Guillaume Brahimi's message to chefs: Think before screaming

Letting go: Guillaume Brahimi says he was a perfectionist and tough to work for in his younger days.
Letting go: Guillaume Brahimi says he was a perfectionist and tough to work for in his younger days. Photo: James Brickwood

French-born Guillaume Brahimi has lived in Australia since he was 23 years old. He was heading up the kitchen at Bilson's by the time he was 28. He had his own restaurant, Pond in King Cross, at 30. Now, he is 50, with three bistros under his belt across the country. And he'd really like to think of himself as a little less angry. His message to his 21-year-old self, working at the coalface of L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris? "Think before screaming."

You know those kitchens you read about, where French chefs are yelling, and throwing cleavers while everyone tries to make themselves as invisible as possible around them? That is the kitchen culture Guillaume Brahimi grew up in. At 14, he was doing his apprenticeship in a Parisian bistro, getting up at 3am each day to go and collect the day's produce. He was basically the French culinary equivalent of a Dickensian chimney sweep.

Later, after moving to La Tour d'Argent, one of Paris' most historic restaurants (fun fact: back in the 1900s, owner Frederic Delair would present everyone who ordered the pressed duck, the restaurant's signature, with their very own numbered certificate) he befriended fellow chef Eric Ripert (now executive chef of NYC's Le Bernardin). The pair went on to work together at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, which at the time had a six month waiting list for a table.

"You know, I was with Eric in New York not so long ago and we were talking about what it was like when we were young – they were not great days," says Brahimi. "What we were achieving was amazing, but it was really brutal. Eric and I were very lucky – we were friends and Robuchon liked us. We used to have bad days, but not like other people who would have terrible days. But that's all I knew."

Moving from Paris to Sydney in the early '90s wasn't just surprising, it was unheard of. Literally. When Brahimi told Robuchon he was moving to Australia, he said "I've never heard of this restaurant". Brahimi's leaving created a rift between the two chefs – one that took decades to heal. "He was upset. When I go to Paris now, Robuchon still has four people in the kitchen who used to be my generation, still working for him."

At 28, fresh from Robuchon, Brahimi took over Bilson's, owned at the time by Leon Fink. "It was hard," he says, "and I believe in leading by example. So the first one in, last one to leave. It's not sustainable. I would have been wiser if I had been able to teach more without the pressure of running a kitchen."

It was a jungle out there, you know. To survive, you had to fight.

Dining in Australia then, he argues, wasn't like dining in Australia today. There were only a handful of fine-dining restaurants, and reliable produce was hard to come across.

Cooking wasn't considered a glamorous profession. "Let's talk about being a cook," he says. "The kitchen in Australia 25 years ago, it was [Gallic shrug]. It was nothing to be a cook. Unless you're passionate, why would you work 60, 70 hours in the kitchen, why would you work on the weekend and then get abused? And being an apprentice is not a glamorous way of being 16 years old.

"It was a jungle out there, you know. To survive, you had to fight. It was a very hard environment. I suppose I was not perfect. I was terrible to work for when I was young. I was a perfectionist. I was so tough on myself. Now I'm much older, I question if I was a stereotype of the Robuchon kitchen."

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After leaving Bilson's, Brahimi opened Pond in an old terrace in Kellett Street in Kings Cross – a bold move in 1994 – but it wasn't until he took over Bennelong at the Opera House that Brahimi really hit his straps, winning Best New Restaurant at the Good Food Guide awards in 2002.

He had the site for 13 years, before it was passed to the Fink Group, where Quay chef Peter Gilmore currently runs a three-part restaurant and bar. "When the tender [for the site by the Sydney Opera House] happened, it was very political. And I think what Peter's doing now is great. Did they create something completely different? Is that not fine dining? I'll let the people decide that. The Opera House was very good to me – but I didn't want it anymore. You don't understand how much I worked over there – it probably cost me my marriage."

In hindsight, he thinks that opening Guillaume Paddington so swiftly after Bennelong was not very wise. "I don't know, I wanted to create something special, small, and maybe Paddington wasn't the right space. I was lucky I could get out when I did." And now, with his three bistros across Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, the chef wants to let go a little, and concentrate on teaching.

"The day I stop being in the industry, hopefully it will be better than when we started, and the next generation and the next. I want teach people why we do what we do, and actually seeing the person doing it. How many young chefs know how to make a bearnaise? How many of them know to fillet a salmon properly? How many young kids know how to shuck an oyster without putting the knife in and bleeding the oysters? I'm not a futurist, I'm not molecular. That's not me. But do you know what? When you come to my kitchen, you leave and you know how to make a chicken jus with chicken wings. You know how to make a veal jus with osso bucco. And you know when to stop."

Guillaume Brahimi says he tries to teach his young chefs to love their work and take pride in a job well done. "When you're able to extract that feeling from a young human being, when they're saying 'I'm proud of what I do', it's amazing. But to do that, you need to find the soul of someone – and that's hard at 7.30 in the morning, opening 10,000 oysters. For me, I want to be in the kitchen. When I'm doing service, that's when I say to myself, 'I'm happy'. That's home."

Quickfire corner

Music to cook to: I love listening to Aretha Franklin and Louis Armstrong while cooking with friends and family at home, with a nice glass of wine. That combination has a whole lot of soul.

After midnight snack: When I am home, it's a ham and cheese toastie. When I am travelling I always opt for the club sandwich. I am an expert at (eating and making) these.

Kitchen weapon: That would be the microplane. It's absolutely one of the best tools in the kitchen

Formative food writing: Alain Ducasse's culinary encyclopaedia, Grande Livre de Cuisine. Reading this reminds me just how many cooking techniques are of French influence.

Non-cooking ninja skill: I have always wished I could have been a professional rugby player.