When you think about great foodie travel experiences, there is perhaps none more quintessentially synonymous with Sydney than having breakfast at bills. For many of us, a trip to Sydney just isn’t complete without having tucked into the best scrambled eggs in the Southern hemisphere or a bite of bills’ fantastically fresh corn fritters. Bill Granger started bills back in 1993 at just 22 years old. When I was 22, I was still in university, spending my nights hanging out in dive bars and my days pompously debating political philosophy with classmates. I can’t even imagine the cojones it would take to strike out on one’s own and start a business at that age. Yet Bill did it, and has not only succeeded but become a culinary legend in the process, not just in his native Australia but worldwide.
On my most recent trip to Sydney, I did what I always do in Sydney. I had breakfast at bills. My greedy, gorgeous wife S and I inhaled some scrambled eggs, an order of corn fritters, and a plate of ricotta hotcakes. We visited the Darlinghurst branch, Bill’s first and still my favourite. As always, it was fantastic. Great fresh, simple and delicious fare, served in one of the most charming and casual dining rooms on the planet.
Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Bill. The interview follows.
CH: Great to catch you. I know you started your first cafe when you were in your early 20s. What was that like? Looking back, would you have done things the same way knowing what you know now?
Bill: I come from a family of shopkeepers. Growing up I always wanted to have my own shop. And, well, you know, when you’re young you’re fearless. I know I was. Maybe it was the arrogance of youth, but when you’re young you do things as you like. You don’t think about the consequences so much. Of course, I’m much more humble now… older and wiser you know. I can tell you that I was definitely a lot more scared opening the Tokyo restaurant than when I opened my first restaurant.
CH: Let’s talk about Japan for a bit.
Bill: I lived in Japan when I was 20. I love it there. The country has the most remarkable food culture. I mean, the food, the every day food, is really good. I first went there when I was an art student. I was taking time off, backpacking around. I went to India, places like that and ended up in Japan, where I took on odd jobs in order to stay for a while.
CH: So, how did you end up with a restaurant there?
Bill: I met my partner through my friend, Tyler Brule, and another friend, a Japanese footballer. My partner is behind the Claska Hotel in Tokyo. We hit it off right away. I mean, we really loved what each other was doing. And from there, we built a partnership based on mutual trust.
CH: How different is the Shichirigahama branch from the Sydney restaurants?
Bill: Well, the food is exactly the same. We have the same menu. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were in Sydney. You know what’s bizarre? Most people, for some reason, think that my bills outlets in Australia are on the beach. I guess we project that vibe. But my cafes are actually very urban. But in Japan, we’re right on the beach. So, I finally have a beachside restaurant.
CH: Do you have any personal favourite places to eat in Japan?
Bills: You know, I never remember the names of places. There’s this great place I went to recently. I do know it has a few Michelin stars. They serve this beautiful truffled rice. It’s delicious. It has a bit of truffle shaved over it. The rice itself is cooked in a claypot and flavoured with some soy, butter and sake. Who thought these flavours — the truffle and the soy — would go so well together. I also love this tiny sushi place. I think it’s called Sushi Saito. I was completely blown away by the food. It was extraordinary. The guys are young and they have a great attitude. But you know what? In Tokyo, it’s hard to have a bad meal. That’s what I love about it.
CH: So, let’s talk for a bit about breakfast. You’re pretty much universally known for serving up some the best breakfasts in the world. But what’s your own personal favourite way to start the day? What do you crave in the morning?
Bills: I’m very Australian in this regard. I have to have a cooked breakfast. I might have some toast with vegemite. I’m working on a new book right now and have been trying out a recipe for baked porridge. I’m also currently obsessed with shakshuka. It’s an Israeli dish with poached eggs and stewed tomatoes, peppers, onions, and spices. I also love traditional Japanese breakfasts… of course, I don’t make these. But when I’m up at Shichirigahama, I love starting my day with a shirasu omelette. Shirasu are these lovely little fish.
CH: So, you’re in London right now. Where are you eating there?
Bills: I was just at St John last night. I always love going there. There’s a lovely little place in Notting Hill called Hereford Road. The chef’s actually ex-St John. I’m not much of a fine diner. I like places that are relaxing and casual. I also like discovering places by chance. The other day, when we were in Paris and walking around the Marais, we literally stumbled upon this great place, Robert et Louise. I do have to say that the one thing I really miss here is Southeast Asian food. You just can’t get good Southeast Asian food here. It’s something so readily available in Sydney but here, I’m missing it terribly.
CH: That’s too bad. You should be getting David Thompson to be cooking for you more often.
Bill: That’s a good idea.
CH: Let me ask you about trends in the culinary scene. What’s exciting you right now?
Bill: It’s a tremendously exciting time for food right now, especially on the Net. The Net is forcing so many of us to embrace change, in different ways. Recipes are being passed back and forth and are changing, with new ideas coming through. For cookbook authors, we’re being forced to become better. Look how good the blogs are. We have to, if we want people to buy books, make them even more beautiful (than before) or offer something new and different.
CH: Do you read a lot of blogs?
Bill: I love blogs. But I tend to read a lot of design blogs. After a full day of cooking, I want to read about something else. I want to take some time off and see other things. I love Remodelista. I studied art and architecture so I tend to gravitate to these sites. I also love fashion blogs. You know, the restaurant business is like the fashion business… you’re selling something and you have to keep current. I’m also currently reading David Lebovitz‘s book The Sweet Life in Paris. It’s fantastic.
CH: Besides the Net, what else is going on that you’ve been watching closely?
Bill: Here in London, there’s been a shift back down to the tiny restaurant, which (amusingly) the British think is a new thing. But they’re coming out of the era of the glamour restaurant… you know, with chefs like Gordon Ramsay fronting outlets. I love this. I personally prefer restaurants that are small and fun. I don’t like going to what I call corporate restaurants. I mean, I’ll go if I have to, for work, but it’s not my thing. The former GM of the Caprice group has gone off and opened his own little place. I love it. And I like places that are fun. I’m not getting any younger, right? So I want to go places that make me feel even older than I already am.
CH: Are you looking at opening your own place in London?
Bill: I’d love to. I’m always looking at opportunities and spaces. But you have to feel it. It has to feel right. If I did open here, I’d want a small local restaurant. That’s me. Personally, I get bored with chefs opening up in 5 star hotels. My restaurants are all very local, neighborhood places that feed locals great every day food.
CH: Okay, I’m going to ask you the world’s most boring question but one I’m sure people will want you to answer. What’s your “last meal”?
Bill: Well, I’d have to have Champagne, because than the meal becomes a celebration. And we don’t have enough celebrations in our life. I’d want a very simple meal. A nice rib-eye steak. I don’t eat a lot of meat at home. I tend to save it for going out, so a nice rib-eye with some fried potatoes, a green salad and a good Burgundy or Pinot Noir. Nothing too heavy for dessert. Oh, I know. There’s this little place in Notting Hill called Melt. They do a salted caramel truffle there that is crisp on the outside and all soft and delicious on the inside. I’d like one of those. Of course, I’d also love to be surrounded by friends for this. A good meal simply has to be shared.
All photos courtesy of bills. Note to bloggers: photography is not allowed in his outlets.