' To the next waiter: ''Three scallops, 4, 5, 6, finish table 14, please.'' [The numbers are seating positions]

And then the whirlwind abates.

''Thank you for being so brave,'' he says, changing into a clean jacket to talk with his diners. The conversation is diplomatic as Kearns asks where he'll be holding the lunch next year.

''I have a few plans.''

He tells the Herald the public and professional response has been overwhelming. ''I have been offered several sites and will consider them. Sydney is my home, I can't really see myself without a restaurant in Sydney.''

Brahimi also has two interstate bistros: at Crown in Melbourne and Perth.

On Saturday night, after the Test match, 250 will arrive at Bennelong at 11.30 for a supper of duck pies, staying until 2am.