Friday, February 03, 2012

Goodbye Tony Bilson, hello journeyman chef

I spied you observing from the pot-wash.
Your searching eyes dart from the sweeping gestures of the pasta maker
and the circulations of a hand stirring the Sugo to settle momentarily on a boiling pot of salted water.
‘Le system’ is already obvious to you, yet so hard to teach many.
An angry burn catches your attention on the hand sweeping excess flour from a bench and cause’s you to blink-away the imagined sting as the flour wafts down to settle like a grey shadow on the floor.
The broom in your hands stirs, you know what to do but you don’t wait for instruction.
This gesture sets you apart and makes me grin; I remember my younger self, similarly disposed.
Not yet ground down, jaundiced or fatigued.
Back when turning the page meant another exciting revelation, not the closure of another venerable institution or the melancholic lament of a jubilant time long since passed.
Perhaps one’s life does flash before our eyes when we face the finality of the future, our baton change heralding a time to let it all go, like a full-time match klaxon.
I read Tony Billson’s words yesterday and they have been knocking around in my head ever since.
‘I’m leaving restaurants behind’ he said conclusively. I only read the words but they detonated with a despondency that made me shiver.
A lifetime of cooking and of culture: all for what exactly?
To walk away from this intricate and delicate web which had linked so many people through the years and generations, through the shared experience of being nurtured at the table shook my foundations. Is it just vanity to suggest that a legacy of sorts remains, that one has added a shiny veneer to the fibres of our culture by dedicating ones career to restaurants?
All those ideas, meals, service, craft and time that had transpired are immeasurable really. All, except in this case, for an inevitable truth: it all ended up in the toilet, metaphorically and literally.
For such a swashbuckling voyage to end so forlornly, going out with a whimper as it were and leaving the question whether it was all worth while unanswered, compels me to consider the bright-eyed person in front of me, my hand trembling over the authority that will ensnare or liberate them, depending if history will be charitable or not.
Years from now, when I’ve become garden-mulch, will this person drag their gaze up from their bloated belly and aching limbs, calloused fingers and liver damage to declare: ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the stoves’.


Rita said...

An evocative post Steve. I think all those past meals and service only rate (down the track, many years later) with each person individually. You might be anyone, like Tony Bilson, or Elizabeth David, or Steve Cumper, and think "What the hell was all that about?" at the end of it, and really, it's what only you yourself experienced and filtered through your own set of values and experiences. No one can say unequivocably that any single person swayed food or service 'fashions' over the years. You yourself might think Heston is the God of all things food-related, but I might feel the same way about Rick Stein (which, btw, I DO!!). Doesn't mean either of us is wrong or right.
So, yes, the results of many years slaving your arse off in a hot, stressful kitchen or restaurant DO end up down the can, but, hey - you need to take what you can get out of those experiences while they're happening.

Vineyard Paul said...

The one good thing about being a wino is that you can leave something behind at the end of the day. A time capsule of what the weather was for that vintage, and an imprint of you on it.

Cooking is so immediate, a dish only lasts from the preparation to the customers last mouthful. And what are we left with? Old cookbooks and TV chefs that look so 80's.

Philip White said...

Bilson called by the other day. He's coming good, poor bugger; coming to grips with the whole friggin mess. The bitchery of Sydney was obscene; he put himself in hospital for awhile. The malice I got in my comments boxes, having written about him, was vicious and obscene. I'll write more about it all soon when I review his astonishing memoir, INSATIABLE. He's got himself a headful of new ideas, and seems to have most of that boyish energy back. At 68. I always thought he should open a joint called Turn This Into Shit You Bastards. He was off to do a guest chef stint in a five-star in Bali, and looking forward to getting back into Arnhem Land to continue with his work with the Yolgnu mob.

steve said...

Hi Rita, yes I was in a very reflective mood when I wrote this post as this year is my 30th anniversary at the stoves-hard to believe I know, me being so goddam youthful and all!

Hi Paul-a good point you make. Interestingly a mate of mine , a winemaker said he was hyper aware that he got about 20 or so more 'goes' left at his craft. Measured this waykinda put a bit of pressure on innit?!

G'day Phillip, nice to hear from you. It has always intigued me and at the same time saddened me that our tribal elders are left to wander into the dessert to succumb to the malady of indifference, even after a lifetime of toil and craft.
Perhaps the AA Gill and Bourdain gig demonstrated how numbed we have become to the barrage of bullying soundbites, smart-alecky and wise guy cult of celebrity perpetrated by sensationalism driven showman.
Its becoming more difficult to sift through the white noise of spin to reveal the few practitioners of substance-a commodity that you cant buy.