'Food is a fashion business'

JAMES CROOT
Last updated 10:46 13/02/2014
bill

AUSSIE BILL: Granger has made the jump from Australia to the UK.

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Australian mangoes. That's one thing Bill Granger really misses about his homeland. The 44-year-old chef, restaurateur and multiple cookbook author decided to uproot his wife Natalie and three daughters in 2009 from their Sydney home with the aim of joining London's lively food scene.

But while his Notting Hill Granger & Co restaurant has proved a roaring success (a second outlet is scheduled to open in Clerkenwell later this year), Granger admits it's the little things he longs for.

"You cannot get Aussie mangoes here and they are the best in the world - Brazilian mangos don't come close. Lychees are also hard to get here and I really miss seafood - you get cold water fish here but not barramundis or prawns."

And with food usually having to travel further in the UK, ingredients often lack the same "freshness" as down under, he says. "You don't get that out-of-the-ground-taste".

Granger says the decision to move to the other side of world came after 20 years in Sydney had left he and wife Natalie feeling jaded. "You can't change a lot but you can change your environment and we thought if we don't do it now we'll never do it and we'll always regret it."

But why London's Notting Hill of all places? "It came down to simple things. Natalie had lived in the area 20 years ago and really enjoyed it, we had friends in the area and we were able to find a nice school we could walk the kids to. Also, I liked the idea of being somewhere urban after living on the beach in Sydney."

As for the local cuisine, Granger says he grew up on British food - "meat and three veg" and has noticed the lack of green on plates there. "It can be quite brown, there's no life in the food and in the middle-of-winter if you see one more cabbage you'll scream."

That leads me to ask what he think of New Zealand cuisine. "Like Australians, New Zealand chefs like a bit of spice, citrus and dynamic flavours, but I also think New Zealand cuisine is a little bit more experimental, more adventurous than their neighbours about their use of Asian flavours in what is western cuisine. Australians are a bit more purist about those things."

Spice is also something Granger also likes to add to his home cuisine (he admits to doing all the cooking now, simply because of his speed and efficiency - "Natalie's so out of practice she thinks it would take her half-a-day rather than my half-an-hour to make a meal"), especially now that his kids are getting older.

"When you have young children you have to drop it down but once the youngest is past seven you can bring back the spice. My 13-year-old is fantastic now, she'll eat anything - she ordered pig cheeks at a restaurant the other day - I was quite impressed."

Citing breakfast as his favourite meal of the day ("you don't need a lot of preparation and you can whip something up pretty quickly"), Granger says he's also gotten into the British tradition of the lazy Sunday lunch. "I guess it has replaced the 5pm Saturday BBQ for us."

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Other weekly staples in the Granger household are quick midweek dinners with friends and Friday pizza night where the kids' friends sleepover. "All those things to me are part of making a house a home and making memories. It sounds cheesy but it's really valid and important."

The son of a suburban Melbourne butcher dad and a vegetarian mum, Granger says his best early food memories were certainly not from home. "My mother was part of a generation who rejected cooking and what it meant - being stuck at home - which was totally fair enough. So naturally I loved going to restaurants and cafes. It's something I still love, trying new places, feeling their energy and seeing staff who love what their doing - it's inspiring."

And in that light, he says the key to enjoying cooking at home is to never cook the same dish twice. "It creates a bit of interest and stops it becoming a chore - you feel like it's a creative outlet. It is easy to get into a rut, but there are so many good cookbook writers out there and no matter what your taste it is easy to find someone On the day we talk Granger has just finished serving up a risotto with grilled fish, cavolo nero and Treviso (a kind of radicchio) with some Chilean balsamic vinegar. 

"It's a bit more challenging and not something the kids are into." So what is an example of a "non-challenging" meal in the Granger household? "Roast chicken or a grill and salad."

A keen follower of food trends, he's delighted that the recent emphasis on junky American food now appears to be over ("I think we've all had as many mini-burgers as we can eat") and is picking health food as the next big one. "I think we're all going to go the way of Gwyneth Paltrow and be ordering cold press juice everywhere."

Granger has also noticed London appears to be catching onto the Antipodean trend of restaurant casualisation. "People told me we wouldn't get anyone eating breakfast and now we're rammed all the time."

With his signature Bills restaurant in Darlinghurst one of the few Sydney eateries still going strong after more than 20 years (Granger likens restaurant years in business to dog years, making Bills a "very old man"), it's hard to resist asking him what he thinks is key to longevity in his business.

"A big thing is the owner's energy and inspiration. You can get criticised when you're successful and the classic mistake is doing something different which takes the focus away from what has worked. While it would be great to keep something trapped in time, it is very hard to do that in today's fickled world.

"At Bills we've put kimchi and zucchini fritters on the breakfast menu. Not that we sell a lot of those, or need to because we've got our classics (like the mouthwatering ricotta pancakes), but we need to keep customers excited and be excited ourselves.

"Food is a fashion business and you can't keep doing the same thing all the time because people get bored. But then you can't go changing it too much, so it is a very hard balance."

Despite describing the restaurant business as "hard work", he says he couldn't imagine doing anything else. "I love it - we still have the same customers coming into Bills as when we started and we've even got second-generation customers now, which is making me feel very old.

Bill's Kitchen: Notting Hill begins airing on Choice TV on Thursday, February 13 at 7.30pm. It also screens on Food TV on Mondays at 8pm.

- Stuff

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