Plenty by Gay Bilson
Now out of print – though you can find second-hand copies on the web – this is one of my favourite books. There are a few recipes in it, though I have never cooked them. It isn’t really a book to cook from, but to think from.
Re-reading isn’t something I do very often. There isn’t enough time to read all the books I would like to get under my belt once, never mind twice. But some books are so rich, so hard to take in at one sitting, that you are compelled to come back to them. I’ve just read Gay Bilson’s Plenty for probably the fifth time. The margins and the title page are covered in my notes, and each reading throws up nuggets of wisdom and thought-provoking quotations I hadn’t quite taken on board before. (And it presents you with so many writers and sources that you finish Plenty with a new reading list.)
Gay Bilson is a former restaurateur; in fact she’s one of the best-known and most respected restaurateurs in Australia. Her career in restaurants coincided with the period in which food and cooking there revved up and eventually exploded. A country that at one time was famous for pies and pavlova gradually developed an eating culture that became the envy of Europe and America. Australia has great and abundant produce and a wealth of culinary cultures to plunder. Slowly, beginning in the late 1970s, its citizens began to realise that.
Gay Bilson’s life in restaurants began at a small place called Tony’s Bon Goût, a small restaurant that she ran with her husband Tony Bilson (also a big figure on the Australian food scene). This they embarked upon with ‘hardly enough money to pay for butter… and a giddy naivety’, just a desire, on Tony’s part, to cook French food. As Bilson says, ‘We found an audience, or an audience found us, and the audience settled in.’ Nothing was planned. One of the best things about Plenty is Bilson’s musings and conclusions on what restaurants are and how they develop, and how the customers – as well as the owners – create them together. They are the product of the owners, cooks, regular customers and the period in which they evolve. Of the Bon Goût she says, ‘A conversation began and bloomed, and idealism, which has no common place in Australian culture, seemed to hold sway for a while. The unspoken pact between the restaurant and the diner, the little shared glories of place and palate, the genuine and easy conviviality between kitchen, waiting and dining-room personalities in that otherwise depressing, cheap room felt splendid. It was splendid.’
Bilson didn’t really choose to cook. She was interested in food and cooking but says (with characteristic self-deprecation) that she took up a position there, ‘because there was no one else and because I vainly fancied myself as a domestic cook. I’d gone to bed with a cook and ended up with a restaurant and a baby.’ Tony did the main courses and starters while she did simple vegetables to serve on the side, the desserts and service, and looked after their baby.
Details on the development of Australian cooking and dining pepper the book; and don’t make the mistake of thinking that her observations aren’t relevant to us here. ‘Simple’, ‘seasonal’, ‘local’, all those buzz words began to be used, just as they were in California and, eventually, here too. Here’s a little nugget. The day the Bilsons closed the Bon Goût something significant happened in Australian dining. Stephanie Alexander, who was to become another outstanding chef and restaurateur, opened a small place in Melbourne. ‘I remember her talking about the excitement of serving radishes with a pat of butter and sea salt,’ writes Bilson. ‘This would overturn the expectations of formal dining in Australia – the garden, undisguised, was coming to the table.’
The Bilsons, who clearly ran with their gut instinct, then opened what was to become one of Australia’s most celebrated restaurants, Berowra Waters Inn. The inn was an hour’s drive north of Sydney on an estuary of the Hawkesbury River. It was in a stunning location, but presented logistical nightmares. There was no land access (diners were ferried across in a boat), the usual wrestle with grease traps and waste – bad in any restaurant kitchen - was much exacerbated and goannas (large monitor lizards) would wander into the kitchen. There were spiders and snakes to contend with and when the power failed the restaurant’s ovens and dishwashers would grind to a halt. But the breathtaking view and the building fitted perfectly with the beliefs of both Bilson and the Berowra Waters architect, Glenn Murcut. They felt that serving food on a veranda was ideal, as it pulled the outside and the inside together.
In her 18 years at Berowra, Bilson had more children, split from Tony Bilson and became weary of running the place to which she had committed so much time and energy. She also, eventually, found it difficult to charge people for the top-notch food the place turned out. Although she ran a glamorous restaurant her natural impulse is to give food freely, rather than take money for it. She was seduced, after this, into running Bennelong, the restaurant at the Sydney Opera House (though that is another story… and quite a bitter one) before giving up restaurant work entirely.
Bilson spent so much of her life in restaurants, and during such a period of change, that she is perfectly placed to write about them, about menu planning and about cooking. And there’s plenty of this, from thoughts on the design of restaurants (‘the grammar of architecture is one of proportion and separation’) to how to keep the diner’s attention (‘Wanting to leave the table hungry is a perverse desire but if, instead, the elements of the meal become less filling as the meal progresses, appreciation is extended’). But there is so much more: what makes a great chef, what differentiates them, how one can see a combination of physical capability and imagination at work in the best of them. She also looks at the language we use to describe some cooking processes (for instance tomatoes can be described as ‘melting’ as they are sautéed in olive oil; what does that mean exactly?) and wonders about the purpose of cookbooks.
Plenty is subtitled ‘digressions on food’, but even this description doesn’t begin to cover its scope. Bilson is erudite, a lover of words and, evidently, a great reader. On one level the book is about food, but Bilson sees it always in the context of history, culture, politics and ethics. An essay on bird’s nests (she collects them, and people send them to her from all over the world) might seem unconnected to food, but Bilson is always looking at the value we place on things. She didn’t love restaurants for their glamour or expense, but for a love of good materials, and their transformation, in the hands of someone talented, into something else. She understands our bodies, as well as our appetites, gardening and the seasons. This, about the cusp between autumn and winter, is from the long chapter simply entitled Food. ‘For now, last season’s fruit having been jellied and jammed and dried, different produce demands some attention. I have been laboring pleasurably over yoghurt, pumpkin, chestnuts, dried figs and sourdough, smoked eel, pasta and “Nothings”. Late autumn settling into winter provides crisp, clear days and cold nights in which to dig and knead. One wants to work physically. Arriving late at the gate of gardening, I still find autumn’s invitation to dig and clear and mulch a marvel of conjunctions. The body wants to be part of the land. The soil may go to sleep in the winter, but it invites participation in its dormancy’
Bilson does her own thing in this book as much as she did in restaurants. There is a chapter made up of lists of things she likes, structured like Shei Sonagon’s Pillow Book (the writing takes the form of brief notes and observations), and her chapter on Fernand Point is set out in numbered sections. It helps with the flow, to be honest. As the text is rich, you need it to be broken up. She’s a great thinker and it’s a thrill to find someone of her intellect wrestling with food and all manner of things connected to it. Plenty is, though, for someone who writes about food, at times an uncomfortable read. She is scathing about food writing, not because she thinks it isn’t worthwhile but because she thinks it is mostly done badly. I’ve quoted her in my piece on food writing but it’s worth having it here too.
‘The best writing about food depends on the writer’s qualifications as a writer. Dismissing this as the “bleeding obvious” is to continue to settle for the status quo of gush, advertisement and self-advertisement that dominates the ‘delicious’ market and depends on its readers praising the emperor’s new clothes. It is why, give or take an Alan Davidson or two, the best is to be found sheltering by accident in works about other things altogether. As well, the best writing about food might be defined, as John Banville defined a different kind of writing, as “evocative exactitude”.’
I finished Plenty with the phrase ‘evocative exactitude’ lodged in my brain. I sometimes repeat it like a mantra. She made me feel I had to do better. She’s tough – unsentimental, clear thinking, honest – but one feels she’s as tough on herself, and her own writing, as she is on other people.
Plenty is a vast book in some ways. It boggles the mind to think about how Bilson knitted it all together. There’s just so much stuff.
She left the restaurant trade altogether in 1999 to live on her own in McLaren Vale, south of Adelaide, and now pursues a life dedicated to literature, which she clearly loves as much as, if not more than, cooking. She writes and reviews, tends her garden, cooks, spends a lot of time by herself and, I assume, thinks as much as ever. She has stopped cooking for the public. Those meals are gone. But in Plenty she has given us a feast that will last forever.