Bill, Madonna, Cher. Yep Bill - that is Bill Granger - is know by a single moniker. I spoke to Bill on a cold Autumn morning where he had just stepped off a plane from London - something that would resoundingly reduce most of humankind to something akin to zombies. However Bill greets me with a sunny "Hello! It's Bill Granger!" as if crossing multiple time zones doesn't affect him at all. He laughs easily and is enthusiastic and chatty, an interviewer's dream in fact. This is what he had to say.
NQN: Your father was a butcher and your mother was a vegetarian. That must have made for some interesting dinner table debates!
Bill: (laughs) The strange thing was, we never really used to sit down and have meals the way we were brought up. Wed always eat separately and dad would always come home late and eat separately with mum so food was never a huge part of our family considering that it was our business as dad was a butcher.
NQN: I would have thought the opposite considering you have such a focus on family (and a lovely family at that).
Bill: You know I think thats why I do it. I think its that thing of I didnt have it enough. Dinner is such an important time to sit and relax and talk about your day. Especially when everyone has such disparate days with school and working, those moments of shared experience are great.
NQN: Wait til they get to uni!
Bill: I know! I think ones going to be a vegetarian. I know thats going to happen just to annoy dad Im sure (laughs). My wife was vegetarian until she met me and then she turned.
NQN: Youre originally from Melbourne but I always associate you with Sydney.
Bill: Everyone just thinks of me as so quintessentially Sydney but Im actually from Melbourne. I was brought up down near Mentone then we moved out to a place called Berwick which is near where Kath & Kim do the series. That was my first job - at Kmart Fountaingate!
NQN: What prompted you to move from Melbourne to Sydney?
Bill: I was studying architecture at RMIT and just didnt like it and friends were coming up to Sydney and Id never been and I fell in love with it. I think it was September and I think Melbourne at the time was cold and wintry and Sydney had one of those perfectly beautiful Spring weekends and I was seduced by the city. Sydney is an incredibly seductive city. Physically its very beautiful. So I moved and applied for some art schools and just moved up.
NQN: How did you switch from art to food?
Bill: When I was at my second year of uni I needed some money to pay my way and there was a restaurant across the road from uni and I applied for a job as a waiter. I became friends with the owner and I cooked for her and she really like the way I cooked so she invited me to cook in the kitchen and it started from there.
_The famous Ricotta Hotcakes _
NQN: When and where did you learn to cook?
Bill: I used to cook all the time from the Womens Weekly cookbooks and recipe cards that were in the box right next to the stove. Then Margaret Fulton but then as I got older I got into more sophisticated books like Elizabeth David. When I was 19 I always read them and just became a good home cook which is what I am now. Just a good home cook.
NQN: Which is why your books are so popular, because we are all home cooks.
Bill: I never overestimate what you might know as a home cook. When a friend of mine invited me to her house, her sister was a professional chef and she cooked for us and we had a tuna steak with olives and beans and she stacked them up on top of each other and I remember I was blown away at how professional it was.
NQN: Were you 22 when you set up the Bills in Darlinghurst?
Bill: Yes 22 or 23. I turned 23 in September and we opened in late September, early October.
NQN: Was that daunting?_
Bill: Dad and my grandad always had the butcher shops so the idea of having a shop wasnt so daunting. I wouldnt use the word daunting, it was more of a challenge. I had no idea how to run a business and its still not what Im best at. Im very good on the creative stuff. Im very lucky as I had dad who used to do all the bookwork. I just sent it to him in a postbox and my mum was living here in Sydney and she used to help out so it was very much a family business and still is. Not unlike my dads butcher shop, just a bit more glamorous a family business.
NQN: Does he still have a butcher shop?
Bill: No, he got out of it in the late 70s. He became more of a wholesaler as supermarkets starting selling meat and the idea all changed. The idea of a suburban butcher shop, it's changed. Smaller greengrocers and butchers were starting to disappear.
NQN: I think its coming back now, what do you think?
Bill: It is, especially the premium thing. Thats the way I like to shop. I like to support small businesses anyway because I have one when you can and when you can afford it to go to the smaller guys.
NQN: What do you think set Bills apart from other cafes? Aside from the ricotta hot cakes and the eggs. There are so many cafes meander along or close so why do you think it struck such a chord? Youve got 3 here..._
Bill: Yes and 1 in Japan! I worked very hard at it - it wasnt perfect but I tried to get it as good as I possibly could. Its getting old now, the original Bills is getting onto 17 years. I think its a bit of luck but a lot of hard work. Consistency is very important. Sydney is a city that likes things to be new the latest and greatest. I think if you can get through a certain mount of time like 6-7 years it's ok. Ive worked very hard at it, even for the last 6 months Ive been working in the restaurant to see what we can do with them and I think the media helps with letting people know about them or reminding them about them. We had Nicole Kidman on the Oprah Winfrey show about 2 months ago saying how Bills was her favourite breakfast place in Sydney. It is amazing that its such an old business. In the UK or New York the old restaurants are the favourites like The Ivy or the Four Seasons. They like the fact that Bills is there and its still the same. Theres something reassuring about that.
NQN: I think for something such a breakfast where you have a following, people want the comfort and routine.
Bill: Yes you dont want too much challenge at breakfast!
NQN: How is the place in Japan going?
Bill: Fantastic, were opening up another one this year or next year. Japan is such an incredible place to be and to be working. The food is extraordinary. Its mind bogglingly wonderful.
NQN: Why Japan?
Bill: Through a friend of mine Hide Nakata who is a soccer player, hes like Japans David Beckham and another friend who is Tyler Brûlé who started a magazine called Wallpaper and now one called Monacle. So with mutual friends and the company we work with which is a cool young restaurant group called Transit partners (who run the café for Gucci) and it all just worked. I love Japan. I spent time there when I was 19 and loved it, the look of it, the way they present thing and food is such an important part of the culture like the French or Italian which I just love.
NQN: Have you tailored your menu to Japanese tastes?
Bill: No not at all, portions are slightly smaller - not hugely - but slightly smaller. But no its the same. You sit there outside Tokyo and overlook the beach and the water on a Sunday morning and then youd have what youd have on the other side of the world in Woollahra or Darlinghurst.
_NQN: They dont really have a breakfast culture in Japan _
Bill: No not at all. When I think of it Sydney, didnt either really apart from Coluzzi (Bar), Mamma Maria or Tropicana and its hard to believe that people didnt eat breakfast out 17 years ago. London now is getting a breakfast culture which is amazing because I think breakfast is a fun thing but its also a simple thing, once youre addicted to coffee its nice to sit down and have one. I cant start my day without a proper coffee.
NQN: Have you got any plans to open in London?
Bill: Id love to. I got of the plane from London this morning. Thats the next dream. Were been tentatively looking at things in the last few months. I just love the food scene there. Its very exciting.
NQN: Whats happening there in the food scene?
Bill: You can eat better in London than any city in the world I think. I just did an event with Skye Gyngell, out at Petersham nurseries and another one with Mark Hix who is the ex chef of the Ivy and the Caprice Group and hes got a great restaurant called Mark Hix down in Dorset and one in town. The produce theyre getting through now is incredible with the springtime cheese from Devon and other cheeses. You can taste an amazing pasture in the milk.
NQN: Would you be tempted to change the menu to take advantage of all of this fantastic produce?
Bill: Absolutely. Its a matter of feeling different ingredients. When Im in Kamakura, in Japan they are famous for their vegetables in the local markets so I always use a lot of those. We make our own ricotta in Japan. We just cant get the quantity that we need and it all comes from Italy so we thought lets just make it and its fantastic. Id love to make it here (in Sydney) but we just dont have the space in the kitchen. Wed like to, in the future, have a central place to make all of our cheese and make our own butter and have a little bakery. Restaurants are very much like theme parks for grown ups. You really have to offer the whole experience.
NQN: Do you eat out a lot?
Bill: Yes, yes I love it. I just spent 2 weeks in the UK and I feel like I should come back and eat grilled fish for a week (laughs)! I like simple places, Im not so much a formal diner because we tend to go out with the children now that theyre older. Neil Perrys new restaurant was great - we ate steak there. I eat simply when we eat out, a simple grill and a salad. We eat out Thai a lot and Japanese is probably what we eat out the most. We eat at Shimbashi Soba in Neutral Bay about three times a week as it's one of the best quality Japanese in Sydney.
NQN: Do you spend time a lot of time in Sydney?
Bill: Yes Im based in Sydney and the kids go to school so Im always home. I do travel but our office is just under one of the restaurants so Im at the restaurant most days I am in Sydney.
NQN: Do you still cook in the restaurants?
Bill: No I manage them. When I started cooking there it was by accident, I never expected to do it. I had a lot of interest in the menu and what I wanted on it but we got so busy I started cooking professionally. Now I set the menus and train the people.
NQN: Youve got the tv show, books and restaurants. Which is your favourite?
Bill: Restaurant, still. I love nothing more than seeing people being really happy with food and getting really excited and having a nice coffee. I like making customers happy. Food is an amazing way to communicate with people.
_Bill's Portugeuse custard tarts-a neverfail recipe
NQN: Its a silly thing to say but I appreciate that your recipes always turn out.
Bill: No not silly at all! I really try very hard to do that. If you go to the trouble at the very basic level of buying things and spend all that money and it doesnt work out, its a really bad thing to do to people. I find that when people are using the recipe its for an occasion and having people over so I make sure they all work. Some recipes are so simple I think I shouldnt have put that in but Ill find its the one recipe I get so much feedback from.
NQN: Which recipe from your new book Feed Me Now are you most proud of?
Bill: Oh its like picking my favourite child the chocolate cake is a pretty knockout one, I love tipping it out and you get this great oozy chocolate icing on top and I love the beef pie which I did on Richard Glovers show and that was the biggest thing theyd ever had on their website! Rather than browning the meat and having all different stages I throw it all in a pan at once and make it a lot simpler. I want to make useful recipes.
NQN: Do you ever get the urge to spin toffee or press duck?
Bill: No no (laughs) I dont have time. Years ago when I was 19 I used to buy Vogue Entertaining and Id write lists and shop in Chinatown for days. If I ever have that time again I think Id just grow the food and vegetables.
NQN: What do you do on a day off? Do you have one?
Bill: No I dont because I'm always cooking! Im the cook in the family so my days off are cooking. Relaxing - we live near the ocean so well go for big walks and read. The whole family are big readers and we have those lovely days where everyone is lying around reading. Its pretty low key, spending time with my family. Theyre 5, 6 and 8 so we can do different things.
Bill: I know, shes such a Bunny! The names get crazier as you go down. Her name is Bunny Beatrice. Shes really grown into her name. Theyre really close. We had 3 in 3.5 years.
NQN: Are they good eaters?
Bill: Yeah, though they do have their moments. You just have to keep persevering. Eat what you eat and just keep serving it and it will all work out. Dont take any prisoners and if you give them a good breakfast it doesnt matter if they don't eat dinner.
For kids to reject food its the first time they show their independence so you dont want to make food a place of conflict. It really becomes emotional and being the father of daughters Im really careful not to muck with their attitude to food too much.
NQN: What do you think about food bloggers?
Bill: Oh its great! Its fantastic. The way people get information and what the people listen to is much more democratic now rather than one person being anointed and having one persons opinion setting the tone of the city. Now its a bit broader.
NQN: You dont mind when food bloggers come into your restaurant?
Bill: No Ive met a lot of food bloggers in the UK especially taking quick shots for their blogs. But one thing I've learnt though is that you cant please everyone. You cant make everyone happy . As long as you do what you love yourself and just hope everyone likes it and be passionate and have integrity, thats the most important thing.
NQN: Who do you admire in food or regular life?
Bill: I think actors, people like Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett are extraordinary and have taken a new Australian style to the world. Often Australia is not considered a sophisticated place but theyre great ambassadors. In food I love Maggie Beer, shes wonderful and I like Jamie Oliver. He has a lot of integrity and hes the nicest guy. He does great creative work and has really changed how a broad range of people look at food. Hes really made it good for men to cook food and be with their family and its what Im really passionate about. Who else? I love Nigella, I had dinner with her when she was in Sydney last time. I was very star struck. Ive never seen anyone quite as staggeringly beautiful, it doesnt come off on camera. She has the most amazing skin and hair and is so sweet and gentle and polite.
NQN: Did you cook for her?
Bill: No, we had a friend in common and just ended up having a pizza in Bondi. You can always have so much in common with food people. I get really excited about meeting other food people.
Bill: My last meal would be with my family so it would have to please them (laughs). A perfect steak, being the son of a butcher I cant get away from that - a beautiful rib eye or any other delicious steak; some french fries; a perfectly dressed green salad with lettuce from my garden; strawberries and cream and some little chocolate truffles and nice glass of champagne. Simple and straightforward.
NQN: Where do you see yourself or hope to see yourself 20 years from now?
Bill: Oh wow... hopefully having a great relationship with my family, my girls. Id like to get back to art. I read an interview with Helmut Lang the fashion designer and he is practising art. When my girls get a bit older and family life changes Ill get into a studio again. Id like Bills to still be there. Were getting onto 20 years now and Id like to be around for another 20 years making scrambled eggs and ricotta hotcakes. The thing is about good food is once youve eaten it, you cant go back to bad food. That joy factor of food is often overlooked, even in reviews. Food should be about joy, its the flowers of life.