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Chez Negus

December 06, 2012

KITCHEN CORRESPONDENT

(Home-cook hero, George Negus slices & dices in a two-hat kitchen)

© David Astle

War zones. Crossfire. Rebel camps. George Negus has lived more lives than an alley cat. Thirty-seven years of chasing news has given the man with the trademark mo a passport full of hotspots. Duty-bound, he’s survived militia, coups, juntas, Spanish prison, Maggie Thatcher. Wherever the bombs are falling – Jerusalem, Maralinga – Negus will go. Yet every risk will pale tonight in Bilson’s Restaurant.

Tonight the foreign correspondent is braving the heat of a three-hat kitchen Рto cook. The gig is more dare than assignment, a one-night stand to see if the seasoned home-cook can cut the Dijon as apprentice. Nobody but restaurateur РTony Bilson, founder of a dozen gourmet addresses in his own 40-year career Рand his kitchen crew are wise to the experiment. Beyond the swing doors, will discerning diners dine oblivious? Will the souffl̩ rise or flop? What looms as a recipe for disaster may well be a coup for gifted amateurs everywhere.

Importantly, Bilson and Negus are best of friends. The pair met over 30 years ago, via food in Tony’s Bon Gout on Sydney’s Elizabeth Street, and have been solving the world’s problems over plates ever since. The mateship in a sense condones tonight’s folly. Why else would a top-end chef allow a rogue protégé into his kitchen? Salmon confit invites a thousand blunders; non-chefs are capable of finding them all.

Negus shrugs. Pheasant terrine may be par for Bilsons’ course, but the home-cook feels equal to the challenge. After years of sating his family – partner Kirsty Cockburn and their sons Ned (19) and Serge (16) – he feels battle-ready. But that’s Negus to a fault. “Anyone who reads, can cook,” he reckons. Remember that – we may be looking for an epitaph.

“Cooking is my therapy,” adds Negus, just before the public arrive this Thursday evening (May 11). In both his home kitchens Negus fulfils the role of chef, Italian food his forte. Swapping his SBS Dateline desk for bench-top, the household name finds peace concocting ragout in his Balmain digs, or an exceptional pesto in the Bellingen hideaway.

“Penne a-la Negus is my signature dish,” he says, trying on Bilsons’ bleached jacket for size. To a “bucketload” of home-made pesto he will add garlic, chilli flakes, chopped Italian parsely and cherry tomatoes (“sautéed until a small black spot appears”), lastly adding parmigiana to taste. “Everyone loves the dish,” says partner Cockburn. “Of course the Italians are horrified by Aussie spins on their national dishes”¦but I’m pretty sure a few of our friends from [Italy] survived the meal!”

Oysters Negus is another claim to fame (“I pinched the recipe from New York’s Grand Central Station”) but his big romance is with risotto. “Strange as it may seem,” he writes in his 1999 sea-change chronicle, The World From Italy, “my true and ultimate aim in life, still unfulfilled, is to become the best risotto cook in Australia.”

Signore Negus negates the notion of simply stirring a risotto. Roll over Casanova – Negus turns steamy when it comes to arborio: “You don’t stir a risotto, you fondle it, you stay with it, you keep coming back to it, tenderly stroking it towards climax.” Seems Signore Negus is the man to put the aaah into lasagna.

Jacket on, he enters the Bilson’s kitchen and the differences multiply. Seven men roam the aisles, from five different countries. A hunk from Biarritz beats a zabaglione. Glasgow presses King George whiting through a drum sieve. Dublin cleans the rack of venison with a Frenching knife. Bangkok washes spoons. Born in Brittany, the fourth in a chef dynasty, Manu Fieldel peels ox-tongues. “You’re late,” he tells the apprentice. And Negus laughs, but not for long. Fieldel cuts a frightening figure.

Though Negus needn’t worry. Firstly, he knows Bilson only hires urbane staff. “Our kitchen,” says the restaurateur, “is very civilized. We don’t have tantrums. We don’t swear or raise voices. Whatever happens, George will keep his dignity. I choose my staff for their good manners and intelligence.” Oh yes, they also need to cook like angels.

And secondly? Negus knows Bilson full-stop. Comparing laugh-lines, the moustaches, the salt-and-pepper manes, you could mistake the two as brothers: Negus, 64, and Bilson, 62, the Newshound and the Epicure.

“Journalism,” says Negus, “introduced me to the long lunch, and Tony’s Bon Gout to the weekend lunch. We’d get there on Friday night and not leave the joint till Sunday afternoon.”

A bolt-hole on Elizabeth Street, Tony’s Bon Gout was a hedonistic think-tank for the Bohemian Left during the early 70s, a forum of new-breed film-makers, artists, journos, pollies and pot-stirrers. The roll-call was raffish: Frank Moorhouse, Richard Neville, Jenny Kee. “We were too young to be part of the ‘Sydney Push’,” recalls Bilson. “I liked to say we belonged to the ‘Baby Push’.”

Both aged in their early 30s, poised on the brink of stellar careers, the pair met over a plate of Moroccan sausages and chilled Hawkesbury oysters. Negus was smitten at first bite. “I used to think that meal was as smart and as sophisticated as you could get. Hot spicy sausages – like Moroccan chorizo – and these chilled oysters – talk about a BBQ stopper.”

Bilson matches Negus’s chuckle. “Another big dish at Bon Gout was roast duck. [Then wife] Gay and I used to roast them in a big oven with no temperature controls. Gay would make these exquisite quiches and soufflés. Plenty of live lobsters too. One night a whole lot escaped the kitchen and crawled into the dining room”¦” Unfazed, the gallant crowd selected the pacesetter as the first to be cooked – since fresh is best.

So why did the two click? Tony: “We share a distinct discomfort with bourgeois sensibility, we very much of the same generation.” Or going with George: “It goes further than food – I can’t think of much, philosophically or politically where Tony and I disagree.”

A waiter arrives, disrupting the nostalgia. His name is Pierre. He needs the tarte fine of lobster for Table 14, and the kitchen jumps. The night has started. Negus is tasked with smearing the spinach mouselline on each pastry circle, as Glasgow (alias Steven Skelly) warms the skillet for lobster.

By secret signal, chequered cloths appear on every chef’s shoulder. Gouts of steam climb the tiles. “It’s the first time I’ve ever cooked without a glass of red,” whispers Negus, who’s not really cooking. Not yet. He’s pincering a lobster tail between his thumb and fingers, as coached by Skelly, and slicing the flesh into plump slabs.

Bilson stands at the kitchen’s head. A Panasonic printer stutters out the latest order which he relays to his team. “One whiting quenelle, two chaud-froid, one matelote of barramundi.” A chorus of ‘Oui chef’s’ reverberate. The kitchen is narrow, yet extends some 20 metres from the Roquefort fridge to the sorbet coolroom. Zanussi gas ranges compete for space against the giant combi-steamer and a Cryovac press for sealing meat in sauces.

Skelly tackles the first quenelle. He angles a spoon to scoop out a blond paste of whiting meat from a silver dish. Negus watches spellbound. “I’m a quenelle virgin,” he confesses to Skelly, who blurts “Far quenelle” in his naked-chef accent.

The Macquarie dictionary says Quenelle is a preparation of fish, meat or poultry, cooked and sieved, blended with egg, and cooked in stock or fried as croquettes. But in the Bilson kitchen, language lapses to instinct. Quenelles, for starters, are neither boiled in stock nor deep-fried, but poached for seven-and-a-half minutes in lightly salted water, the temperature a meticulous 90 degrees. The home-cook needs a watch to measure the time; the life-cook relies on his senses.

“I can cook blind,” says Bilson, who drifts downtown to the fish-prep station to spy on his old pal. “I cook as much with my hearing as my sight. With my back turned to the stove I know what’s going on – with fat it’s the rapidity of the bubbling. Through smell, it’s the caramelisation. Through touch I can tell meat’s done-ness.”

So has George ever cooked for Tony? Bilson baulks. The most likely time, he believes, was during the Last Days of Bon Gout, in 1975, when Tony actually billeted at George’s pad in Balmain. “Back then, George was pretty well behaved compared to me.”

“I had to be,” chimes in Negus, eyeing his wristwatch. “I was press secretary for the Attorney-General [Lionel Murphy]. I couldn’t afford a scandal!”

“That’s right,” says Bilson. “And I was drunk half the time. George was trying to avoid scandal and I was a scandal on two legs.”

But what about the cooking? Who cooked for whom in this Odd-Couple existence? The only dish either can recall from that mad period is smoked haddock – and that was the once. Nowadays the two feel more like schoolmates. “It’s that sort of friendship,” agrees negus. “No matter how long the time-gap, we just pick up the last conversation we had.”

How’s the time? Does a watched quenelle ever poach? Steven Skelly, a skinny version of Liam Gallagher with spattered specs, can’t afford to stand about. “Chef,” he orders Negus, “I want you to sauté the slippery Jacks.”

The 60 Minutes eyebrow acts as its own question. “Them,” clarifies Skelly, pointing to a takeaway tub teeming with oily retreads. “They’re field mushrooms, yeah? They grow wild, yeah? Like the French cèpes, except we can’t get cèpes so we do these.” No hint of squeamish, the apprentice grabs a fistful of slippery Jacks and hurls them into the pan. Meantime Skelly retrieves the quenelle – just in time.

A bell is slapped. Jason, a waiter, fetches a platter of amuse-bouche (“mouth entertainers”) for Table 23. Angled like windsurfer sails, the tiny treats are savoury wafers erect in Chantilly cream. “We have six covers for a full deg,” sings Jason. Translation: six diners each desire 10 sample plates of the degustation banquet. Bilson winks at his mate. Fasten your aprons, old son.

The two friends busy themselves. Bilson patrols entrees. Negus has fifty baby carrots to trim. Framed in a quiche plate, the clock on the wall appears to accelerate. A “quiet” sort of Thursday night amounts to 200 plates to occupy 50-plus diners.

Bilson adjusts the pickled endives across the terrine. Negus scalps carrots, and moves to shallots, his moves gaining fluidity. Both 60-somethings seem at home in the tumult, their focus the food. (“Thumb and first finger on the blade,” shoots Skelly. “Controls the blade better.”) George chops. Bilson patrols. The two mates trade a wink amid the ruckus.

Eerily, a sad coincidence in their past helped give rise to this mutual food-fixation. Aged four, both mates lost their Dads to accidents. In one way or another, fine dining was one improbable outcome.

After his father’s death, Bilson’s mum remarried her first boyfriend, a hotelier named Marsden with a sports-shooting licence. (“We hunted quail, swan, wild duck; my mother was a very good cook.”) The son’s own love affair with taste had begun. Dot, Negus’s mum, opted to raise the family solo after George Sr died. She also persisted on adding sultanas to spaghetti bolognaise. (“Nobody ever cooked like my mum,” says Negus, “though a few people went close in the army.”) Such Brisbane-ite heresy – plus sporadic bouts of bachelorhood – compelled young Negus to the stove.

Shallots pared, the rookie is slid a pail of zucchini flowers. Sous-chef Skelly says, “Top and tail and de-stamenise, yeah?” The challenge is implicit: master this final knifework chore and the next snapper fillet is yours to sauté.

Skelly and Negus are working well. Two hours old, the mentor and rookie have found their groove. “What’s it like working for Tony?” asks Negus, ever the journo. Skelly chooses his words: “He’s got a lot of old stuff up his sleeve – some crap-old stuff but most of it’s brilliant.”

(“Two pig’s trotters,” says Manu Fieldel, the plates a riot of gilt meat and celeriac puree. Bilson rings the bell.)

With a teaspoon of modesty, Bilson traces his culinary flair back to Escoffier, the maestro and archivist who bottled the genie of classic French cooking. On rainy days in Melbourne an eight-year-old Bilson would lose himself in the 5000 recipes of Le Guide Culinaire. No less pivotal was a stockpot in his stepfather’s pub.

“I was four or so,” Bilson recalls. “I remember watching the hotel’s Chinese cook throw eggshells and chicken pieces into the pot. What is that, asked the little boy. That, said the Chinaman, is why our restaurant is busy and others are not.”

Reeking of prophesy, Bilsons is flat-out busy now. Constant orders spit from the printer. Waiters spin and exit like actors entering the wrong scene. Fridges slam. Knives flash. The serving shelf is laden with spinach strudel, al-dente asparagus, perfumed kid, doormat cuts of Wagyu beef. Chefs are locked in unscripted dance. “Behind!” says Peter the patissier, the only in-house Aussie, though the guy was born in Burma. He’s carrying a tray of white-chocolate Charlottes so frail they seem like art.

As head chef, Fieldel investigates the new bloke. Negus has graduated to sauté detail. He anchors the snapper with a small copper pot to prevent the fish’s margins curling. Between pot and flesh is a foil butter wrap for added moisture. “Whip it,” sings Fieldel in cryptic approval. “Whip it good.”

For all his bluster, Fieldel owns a poetic soul. (“All we do,” he says, “is make food beautiful.”) The French bear is the darling of Channel 10’s Ready, Set, Cook. “I am between Talent Chef and Celebrity Chef,” he cracks. A thwarted circus career, back in his teens, accounts for the clown tattoo above his heart, plus an elephant on his shoulder-blade. So what scars does the 35-year-old own? “Moi?” he jokes. “Only the burn marks from Tony’s limelight.”

The master himself ghosts across to Negus’s station, armed with champagne flute, and news of the night subsiding. The kitchen has matched the gourmet appetites of Sydney in a mad three hours, and Negus has been a vital cog. “How does it feel?” asks Bilson, reversing roles with the reporter.

The home-cook takes a pull of bubbles. Not immaculate, his station is testament to clipped shallots, oyster mushrooms, lobster legs and dauphinoise potato. “Tonight I learnt the difference between showing off and working.” He unties the jacket. “And you mate, I reckon you were a football coach in a previous life. You kept us going from start to finish.”

The true-chef groans. Please, he thinks, anything but your old sporting metaphors, Negus. “I’d prefer to think of myself as a composer, if that’s OK.” Shoulder to shoulder they migrate to the dining room where the conversation can really start.

[Sunday Life, June 2006]

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