It takes a while with Damien Pignolet of Sydney's Bistro Moncur, but when you get there, it's always right. Be it putting 'new' dishes on the menu, be it planning a trip to Venice, be it talking definitions of dishes, be it getting the acoustic right, be it the philosophy of restauration, be it the definitive book on his cooking and his story at Claude's. You know that once he has reached a solution, it will be long-lasting, valuable and that, despite, or is it because of, success - he will continue worrying about it.
He has just been through the tribulations of re-doing Bistro Moncur whilst remaining open to the public. The place may look the same but diners' conversation will be much easier with the acoustic work which has been done; and your meal will be served even more efficiently with the extensive improvements made to the kitchen. And now it's done, is he happy? No, there are always other worries because for him, being a restaurateur is a deliciously complicated role.
He explains why - "there are three elements which make up the sum of a restaurant: the ambience, the package of the service, and the package of the product. I thought a restaurant was about food. It's really about the romance of the place, the smells, the chi chi, and certainly about the service. People keep asking me to define my style, because in Sydney everybody has to label everything. I'm producing food for 1200 people a week that's very honest food. It's food drawn from French origins, from regional cooking, from classical cooking. I am a Francophile, and I understand the French kitchen. In fact I know little about any other kitchen."
Damien explained how difficult it was to shape Bistro Moncur - "I had to develop a brief within a very tight budget, that would invoke something unique within the boundaries of the space and of the market for French bistro fare in Sydney. So I really began to put more emphasis on how you feel here. And the constraints were considerable. Neither the ceiling nor the air conditioning could be changed without major cost, so we had these hideous registers and we put two slits over a sky light and suddenly made it 'work'. Then there is the all concept of the food which is "a statement about French Bistro food, as we could interpret it in Sydney to an Australian market."
For Damien that is simple food which is consistent and predictable. As a bistro in France would do, they have a traditional steak dish, the Cafe de Paris, which has always been on the menu. Damien says "it seriously has a cult falling. Nobody does it as well as we do. It's delicious. There is always a terrine of some description, usually game, this is variant using my salmon, crab meat avocado puree etc. This is a dish which is a statement of today. It's good in the family of bistro fare. Sausages are a classic since day one. We make them. We make everything inhouse. The only thing we don't make is breads. We make specialty breads and buy in others. We make every bit of charcuterie, and every piece of dessert."
Damien says "I am not a working chef, I go in and teach them how to do a dish, I talk, I try to inspire, I try to live a life." (Living that life has become a bit easier with the sale of the Sackville Hotel which was Bistro Deux). As far as staff are concerned, Damien is pleased that Jason Roberts, who started as an apprentice three and a half years ago, is now chef in charge. There is some bitterness about others who have gone and notably one chef who " basically cloned the concept of bistro which many other people have done as well."
But for Damien, imitation is positive not negative. "My role as restaurateur and as chef is absolutely to offer every opportunity possible to everybody I've got on my team. If they move along in a dignified manner, giving proper notice, I'd be sad but perfectly happy. There is heaps of talent out there and if you just find the talent and give them the challenges and just guide them along then the whole industry grows. Damien gives his staff very precise recipes which are well thought through and meaningful for others' use and he has seen many of them taken and replicated. Whether the same results can be achieved in another environment is questionable but it upsets him. "It's an irritation because I have worked through the dishes and the environment to make a statement about what a bistro could be in Sydney in a hotel. As such we have created this, and as such won three very high awards from the Australian Hotels Association for breaking ground, because no body else had done that."
Over the past year his attention has also been focused on producing a book to be published in October 2000. This will be based on the way he has always taught cooking which is to teach method and to extrapolate on method. "It's not just the recipe, cooking is much more than that."As Damien and others in this book know well, it's how things are done not what the dishes are. So he strives continually to explain, to put things in a context which makes sense. And going beyond sense what could be better than the name and heart logo of Bistro Moncur, from the name of the Woollahra street it is in and the French mon (my) and coeur (heart) as explained by Damien. "We love eating...we love you, that is what it is all about."
The product is obviously food and liquor. The product is going to vary wherever it is, and there is as much a market for bad food as there is for good food. What there isn't a market for is bad service. You could have very good food, and inept or attitude driven service in a great room, and the place will fall apart, and it would fall apart more quickly than if the food was so-so and the service better. I've spent 32 years of my life in a single stream, this industry. But, until I came to Sydney 20 years ago,
An interview with in 1995 from Mietta & Friends, and Damien in 1991. A review of Bistro Moncur.
Salad of cauliflower remoulade baby beetrot and cucumber
Chartreuse of swordfish
Pear and green peppercorn souffle
Oysters and watercress
Guinea fowl and cepes, salad of endive, confit of guinea fowl
Potato pancakes with Sevruga caviar and Damien's salmon