Jacques Reymond has been cooking since he was 11. Forty years on, the fire still burns, discovers Dani
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It’s Friday night in Jacques Reymond’s kitchen and I’ve just saved a junior chef from a bollocking. The Birkenstocked underling has just burned some wafers, and it hasn’t escaped the notice of the eagle-eyed maestro. But nor has my presence – even as I’m backed against the door with notepad and pen – and that’s enough, apparently, to make Reymond dish out a glare rather than the expected yell. “He sees everything,” says my wafer-burning friend. “I would have copped a spray if you weren’t here.”
The kitchen hums along without further incident. Young chefs flip steaks with their fingers, blowtorch slivers of kingfish and apply just-sharpened blades to tender duck breast. Reymond calls the orders and is answered with cascading cries of “oui, chef”. Once the food is ready, he summons the waiters with the tinkle of a bell.
There’s no doubting who’s captain of this ship: Reymond stands in the centre of the kitchen, surveying all. He wears a monogrammed white tunic, jeans and leather lace-ups. His nine charges are in checked pants and sensible shoes, entirely focused on their own stations. Their hands are covered in nicks and small burns; in contrast, Reymond’s hands look smooth and unscarred.
No question, Jacques Reymond is, at 51 and with 40 years’ experience, a master. Since his arrival in Melbourne 21 years ago, he has gradually refined his idea of Australian food: imaginative combinations of local, Asian and European ingredients prepared with a fine understanding of classical methods. It’s the kind of crossover food you find everywhere now (although it’s rarely as well realised as it is here). But in the late 1980s, when he started serving Peking duck consomme and King Island crab with coconut milk, it was little short of revolutionary.
Jacques Reymond got his first taste of cooking at his family’s Hotel du Nord in Cuiseaux, a village of 600 or so about 100 kilometres north of Lyon in France. It was little more than a truck-stop cafe. The Reymonds served 6am coffee and cognac to workers on their way to the abattoir, grilled steaks to truckers at lunchtime and rented rooms to Riviera-bound tourists in the summer. From the age of about 11, Reymond spent his weekends cooking. Although he itched to play soccer with his friends, he didn’t really mind the kitchen. “I loved coming down the stairs and smelling the stews,” he says. “It’s in your blood, you can’t explain it.”
Reymond considered becoming a vet, maybe even a professional soccer player, but his parents had other ideas. They enrolled him in cookery school in Nice, and for two years he studied cooking and restaurant management before being posted to the Burford Bridge Hotel in Surrey, England, for an internship. The food in England was awful: porridge, poached fish with reconstituted sauces and packet soups. “I was the only one to make fresh soup,” Reymond recalls. “The other chefs went crazy, saying, ‘What do you do that for, you make us stay another half an hour’.”
The hotel had one saving grace, though – the pretty English rose at reception. Her name was Kathy Meadows, and her hotelier father had set her up with a job while she was waiting to start her nursing course. She had grown up in hotels and had always sworn she would never have anything to do with the industry. But she hadn’t counted on falling in love with a chef.
Reymond wooed his English girlfriend with rides on his motorbike, a Honda 750. But on the way back from meeting Kathy’s parents for the first time, her scarf became stuck in the chain. “She was nearly decapitated,” Reymond says. “She had a red mark for months and months.” It was the last time she got on one of his bikes.
A year after they met, Reymond and Meadows moved to France. He’d talked his way into a job as a commis chef at Oustau de Baumaniere, a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Provence. The conditions were primitive. While Meadows worked as an au pair in Nice, Reymond found himself living in a freezing shed furnished only with an army stretcher bed; the nearest shower was two kilometres away. “It was difficult,” he admits, “but I was very happy. This is when it really happened, when I realised, ‘I can do it, I can do it, let’s go’.”
Dedication and aptitude saw him promoted to the stoves and then to the sauces, which are at the heart of French cooking. He was there for 18 months until the army whisked him off for a year’s national service, which he spent in the commandos. Next, Reymond and his new wife worked together at a Michelin-starred hotel on the shores of Lake Geneva. Reymond rose through the ranks in the kitchen until a visiting Brazilian who liked what he was eating made him an offer: a job running the kitchen in his restaurant in Sao Paolo – the city’s biggest. Reymond jumped at
the opportunity. But when the Reymonds arrived, they were driven into the hills, an hour and a half from the seething city that is Sao Paolo. And rather than fetching up at the prestigious restaurant they had been promised, they were delivered to a brothel.
“It was a surprise,” Reymond says, with breathtaking understatement, of his new job feeding the girls and their clients. “But I had no choice. We had no money, we knew nobody, we were lost.”
Eventually the couple fled and, after a stint in Sao Paolo, Jacques was lured with another offer he couldn’t refuse: taking charge of the kitchen at a big new hotel deep in the Amazon jungle. The job was a huge challenge. At 23, Reymond oversaw 150 cooks. Kathy, who was employed as a manager, supervised 20 front-of-house hotel staff. But the rewards were many. Not only was Jacques Reymond the best-paid chef in South America, he also had free rein for the first time.
“I could cook my own food, do all my own menus,” he says. This is where he first encountered such ingredients as coconut milk, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, chilli and ginger – flavours that were to shape his cooking for decades to come.
Kathy returned to Europe to have the couple’s first child, less than impressed with the Amazonian approach to obstetrics. England’s National Health Service refused her treatment because she’d married a foreigner, so Kathy and baby Nathalie ended up in Cuiseaux.
Jacques, Kathy and Nathalie followed job offers to Madrid, then to Paris, where Reymond worked at Jacques Cagna Restaurant, which rose from one to two Michelin stars under his stewardship. After two years there, the Reymonds were ready to heed the family’s cries to come back to Cuiseaux and take over the Hotel du Nord.
They changed the menu on day one. “The regulars wanted to shoot us,” Reymond says. His cooking was based on French principles with regional flavours, but it was all done with a light touch, without much cream and butter. Within two years, the restaurant had its first Michelin star.
But Kathy wasn’t happy in Cuiseaux. “I hated having no family life, no home, being dependent on the business. You weren’t living on your own, you were living with the whole village. It wasn’t where I saw my life going.”
The Reymonds had a second child by now, with a third on the way, but they were ready to move overseas again. Jacques would happily have gone back to Brazil, but Kathy liked the sound of Australia. Australian wine writer James Halliday had done his best to sell them on his homeland while eating at the Hotel du Nord on his annual trips to Burgundy. “We encouraged him very much,” Halliday says. “His enthusiasm impressed me, and his open mind.”
When the Reymond family arrived in Melbourne in November 1983, they had $2000, a couple of suitcases and no immediate prospects. Kathy was eight months pregnant. They bedded down in a Chinatown hotel, not particularly impressed by their new home. “I thought Melbourne was sad, cold,” Reymond recalls. “I felt uncomfortable.” His English was more or less non-existent, but he still managed to scour the employment pages on their first Saturday in Australia. Within a week, he was working at Mietta’s.
Reymond spent five happy years working for Mietta O’Donnell before deciding it was time to do something for himself. In 1987 – and now with four children at home whom he barely had a chance to see – he opened Jacques Reymond’s Restaurant in Lennox Street, Richmond. The 1988 Age Good Food Guide praised its “exquisite and very French” food. On Sundays, though, Reymond was in a lather of experimentation, trawling Victoria Street for ingredients and developing his modern and peculiarly Australian style at home.
This food soon made its way onto plates in the Richmond restaurant, creating a sensation among adventurous Melbourne diners. But the out-of-the-way upstairs dining room was a novice restaurateur’s compromise. In 1992, Reymond got his hands on the Windsor mansion his restaurant now inhabits. Finally he had a forum fit for his boundary-pushing food.
He slept with a notebook by the bed and jotted down the dishes he dreamt up in his sleep: black lasagne of crayfish with wasabi; roasted pheasant with juniper berries; polenta and crab mousse.
But the dreamer was also a ferocious workaholic who sat down with his family only for Sunday night’s regulation steak and chips. His intensity sometimes spilled into anger. Alkis Christopolous, Reymond’s seafood supplier since the days at Mietta’s, considers his client a gentleman but will never forget the day he kicked 30 live crayfish down the stairs because they were “too drowsy”.
Stephen Mercer, chef and owner of Mercer’s Restaurant, was Reymond’s sous chef for two years in the early 1990s. He recalls his old boss as a fiery character, “but not the fieriest”.
What most impressed Mercer was Reymond’s truly experimental approach. “He used Australian native ingredients like lilly pillies that were more unusual then. He makes different flavours all the time.” Erez Gordon, now the manager of Botanical, worked as Jacques Reymond’s maitre d’ for more than six years. Reymond’s passion and business smarts impressed him greatly.
“I learnt an incredible amount about restaurants as businesses and how much energy is required to maintain quality,” he says.
Although Gordon believes Reymond will always be a driven man, he also thinks the chef has softened in recent years. “The restaurant will always be at the forefront, but he has taken more time for himself and his family, handed over more responsibility to other people.”
Reymond’s extracurricular gigs have necessitated some relinquishing of the reins. Along with a 13-part television series in 2001, he works as a consultant for Fiji’s exclusive Turtle Island resort. He goes there every three months for a week at a time and enjoys “the music, the smiles, the respect and the quietness at night”.
The Reymonds often travelled to Fiji en famille, giving Dad a chance to reacquaint himself with the kids, whose daily contact with their father was often restricted to school lunchboxes filled with restaurant leftovers such as lobster, lamb cutlets and foie gras. More recently, Reymond has gathered his flock around him in his restaurants. Nathalie is his sommelier,
Joanna has done stints on the floor and Edouard works weekends as a barman.
The energetic drive is still there, though. Two years ago, Reymond undertook an expensive Andrew Parr renovation that brought a splash of carnival chic to the stately Victorian.
A daring menu revamp led to main courses being banished in favour of smaller dishes better designed to showcase Reymond’s complex interplay of flavours. The changes were a pricey gamble.
“They didn’t need to do it,” says European chef John Lepp, who worked as Reymond’s deputy for three years until late 2003. “It was already a highly successful business. He did it to keep the restaurant fresh.” Even as positive reviews ensured the gamble paid off, Reymond was already thinking about his next project, Arintji, in Federation Square, which opened late last year.
“Everybody was a bit sceptical but I said, ‘Trust it, it will work. It’s exactly what Melbourne needs’.” And he was right.
Arintji’s pan-national menu and smart buzz is the perfect foil for the Windsor restaurant. “There will always be a place for a restaurant like Jacques Reymond,” says its owner, “but this is a special-occasion place. You come here to have a special experience: the food, the service, the ambience, the whole show.”
When he gets away from his show, Reymond tends to get physical. He plays indoor soccer, skis and scuba dives. Most precious though, is the Ducati 999 motorbike the family gave him for his 50th birthday. “It’s a way to evade myself,” he says, of his four-hour burns along country roads. “I don’t think about anything. That’s what’s good for your brain.”
The rewards of being ringmaster ensure Reymond returns enthused to his kitchen. “If you spend 15 or 16 hours a day doing something, you have to be happy.” The pleasure of serving food that sends people into raptures never grows stale. “It’s a wonderful feeling and it stays inside you for a long time,” he says. “It’s like when you make love, as deep as that.” Reymond reckons he shares the love around, too. “If you know how to share it, your staff will get the same feeling too.”
Oui, chef, so long as they don’t burn the wafers.