In the 1980s we entered an important phase in both Melbourne and Mietta's culinary history, all because of a phone call in answer to an ad. Tony (Knox) took the call - "I am ze French chef", and shortly after Jacques Reymond came to see us in North Fitzroy. He had just arrived in Australia from France, and at Mietta's he entered a kitchen where chefs of many nationalities produced a cuisine which was a particularly Melbourne mixture.
Tony and I had been making regular visits to France and not long after started importing Domaine-bottled burgundies rarely found in Australia. Jacques had grown up in Burgundy and after cooking elsewhere in France and abroad had taken over his family business. Through he and his wife Kathy's dedication, his to the stoves and hers to front of house, the young couple had gained a Michelin star.
So we had a Burgundian chef and a Burgundian cellar. The menu became classically French and with the change in premises to the city, the style and service came as close to 'proper' as we, along with a bevy of imported staff, could make it. It was against the tide of fashion, but an essential part of the learning curve of our career as restaurateurs. (that story to be told elsewhere).
But for Jacques and Kathy it provided the forum to start their own restaurant Jacques Reymond in Richmond, as well as QC's, a city lunch place, and now their Windsor restaurant which is one of the most acclaimed restaurants in Australia. They have carried the dream of owning a great restaurant since the 18-year-old French chef first met the young English hotel receptionist while he was working at the Burford Bridge Hotel in the UK. They travelled with this dream to France, South America, Spain, back to France and finally to Melbourne.
At Windsor, Jacques Reymond's is set in a handsome old home surrounded by a garden. The style of the rooms and bar and their decoration is quite French in feeling. But it would have cost the Reymonds a great deal more to have such a set up in France. Many years before, Jacques and Kathy had taken over his family's hotel and restaurant in the village of Cuiseaux and after two years of very hard work, brought it from nothing to its acquiring one Michelin star. It was a big achievement, as it had been a very ordinary place, "my father hated cooking, but as he could not get a chef to work in the hotel, he had to do it - he used a lot of tins," Jacques explained. So after learning to love cooking elsewhere, Jacques set to on his own in the kitchen with Kathy out front.
The business built up and so did the staff. After four years they had 17 staff and then had to make a decision about their future. The hotel needed a lot of money spent on it to take it to the next level and the Reymonds decided they would not make the investment, but instead come to Australia. "It did not seem worthwhile in a small village in the middle of nowhere," said Jacques. At around the same time, some of his peers - young chefs in the Burgundy region, were facing the same crossroad in their careers. One of them, Georges Blanc at Vonnas, has gone on to become very famous as a chef, but also very wealthy as a businessman. He developed the family inn into a luxury hotel complete with tennis courts and heli pad, as well as branching out further into the branding and marketing of a whole range of produce and wines.
Others who followed the same route in France have not been so fortunate. One of Jacques friends, Pierre Gagnaire, won three stars at his restaurant in St Etienne, then became bankrupt, lost his restaurant and, in his new Paris business, has gained culinary fame but, according to Jacques, "still owes millions and owns nothing." Likewise Bernard Loiseau whose investment in the Cote d'Or was huge but who now retains just a share of the market listed company. But much sadder is the list of chefs of his generation who have died through stress, the great Alain Chapel and Jean Trois Gros, are amongst 10 of Jacques' friends who have collapsed under the pressure of their restaurant businesses and died at their peak - all around 50. The world of superstar chefs can seem glamorous but it is very tough, especially for those who also like to stay at the stoves. When Tony and I were at Vonnas I remember meeting Georges Blanc after the meal and being surprised at how calm he was and how impeccably clean was his chef's uniform and how inappropriate his black patent leather shoes were for kitchen wear.
"I am still in the kitchen (in Windsor) for service," says Jacques. He has a large team but finds it very hard to relax. Then there are his responsibilities as consultant for the Turtle Island resort where he sends one of his chefs, as well as bringing staff back from the island to work in Melbourne. Working on Turtle Island has provided Jacques with another phase to his cooking. He has learnt to use some of the native Fijian produce but relies more on Asia as a source of inspiration and ingredients. Having established a reputation working at Mietta's as the finest exponent of French food in Australia, it was surprising to see him change focus so completely about ten years ago. He became an Australian citizen in the late 80s and, it seemed, started to rethink his role as a chef as the reality of living in Australia, the influence of East meets West fashion and the growing accessibility of bush tucker ingredients all combined. He described his direction now as being "modern Australian food".
This has caused problems with customers who come expecting what the name and his previous reputation would suggest - the full-blown French cuisine experience. Interesting how fashions change and how, it seems, that in the main culinary centres of Australia, value is now ascribed to dishes being right, not just being different. But for Jacques it has gone beyond pursuing a fashion, his whole philosophy and approach is about the blending of the unusual and the unexpected. And he rarely repeats dishes - changing the menu totally every season. In new menu week in the restaurant kitchen, tension is high as the dishes are assembled, adjusted, re-positioned, thrown out, re-tasted and eventually - served. No recipes are written down, no pictures taken, it just has to be done again and again till it's right. There is no other way for Jacques.
He trained and worked with some very important chefs - Raymond Thuilier at Ousteau de Baumaniere in its heyday; with Jacques Cagna in Paris (bringing it from one star to two Michelin stars) but the chef who influenced him most was Fredy Girardet of Crissiers in Switzerland. "He showed me what cooking could be. He was so humble and the place so wonderful to visit. There was no opulence, but the cooking was fantastic. The dishes looked very simple but you could see the complexity behind them, and that was what I liked. He had an amazing friendship with his staff that was great, a very human man."
Jacques reminded me of a story I had told him about how once late at night Girardet was the only one left in the kitchen doing desserts after sending the staff home. "There are very good chefs who can delegate and run lots of businesses. But Girardet could not be imitated. I would never try and do his dishes because I want to keep them in my memory as his things, as he did them."
Jacques seems to have set himself on the same path, creating dishes of such complexity that the only way to recreate their flavours is to go back and eat in his restaurant. Dining at Jacques Reymond's remains a unique experience. It is French in its style and feeling, the chef was born in France but his dishes are not. They are the product of an extensive culinary journey. It was an interesting experience to have been part of his path in Melbourne and, I suppose, it's natural that's when I enjoyed his cooking most.
A review of Jacques Reymond's Restaurant
Lamb brain with a papillotte of fresh slippery jack mushrooms, a warm salad of roquette and baby spinach
Slow cooked Tasmanian Atlantic salmon with marinated cucumbers, a mango and pumpkin chutney and red pepper dressing
Passionfruit flan with spiced strawberries