Chef and restaurateur Tony Bilson dies aged 76

Tony Bilson at Berowra Waters Restaurant in 1981.
Tony Bilson at Berowra Waters Restaurant in 1981. Photo: Supplied

Celebrated chef and restaurateur Tony Bilson has died.

Often referred to as the "godfather of Australian cuisine", Bilson passed away peacefully from a complicated set of many illnesses on Thursday night in the company of family. He was 76.

Bilson's culinary career began in Melbourne at the end of the 1960s, when he cooked at La Pomme d'Or in Camberwell and Lygon Street's Albion Hotel. 

Tony Bilson in 2008 during his time at Radisson Blu Plaza where he operated a three hatted restaurant until 2011.
Tony Bilson in 2008 during his time at Radisson Blu Plaza where he operated a three hatted restaurant until 2011. Photo: Danielle Smith

In 1972, he moved to Sydney with partner Gay Morris (later Gay Bilson) and the couple opened Tony's Bon Gout on Elizabeth Street. The restaurant introduced diners to the intricacies of French gastronomy and became a bolthole for the Sydney Push. 

"Many food lovers maintain that modern Sydney dining was born in Tony's Bon Gout," said The Sydney Morning Herald chief restaurant critic Terry Durack. "When Gough Whitlam came to power, it became a sort of unofficial Labor Party clubhouse - they even left Chinatown for it."

At the height of its popularity, Bon Gout was booked out six months in advance with a $9.50 fixed-price meal that might have included duck's neck "en brioche", live local lobster and lemon souffle. 

Tony Bilson at Fine Bouche in East Sydney, January 18, 1990.
Tony Bilson at Fine Bouche in East Sydney, January 18, 1990. Photo: Michele Mossop

The Bilsons took their food philosophies to the Hawkesbury in 1976 and turned the homely Berowra Waters Inn teahouse into a fine-dining temple. A slick refit designed by architect Glen Murcutt gifted the riverside restaurant a contemporary Australian setting.  

"Berowra Waters Inn will stay in my mind forever as the epitome of Australian dining," said Good Food columnist and former Good Food Guide editor Jill Dupleix. 

"Tony and Gay were determined to throw out the rule book and create a new Australian way of doing things. By commissioning Glenn Murcutt to do the building, they said, 'This is Australia, this is our nation. We are the bright young things; let's speak food in a new Australian vernacular.' "

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Speaking to the Herald in 2009, Bilson said he regarded food and wine as essential elements of a nation's culture. "Cooking at the top level is not an art; it is art."

By the time Berowra Waters Inn was awarded three hats in the first Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide in 1984, Bilson had separated from Gay and left the Hawkesbury to focus on other venues. 

In partnership with property developer Leon Fink, Bilson transformed an old Taylor Square funeral parlour into Kinselas, a theatre, bar and brasserie that became the centre of Sydney's nightlife in 1982.

The three-hat recipients at The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide Awards in 2011. From left, Mark Best, Peter ...
The three-hat recipients at The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide Awards in 2011. From left, Mark Best, Peter Gilmore, Tony Bilson, Peter Doyle, and Martin Benn.  Photo: Kate Geraghty

"Kinselas was, for me, the best thing that had or has ever happened to Sydney," food writer Dr John Newton said.

"Restaurants, a bar, and a cabaret theatre, with performances from artists as disparate as Divine, Max Gillies, Mort Sahl and George Melly. Kinselas was, as Tony wrote, about 'art, politics, sex, and of course, food'." 

Bilson and Fink also won the tender to operate a prestige restaurant at the Overseas Passenger Terminal and launched Bilson's at the harbourside site in 1988. Bilson parted ways with his eponymous restaurant in the early '90s, and the fine-diner later changed its name to Quay.

The chef with a trademark bow-tie also operated Fine Bouche in East Sydney, the Treasury at Hotel InterContinental, the multimillion-dollar Ampersand at Darling Harbour and Canard Bistro in Double Bay. 

Durack said that, while Bilson was never really a fan of celebrity chefs, it is ironic that he played an enormous role in nurturing the likes of Manu Feildel and Miguel Maestre.

"Mind you, he also hired some of the most significant Michelin-starred chefs, such as Taillevent's Alain Soliveres, Peruvian master Diego Munoz and Pascal Barbot, who went on to open Astrance and win three Michelin stars," Durack said.

"And never forget who first hired Tetsuya Wakuda as a Japanese-speaking dishwasher and then asked him to do some sushi at Kinselas."

The chef's last high-profile restaurant, Bilson's at the Radisson Blu Plaza on O'Connell Street, was awarded three hats in many editions of the Good Food Guide before shuttering due to an unexpected tax bill in 2011.

"Tony was well-educated, well-read and very articulate," said Durack. "I remember him as being very didactic. It was his way, which was usually the French way, or the highway. He maintained you couldn't match wine to Thai food, for example, which was always worth a good argument or two."

Dupleix said Bilson had no time for fools and "little time for those who weren't fools but may have disagreed with him". 

"He believed in a 'proper' gastronomic education and loved to quote Escoffier," she said. 

"Appreciation of wine and a knowledge of cheese was of paramount importance. I don't think we will see his like again."