Bill Granger began his kitchen adventure as a young boy in an attempt to bring stability to a family for whom meals were anything but harmonious. Now the Aussie chef, who says one should never fear food, has his sights on London.
Egg Master Bill Granger aims to conquer London
In a collection of the Australian chef Bill Granger's 100 favourite recipes, his signature dish is surprisingly missing.
Bill is, after all, the "Egg Master of Sydney", who made his reputation and fortune on the back of his scandalously delicious cream-laden scrambled eggs.
Perhaps he can't bear to reveal trade secrets?
"Oh, there isn't really a recipe," Granger says casually. "I just added more and more cream and cooked them quicker and quicker. And it ended up working out."
Granger is an intuitive cook. He has no formal training and has never cooked outside his own restaurant.
And yet he has become internationally famous, with five restaurants (three in Australia and two in Japan, each named "bills"') and eight cookery books to his name, not to mention a TV series that airs in 30 countries.
"There is a real hunger out there for normal, home cooking," he explains, rather unnecessarily.
The new book, Bill's Basics, is a feast of clean, zingy flavours, vegetable soups spiked with chilli, herby salads and not-too-lardy indulgences (his lemon tart, for instance, comes without the pastry).
"Sea salt is the most important ingredient, it makes everything taste good," Granger enthuses.
"Whenever I'm travelling, I take a little knife, a bottle of olive oil and some sea salt, and then I know I've always got dinner."
He aims his recipes squarely at the hard-pressed domestic cook and tries to keep things as easy as possible.
"I always look at how many bowls I'm using, how many ingredients and how long it takes," he says. "I think my food is quite minimal. There's a temptation to boost your ego by putting in complicated recipes, but keeping it simple is actually harder."
He is allergic to the fashionable culinary fireworks of the Michelin-starred chef brigade.
"I went to a lunch recently - seven courses of foam," he grumbles. "It feels like a lot of guys showing off. I'd rather have a piece of cheese and some home-made bread."
Which is probably why we have met in La Fromagerie, a restaurant in Marylebone that offers precisely that.
Granger, 40, is blond and slim and looks as wholesome as his quinoa salad with pomegranate. Last year, he moved with his wife, Natalie, and three small daughters to London, where he hopes to open a restaurant early next year.
"The first six months were really hard, but now we love it," he says. "I think I was suffering from midlife-crisis boredom before, but now I've got the hunger back."
Granger doesn't have much time to be bored; when he hasn't been hunting for restaurant sites, he's been conducting a food tour of the UK for a new TV show. "It's very interesting how the countryside is being re-energised through food," he says. "Now manufacturing has gone, it's the only way these areas can survive."
I've often found, talking to chefs, that their interest in food was initially sparked by gastronomically aware parents. With Granger, it was just the reverse. Food was a major source of family strife.
Although his father owned a butcher's shop in Melbourne, his mother was a vegetarian.
"That gives you some idea of the conflict over food in my house," he says with a wry grin.
As a result, the Grangers almost never sat down together to eat. He remembers doing so just twice. Instead, every evening, he and his brother would get a roast dinner, their mother ate the accompanying peas and roasted potatoes, and later, when their father came home from his shop, he got steak.
"My mother was always on diets; she didn't like food and she still doesn't," he says. "She had an eating disorder when I was younger and for a long time she ate only boiled eggs." (Perhaps that explains his own egg obsession?)
She passed on some of this neurosis to Granger. "As a child, I was on the chubby side, and I felt self-conscious to the point where I wouldn't want to go swimming, which was a terrible way to grow up," he says. "It took me a long time to relax about food."
In an attempt to repair his fractured family and bring some stability into his own routine, Granger taught himself to cook. "I was about eight or nine when I first started," he says. "I was just looking for a bit of positive reinforcement. I still love it when I bring something to the table that everyone appreciates."
He scoured Woman's Weekly magazine for roasts and simple Italian dishes. "It gave me great satisfaction and confidence," he says. But the idea of working as a chef never occurred to him - especially after a brief stint in the kitchen of a high-end Melbourne restaurant, which he loathed. "For two weeks, I chopped onions with one hand and made chocolate with the other," he says.
He wanted to become an architect and started off at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, but chafed under the structure and discipline. Instead, on a whim, he applied to art school in Sydney, and in order to earn his keep took a job as a waiter in a French bistro called La Passion du Fruit.
"It was completely different from the Melbourne place," he says. "The kitchen was the heart of the restaurant, and this amazing bohemian crowd, including people like Penelope Tree, would come in to chat to the owner, Chrissy. It was lots of fun, and that really inspired me. I loved art, but I found it very solitary. Ultimately, I knew I didn't want to be a professional artist."
So, at 23, with the superb confidence of youth, he decided to open his own cafe, borrowing A$20,000 (Dh74,000) against an insurance policy set up by his grandfather.
"Because of the family butcher's shops, I understood shopkeeping and having my own business," he says. Wasn't he scared? "No! I was young and arrogant. Now I'm scared. I'm terrified of opening a restaurant in London. But then, all my friends were doing similar things. And Sydney is obsessed with what's young and new. I don't think any other city would have allowed me to do it."
It took him a long time to find a suitable site, but he eventually landed on one in inner-city Darlinghurst that had been empty for two years. "The owner was desperate. He'd half-fitted it out for his girlfriend, who wanted her own restaurant, and then they'd split up, so he let me have it for A$250 (Dh923) a week," Granger says.
He turned his artistic talents to the menus and the design of the restaurant, and his plan was to stay front-of-house. But the restaurant took off, and one busy brunch-time when the cook was under pressure Granger was asked to help out at the stove.
The rest is culinary history. Word spread around Sydney about the amazing scrambled eggs, and at weekends queues began forming around the block.
"There are still queues at the weekend 20 years later," Granger says. "Sydney is a very fickle town, and restaurant years are like dog years, so it is amazing."
The restaurant also brought him Natalie, a TV producer, who was a friend of his waiter's girlfriend. They met 12 years ago, when Granger was 28. Weeks after their eldest daughter, Edie, now 10, was born, Granger published his first book, Sydney Food, which became a global bestseller. "I brought Edie to the launch in a papoose," he recalls.
This is characteristic of Granger, whose paternal devotion is one of his most appealing characteristics. Natalie runs the business while he does most of the caring for Edie, Ines, 8, and Bunny, 6, and cooks the family meals.
His hands-on approach is all the more laudable given the stereotype of the unreconstructed Aussie male.
"Oh yes, everyone thinks we're sexist and old-fashioned," he says, "but I know a lot of blokey guys, like builders, who have dropped their hours to be with the kids. The only way you can make a relationship work these days is if both of you share the cooking and the burden."
Given his own childhood, he says it was all the more important for him to ensure that family meals were harmonious and happy.
"Any working parent knows those moments when you feel that the wheels are coming off," Granger says. "That's why it's important to have time when you're all sitting together in the evening, and you're relaxed."
He likes to involve the children in cooking their own dinner - "It's a great way to keep them occupied at that tricky time of day if you get them podding peas."
Not surprisingly, the girls are developing refined tastes, Ines in particular, who refuses to eat dairy products apart from Grana Padano and buffalo mozzarella, and likes to start her day on a sardine or two.
Granger is evangelical on the importance of feeding children properly, by which he means not just healthily, but adventurously as well.
"People get scared feeding children and give up when something is rejected, but it's no good just giving them food they like," he says. "I see so many kids that are just given sausages, potatoes and broccoli every night, but being able to eat different sorts of foods is a really important life skill."
As a new father, he started off religiously puréeing organic vegetables. "I didn't even give Edie pumpkin because I thought it was too sweet. But by the time we got to Bunny, she was eating ice cream at six months." And although he says he watches his own weight, he feels no food should be written off as "bad for you".
"I don't think any food is bad. Even McDonald's is fine sometimes," Granger says. "We should all relax and stop being scared of food."
Crisp-skinned salmon salad with green goddess dressing
1 pink grapefruit
4x120g salmon fillets, with skin
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
100g green beans, topped
2 large handfuls of watercress leaves
1 large handful of flat-leaf parsley
1 large handful of mint
1 ripe avocado, sliced
To serve: green goddess dressing (see below)
Directions Segment the grapefruit by first slicing off both ends. Stand the fruit on a board and, following its curve, slice off the peel and pith with a very sharp knife. Cut out the grapefruit segments by slicing between the membranes.
Heat a frying pan over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Brush the salmon with oil and season well. Cook the salmon, skin side down, for 3 minutes, then turn over and cook for 1 minute. The salmon should be quite rare and the skin crispy. Remove from the pan and leave to rest for 2 minutes.
Meanwhile, blanch the beans in a pan of lightly salted boiling water for 2-3 minutes until they are bright green and tender, yet still crisp. Rinse under cold running water and drain well.
Arrange the watercress, parsley, mint, avocado, beans and grapefruit on serving plates. Slice the salmon and place on top, drizzle with green goddess dressing and season with sea salt to serve.
Green goddess dressing
A large handful of watercress leaves
2-3 tbsp mayonnaise
A large handful of mixed herbs (such as dill, basil, mint and parsley)
2 spring onions, chopped
juice of one lemon
Directions Pulse all of the ingredients in a blender or food processor, adding a little more yoghurt or some water if needed. Refrigerate until required.
Plum jam tart
100g unsalted butter, melted and cooled
90g caster sugar
175g plain flour
25g ground almonds
Plum jam topping
800g plums, pitted and quartered
110g caster sugar
2 tsps corn flour
1 tbsp orange juice
Directions Preheat the oven to 180CG Gas mark 4 and grease and line a 24cm springform cake tin. To make the pastry, stir the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Add the flour and a pinch of sea salt and stir to make a soft dough. Press the dough evenly into the base of the tin with your fingertips. Put the tin on a baking tray and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the pastry is slightly puffy and golden. Remove from the oven and sprinkle the ground almonds over the pastry base in an even layer. To make the topping, toss together the plums, sugar, cornflour and orange juice. Arrange over the pastry base and return to the oven for 30 to 40 minutes until cooked. Leave to cool for 5 minutes before serving. Serve with clotted cream or yogurt.