Like a postcard of Sydney: Bill Granger was Australia’s celebrity cook before we had celebrity chefs. Photo: Marco Del GrandeBill Granger’s teeth are big and so fantastically white that someone once asked him if they were real. He laughs at the memory and the sound turns heads in his eponymous Darlinghurst cafe. His choppers could light up a dark alley. But the most surprising thing about the man whose face graces so many cookbooks are his eyes. They are brown when they really should be blue.
I look into them and tell him so. ”It’s funny, people do think they are blue. It happens all the time,” he says. In every other way Granger is like a postcard of Sydney: bright and blond, smiling and shiny. He wouldn’t look out of place in Lycra on the Bondi to Bronte walk, which he does often. This morning, backlit by winter sunshine, he wears a blue blazer, blue shirt, blue jeans and brown boots.
Diners stop him for photographs as he walks in the door, flashing that smile. ”I’ve got a good dentist.” Actor Hugo Weaving is eating brunch by our table but this is ”bills” and has been for 20 years. Sydney restaurants mark time in dog years – which makes Granger some 140 years young.
His name is written on the cafe wall on Liverpool Street, still in lower case without an apostrophe. ”That was very much an early ’90s affectation. It was cute when I was young. But I am just too old to be cute,” he says.
He was 23 when he opened this cafe – he now has four in Sydney – and in a hurry. He borrowed $30,000 against his grandfather’s life-insurance policy to set up. ”I remember thinking time was running out. I felt an overwhelming need to put down a stamp and do something,” Granger says.
It was 1993. Prime Minister Paul Keating claimed ”the sweetest victory of all”, Shane Warne delivered the ball of the century and Prince became The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. A Country Practice was taken out to the back paddock and shot by Channel Seven.
It was a time before peptides. Before detailed programmatic specificity and moving forward. Before reality television. Before quinoa.
Do you remember when you first heard about quinoa, I ask Granger, who is now 43. It turns out he does. ”I was on a food shoot for a cookbook in England about six, seven years ago and an American food stylist came with a pack of quinoa, boiled it up in a bowl and dressed it up with olive oil and salt and pepper,” he says.
”Now when [his wife] Natalie [Elliott] thinks we have been eating out too much she’ll say, ‘OK, we’re having a quinoa salad for lunch,’ and the kids are like, ‘Nooo, not again!”’
There’s a quinoa salad on the lunch menu at bills. But much has stayed the same over the past two decades. The communal table – novel in its day – and matching American oak chairs have gone the distance, as have the Tasmanian oak floorboards.
Granger orders toast with avocado. I opt for his famed scrambled eggs, which sit up on the plate like creamy mousse terriers. No one asks to be the Egg Master. Granger was so anointed by The New York Times on the basis of those famous fluffy ova alone.
Does he ever feel typecast? He answers by telling me about the time he removed the cafe’s communal table and stained the wood floor black. ”I think that was me trying to get away from the guy with the smiling eyes, big teeth and white T-shirt – I did want to change,” he says. ”But now I am quite relaxed; if people like something, great.
”For a restaurant to be successful it has got to be the same all the time. People like to know what they are coming in for … The floor I used to polish every year but now I quite like the fact that it’s getting older.”
Granger grew up in the Melbourne bayside suburb of Mentone, later immortalised in song by musician Eddie Perfect (whose tributes to Mentone include The Middle of the World and My Sister Worked at Bunnings).
Granger moved to Sydney at age 18 to study art and worked part-time at the restaurant La Passion De Fruit on Oxford Street. Sydney’s food scene was then corralled within the inner city. The recession had killed the power lunch.
Along came Granger with his $7.50 eggs (now $14.50). The cafe didn’t take bookings or credit cards. The walls were whitewashed and the food was market fresh. Council restrictions meant he could open for breakfast and lunch only. He could seat about 32 people, so planted a big communal table by the door.
The same sensibilities have since been replicated in cafes across Sydney. ”It was minimalism, things were stripped back, it was a reaction to all the glitz of the 1980s,” he says.
”Often difficult economic times are great times for creative people and creative ideas, because when things are going well people just cruise along and don’t change.”
Granger also has four restaurants in Japan – he is big in Japan – plus one in London, where he has been living with his wife and three daughters (aged nine to 12) for about three years.
They’re home for a spell while Granger organises the opening of his first restaurant in Honolulu, in August. His second London restaurant, in Clerkenwell, will open in October.
Granger was Australia’s celebrity cook before we had celebrity chefs. Indeed, about the turn of the century he was omnipresent: on bookshelves, in kitchens and on the TV.
He is practically post-celebrity now. Does he miss the spotlight? ”It is never something I have really chased,” he says.
He shows me a photograph of himself as a 23-year-old – the picture of affected nonchalance in a plain white T-shirt and board shorts – outside his new cafe. Twenty years have passed but Granger wears his age well. He has bright (brown) eyes and seems to have more blond hair than ever.
”The older I get the simpler I think it is. You want to be looked after and respected,” he says.
”Because life is hard, so when you go to a restaurant you want to feel like it is a bit easier.”
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.