Former restaurateur and author, Gay Bilson

Gay Bilson

Talk at the SAG 22 Dinner

The first thing I thought of when confronting your theme, was something that must seem utterly trivial compared with what I presumed the organisers were implying by ‘Out of Place’: movements of people, migration, borders, and, quote unquote, ‘Hostile Environments’ (the nice name the British concocted to discourage asylum seekers) had come to mind.

Instead, what did came to mind was the body I had placed on a table in 1993. This was the banquet to mark the close of the 7th symposium, in Canberra. The dinner was at the National Gallery, in a long narrow room with bare walls. The table was I think about 40 metres long.

We had blindfolded the diners. The waiters placed the small body (my young daughter), at the centre of the table. They then loaded the entire table with fruit and bread, covering the body as well. Many, many clusters of dark muscatel grapes, tens and tens of large, ripe, purple figs, loaves of schaicciata all’uva, a sweet Tuscan bread laced with grapes and walnuts, damson plum jellies, and bowls of clotted cream (I should say that the leftovers of this cornucopia were not wasted but donated to the gallery’s restaurant). The blindfolds were removed.

The dinner had been about eating the body, and the colour of the fruit and jelly mattered (as did the wines). The menu, only given at the close of the meal, read: stomach; egg; flesh; bone; skin; blood; heart; milk; fruit; virgins’ breasts; dead men’s bones.

Sido was scrubbed clean, and naked except for strategic bandages. She pushed aside the fruit and was lifted from the table by the waiters. This was nothing to do with Christian symbolism and resurrection but simply a show of life at the near close of what I seem now to always call The Body Dinner, although it had no official title.

Visually it partly worked. She was in place on the table, but I should have had the theatrical sense to multiply that one body. Only those towards the centre of the long surface had good seats. A lesson learned too late. She was in place but should have been repeated, and in more than one place.

The tablecloth of sewn pieces of raw tripes (‘stomach’ of course) that greeted the diners had covered the entire table. All eighty diners might either marvel or resist. It was removed before the meal began, and I remember Margaret Whitlam suggesting that it looked like a lunar landscape.

But that’s enough about this contributions to the history of the Symposium, except to say that it could not have been achieved without the creativity, the needle-working skills (sausage casings were used to sew the pieces of tripes together), and the problem-solving genius of Janni Kyritsis, and the involvement of all those who worked at Berowra Waters Inn at the time.

Thinking about the Body Dinner meant that I also thought about meals that have left a lasting impression from some of the other Symposia. Meals is not quite the right word. Feast, perhaps? And ‘Banquet’ isn’t really the right word any more either, too redolent of its own fraught history, conjuring up privilege and exclusivity, and in the last decades, corporate bingeing.

Memories of those very few extraordinary achievements also brought to mind the apparent division between philosophy and practice that has always nagged me at the Symposia. Long ago, before each Symposium, I used to dismiss the food, even though I understood that it was essential to the gatherings and that it should enhance our experience, and I’d give a lone shout to the papers. I wanted (was this pretentious or simply contrary?) to concentrate on what the best and most imaginative thinkers had to say (Anthony Corones and Michael Symons, for instance).

But with each Symposium, I’d change my mind and give equal shouts to the practice and the papers, and sometimes veer towards practice over paper. Which was more legitimately in place? The only Oxford Food Symposium I had been to, a long time ago, felt sterile, and academic, even unfriendly, and the food seemed like an afterthought, except for a virtuosic, magical presentation by the brilliant Spanish food and performance artist, Alicia Rios.

Because the memory of the most imaginative meals is still so strong, I’d like to go on record in appreciation of them. I’ve spent years writing often critically scathing, sometimes sour, columns about food and cookery and cooks, and about the unholy trinity of cooks and cookery and television. As a very last semi-public gesture, I want to show appreciation for the ideas and execution of a few wonderful meals that were given in response to the invitations from various symposia, going back to 1984

I’ve recently given most of my gastronomic and culinary library to the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne, and many years ago, gave the ephemera from 3 restaurants to the National Library. I have no references, essays or proceedings to act as aides-memoires for years, themes, dishes, names. So you’ll have to take my word for it that what I remember with the most admiration, and affection, was as I say it was. A very few of you will have been at all, or some, or one of these meals, but I suspect for many of you they are not known of, or forgotten, or, at best, mythical. The papers that were given live on in print but what we ate, like all food, is lost to the digestive system.

 I want to attempt to explain, in précis, why these particular meals made such a strong impression.

 One year, in Tasmania, we ate a Still Life.

It wasn’t only the idea that was impressive, but the execution of the idea. The Still Life itself was handsome. It made sense as a three-dimensional re-creation of a Spanish or Dutch painting of the 18th century, and it would then make sense as a meal. Which is to say that it was intelligently and imaginatively thought through. I’ve never forgotten it, although to my shame I have forgotten who I should credit with its realisation. All women I think. I remember that it took far too long to unassemble and serve, but we forgave its creators because the idea was so lovely, the Still Life itself so perfect, so perfectly referential, the food so good. And it was not made a lot of- it wasn’t announced, it wasn’t bravo-ed. We walked into a large room and found it there. Still. And then consumed its parts.

One year, in Sydney, Phillip Searle served dinner after a day’s symposium papers. I remember sourcing the clay for him because at Berowra Waters Inn we had been baking birds in clay for some time. He baked guinea fowl? pheasants? quail? yes, quail, in clay parcels, lining the clay with lotus leaves, and adding aromatics to the stuffing and the meat that were at the Asian-accentuated centre of his cooking. The parcels were placed on a long table around which we stood. There were small hammers to smash the clay with. Thus we participated in the demolition of the cooking ‘vessels’ in order to eat the meat. Did we eat with our fingers? I can’t remember. I like to remember that we did. I remember the shards of clay making a gorgeous archaeological site of the table.

And to follow the ‘dig’ on the table, a slice of Searle’s iconic chequerboard icecream, except that the slice was gigantic, perhaps 80 cms square and 25 cms in height. It was a feat of labour and refridgeration over many many days, the work somehow completely out of proportion to the display, this one of the distinctive marks of his obsessional creativity and craft. It’s entrance was a scene of amazement. Only a part of it was eaten. Searle’s brilliance laid way to a lot of waste.

In Tasmania, at one symposium, the ‘banquet’ was eaten on grass. This was, in part, admitted Scott Minervini, a reference to the raw tripes tablecloth that Janni Kyritsis had cleaned and sown for my Body Dinner. This time the tablecloth was a layer of real turf. Glasses balanced precariously. We ate parts of an entire animal that had grazed on grass and also courses where the produce had depended on the grass. I remember choosing a seat at the table where I knew nobody, an experiment in  communality. And this was repaid in bounds.

In Adelaide one year, at Rostrevor Monastery, Cheong Liew and Phillip Searle served a banquet that aimed to replicate food that might have been served in the period around 33 CE, centering on the food culture of the Middle East. The dishes were exemplary. We sat on cushions and ate with our fingers. We had washed our hands in large bowls, held by children, in which rose petals floated. This was historical rather than religious, although I think Michael Symons gave a paper on the Eucharist.

In Sydney, at Pier 13, Berowra Waters Inn devised and cooked the final meal for a symposium. The place was central to the idea for the banquet (a celebration of Sydney’s claim to its famous harbour) but also that we cooks should be on public show, freeing us from the fourth wall, making us part of the banquet in a sense, but not the equivalent of open kitchens in restaurants. This was an outing. The menu was simply a list of central ingredients, including squid, rice, meat and etc. That menu would nudge other cooks towards a less is more approach to describing dishes. It was before its time in that sense. It asked for trust instead of expectation; it allowed for surprise. One of the cooks, Liz Nolan, picked up a heavy pile of plates to place them on the bench as Janni and I sliced fillets of hare. The plates burned her hands but she held on. And continued to cook. She was later taken to hospital for treatment.

At a symposium in the Grampians, in Victoria, we camped. I remember that Duré Dara, a wonderful, strong, resourceful woman, was one of the organizers. The final meal was prepared and served by Phillip Searle and Cheong Liew. It was their version of a hangi, food wrapped and buried with hot stones for hours. I remember that they brought in the stones because the geology of the Grampians meant that local stones would have exploded with the heat. This seems perverse in retrospect but was worth the labour. One of the meats was emu. The meats were succulent and perfumed. Before the pit was uncovered we ate oysters opened over a long open fire, and blue swimmer crabs grilled over the same fire. We were some way from the ocean, and it was extremely cold. The seafood was fresh. Once again, the inclusive labour was extreme in comparison to the final offering. I remember taking a large stone from the hot pit and placing it in the sleeping bag of a friend, to warm her arrival. It scared the shit out of her. She thought, illogically, that a snake had slithered in.

At the Sydney Opera House, Chris Manfield created the final banquet for a symposium and centred it on the idea of Power and Sydney’s capitalist dreams. The first course stood out: diners lined up to receive, directly onto their tongues, wafers with caviar from a man dressed as a cardinal.

In 1984, in Adelaide, Michael Symons asked Phillip Searle to cook and present the banquet for the very first symposium. Searle was an unknown quantity to many of us, although not to Adelaidians. I’ve already mentioned Searle three times: the dinner in Sydney, the hangi in the Grampians with Cheong Liew, and the biblical banquet in Adelaide before that, again with Cheong Liew (who should also be more celebrated).

Thirty four years ago, Phillip orchestrated a banquet that has not been surpassed (having said that, I need to emphasize that the meals were never competitive). The courses were brought to the large rectangular table by waiters disguised as Commedia del’Arte performers. They did not speak, yet they served us from inside the rectangle, facing us, a brilliantly subversive act.

The dishes, on large platters that were left on the table for the diners to divide, were original, extravagant and complex. But even before this succession of dishes (culminating in birds cooked ‘en vessis’ so that we had to split the stomach to reach the food, Caesarean self-service) we had arrived at a jellied edible seascape in a very very large glass container that looked like a sophisticated fish tank. This was our first course. The feast seemed mediaeval, pushing through to the Renaissance, but also thoroughly modern in its execution. What a privilege it was to have been there. To have eaten this extraordinary food, to have experienced the attention to every facet of its presentation. The originality! The outrageous complexity! The astonishing presentation! Gifts verging on the profligate.

In 2002, the Symposium was convened in Port Adelaide by Jennifer Hillier, Cath Kerry, Barbara Santich and myself. We came to an early decision, and we stuck to with rigour. This was to ask all those who would prepare the meals to keep it simple. Further, we commissioned plates and bowls and spoons that would be used every time we ate. Later these plates, bowls and spoons would be offered to the symposiasts for what they had cost us. The potter, Damon Moon, made the plates and bowls. A jeweller made stylized, anodised aluminium spoons that we hung around our necks, for they were, indeed, lovely pendants. I’m wearing mine tonight.

Every cook kept to their promise to make simple food. I remember that Cheong Liew made Hainanese Chicken Rice. Cath Kerry made a Grande Aioli (the name belies the simplicity of the dish), and so forth. There were no multiple courses, and every thing could be eaten from the one plate and bowl.

Eighteen years after Searle’s extraordinary banquet, this wasn’t a Correction or an Austerity. It was simply something that seemed right for that time.

I’ve always liked the word ‘labour’, the sound of it as well as the meaning. Cooking is labour. It isn’t out of place to call it work. When I mentioned this to someone recently, his reply was that the idea of labour denigrated cookery. Instead, I reckon what denigrates food preparation is the promotion of cooking as a special interest, a hobbyist’s obsession, like collecting birds’ nests or cataloguing books (my own distractions). To pretend that cooking isn’t work is to declare something else altogether, something that’s more connected to status and superior knowledge than pots and pans and feeding people. The glossies promote this exclusivity to the nth degree and it’s repugnant. And via television, one is supposed to connect to food on a screen that you can’t taste, from the comfort of an arm chair- travelogues of corrupted desire.

The meals, the banquets, sometimes only a single course, that I’ve especially remembered all required labour out of proportion to accepted rewards such as money and public notice (this might still apply to the simple meals for the 2002 symposium but in part be transferred to the makers of the plates, bowls and spoons). The Symposia gave these cooks a space to work towards something that has more to do with the kind of imagining which is outside the boundary of food. They were, at their best, nudged into thinking more broadly, more imaginatively. But without culinary skill and knowledge, these cooks couldn’t have taken flight to somewhere outside the kitchen. This lovely shift legitimately connected their creative flair to the arts.

There was nothing competitive in their response to the invitation, and I don’t remember any of them over-staying their welcome and semi-tautologically explaining the food or the reasons for the food. The invitation challenged certain cooks, and it seems to me that it freed them from all the constraints of commercial kitchens, allowed them to do a little flying.

For my part, and I think this probably applies to the others, it was a glorious chance to take our work out of its usual place, and away from the commercial and temporal restrictions of the restaurant. It always felt like feeding people with the freedom of not being paid, even though the food costs have always been covered by the symposium. This takes the experience into the realm of play. And this is an important shift: the notion of play has a spontaneity about it, it’s ludic, has a joyful purposelessness, and yet it might still involve labour.

A friend once told me that the now almost forgotten (yet wonderful) comedienne, Joyce Grenfell, said of not marrying, that  ‘When ye get over the disgrace of it, the life is more airy.’ Airiness is what this sense of play is full of. Despite the deadlines, it feels free of them, it seems to expand time.

I’ve always thought that the perfect restaurant is one that doesn’t charge its diners. Somewhere along the way to this perfection is the restaurant that suggests you pay what you wish to, or are able to. The first time I went to one of these rare places, in Perth, I was so moved I burst into tears.

A central component of many of the large community events I’ve directed over the years has been the commissioning of bowls specific to each event. The original idea was to shift the attention, including whatever payment needed to be made, from the food to the bowl. I wanted to undo the connection of money with food. If you had purchased a bowl, you could then fill it with food. You could keep the bowl and use it again and again over the years. The payment for the bowl or plate was only what we had paid the potters to make each one. Commissioning local artisans was also a salute to their craft and a connection to place. For the regional events under the title Plenty, for the 2000 Adelaide Festival, we wore t-shirts on which was printed, ‘Fill each bowl with just enough.’ Of course this is rhetoric, and it would be idiotic to equate these events with anything addressing equality and/or poverty, but rhetoric is a form of flattery (via Socrates), of persuasion.

But the events were at least directed at whole communities and in part depended on the free labour given by members of those communities. The communities were involved, they partly owned the events.

Without the experience of the first years of the symposium, I don’t think I would have been able to make the shift that, for me at least, put cookery in its modest, proper place alongside all the other variables that sometimes make eating memorable.

Allow me to a few digressions- after all the title of this address, an address that had no title until it was demanded for the programme- includes the word ‘chat’ (and is a twist on the title of a 1948 Christina Stead novel, A Little Tea, A Little Chat).

Along with rejecting any attempt to address the serious and surely political implications of the theme, Out of Place, along with wanting to centre a last talk about food and cookery around a celebration of those who made wonderful imaginative leaps when asked to provide food for the symposia, I also thought about occasions when eating and its circumstances seemed to me to approach perfection.

The first that came to mind was a baguette and tomatoes eaten in a car, with my brother and one of my kids. At Clunes, in the hinterland of the Northern Rivers area of NSW where I live, I shopped on the way home after a grueling day in hospital in Lismore. My brother was driving. I tore pieces of very good bread and handed them out with the rather good small tomatoes from Gymea that the Clunes shop sells (it turns out they are grown under controlled conditions in huge numbers and shouldn’t be special but are). No butter or oil, no condiments, no salad leaves, just good sour dough and good tomatoes, and crumbs all over the car. Later, my brother said, ‘that was memorable.’ (Recently I read a piece, in the New Yorker, about the Blues musician, Buddy Guy. His first meeting with Muddy Waters was in Muddy Waters’ car, where he was offered bread and salami.)

A year or so ago, I re-read the terrific crime novels by Nicolas Freeling (who has also written books on his experience as a chef). His detective, Van der Valk, lives in the Netherlands, with a French wife, Arlette. They entertain a couple at home. Arlette cooks. The menu is: smoked eel with endive salad; a daube of beef; fennel cooked with a slice of marrow; frangipane in flaky pastry from the baker. Of its place and time, I can’t think of a more perfect domestic meal- a simple first course, a main course that would have been cooked ahead, the fennel baked cleverly with bone marrow, and the sensible decision to buy the dessert. A meal to impress even Edouard de Pomaine.

In Provence once, decades ago, Simon Hopkinson (the English chef with whom I travelled for many years) and I shopped at the Arles market with someone else’s money. Simon would cook for the house for that entire holiday. ‘We must buy leeks and baguettes and coffee,’ he said, ‘The best aroma I know is the combination of fresh bread, fresh leeks and coffee beans in the heat of a car at the height of summer.

Louis Malle’s film from 1990, Milou en Mai, is filled with fraught family meals in a country house. The sheer, easy exuberance of the large family meals was so unselfconscious, so filled with gusto. The good food was taken for granted. In this place, in this culture, the culture of the table was so developed, and so ingrained, that it didn’t draw attention to itself. To enjoy food so much, but not to talk about food, is the greatest compliment to dining. I’ve used a couple of examples of French life but I could just as easily and probably more profitably use Asia (the family meals in Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman, for instance).

A scene in Michelle de Kretser’s recent novel, The Life to Come, comes to mind (de Kretser was born in Sri Lanka):

“‘Pippa [Australian] was running a Facebook poll on whether people preferred their freekah toasted or not.

          Céleste asked her mother [French], ‘Why do Australians go on so much about food?’

          ‘Because they live in a country of no importance.'”

And lastly:

There’s a well-known Marianne Moore poem, called Poetry. Pared down by Moore herself, it reads:

  I, too, dislike it.

Reading it, however, with a

 contempt for it, one discovers in

  it, after all, a place for the genuine.

A place for the genuine. I reckon the genuine was in place at the most imaginative meals for a few symposia, because motive was, strange as it might seem, freed from self-regard, and the cooks were given the license to play. And the genuine is in place when we are hungry and eat tomatoes and bread and nothing else in a hot car.


  • Lillian Alden (Nantes) says:

    I have had the good luck to attend a number of Symposia over the years but have been unable to attend the last few (increasing dotage being my excuse). It is wonderful to be able to read the papers online and not to have missed Gay Bilson’s recollections, along with other papers. I still have the scroll menu for the “Body” dinner but have always thought of it as the Body and Soul dinner because it seemed to me that’s what those involved in the presentation had donated along with their ideas and their labour.

  • Paul G van Reyk says:

    Yeah, it’s terrific to have this new fangled online thingy (hee hee). Hopefully over the next year I will be able to do some scanning of earlier Symposia papers as well.

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