Damien Pignolet - chef and habituĂ© 
January 2, 2015
Richard for 2011 in Culture

Now preparing his third book, the chef Damien Pignolet reflects on the glory years of Butlers, Claudes, Bistro Moncur and The Bellevue ... He'd love to do it all again ... Meanwhile, he "does the room" at Fratelli Paradiso ... Laura Corrigan reports 

Damien Pignolet, the great French chef of Sydney, has ridden the culinary waves of the past 35 years. From Pavillion on the Park in 1979, followed by Butlers at Potts Point, Claudes in Woollahra in 1981, Bistro Moncur in 1993 and later The Bellevue, and now consulting, creating and writing. 

He's a well recognised figure in Potts Point, an habitué of Fratelli Paradiso, the Italian restaurant and pasticceria on magnolia lined Challis Ave. He said he virtually lives there. He actually lives around the corner.

According to Pignolet, an habitué is a valued, very regular guest. 

In Paris an habitué had a reserved spot for the bottles in a restaurant's wine rack. There they kept a their own wine so when they came for lunch they could enjoy a glass or two then put it back for the next day.

The renowned chef tried to capture this familial atmosphere in his own restaurants. He sold Bistro Moncur, when the Woollahra Hotel went under the hammer in 2011. He told Postcode2011

"In my heart I would kill to open [another] restaurant. I live the restaurant life. I'm [at Fratelli's] most mornings for a coffee and people joke that 'Damien's doing the room'. It's my natural habitat and I miss it terribly." 

Pignolet's entrepreneurship and love for cooking started at a young age in Melbourne. 

"As a four year-old child I had a pedal vehicle, like an American jeep, which had a trailer on the back with broken china pots and pans in it. I went from household to household, cooking." 

Pignolet is a fourth generation Australian of French Mauritian descent and his French cooking style has been influenced by his mother.

His four year intensive course at William Angliss in Melbourne, which taught all aspects of hospitality as well as formal French cooking, was also incredibly important to his development. 

At Cooking Coordinates he worked in a restaurant equipment store and school, needing the money after his father died, while finishing his studies with the help of a scholarship. 

He was enticed to Sydney in late 1978 by the famous Danish chef, Mogens Bay Esbensen, who ran Pavilion on the Park opposite the Art Gallery of NSW. After leaving Pavillion they later established Butler's in Potts Point. 

"Unfortunately the partnership got rocky so my wife [Josephine Carroll] and I bought Claude's restaurant, which was the real opportunity for us to find stardom. Within six months we'd already got one hat, the second year we had three."

In 1987, six years after the purchase of Claude's, Josephine was killed in a car accident. Damien was almost killed as well and his injuries meant he couldn't work the 12 hour days that are obligatory in the restaurant business. 

He appointed a new head chef and started looking for other opportunities. 

He went into partnership with clinical psychologist and fellow classical music lover Dr Ron White and his wife Robin. 

"We decided we would buy the Woollahra Hotel which spearheaded something that had never been done before. It broke all ground. In a pub we created a really smart and elegant restaurant." 

Bistro Moncur, established in 1993, served Pignolet's French cuisine. White looked after the money and the silent partners, but together they made the important decisions. 

Bistro Moncur, with Michael Fitzjames famous mural

Pignolet said his vision for Moncur wasn't quite realised. He wanted to mimic the old bistros of Paris complete with service à la française - a serviced buffet with all the dishes of the meal presented together. But, he said, he could never find the staff and the customer turnover would have dropped. 

His decision to keep his business in Woollahra was quite strategic. He knew habitués of Claude's would support him. 

In 2011 White died and the financial pressures of the GFC forced his widow Robin and Pignolet to sell the Woollahra and The Bellevue Hotels. Pignolet stayed on as executive chef at The Bellevue, but not for much longer. 

After the success of French and Salades he's working on a third book. He said he needs only six weeks to complete it but that he's receiving little interest from publishers now that he doesn't have a restaurant.

"The restaurant sold [the books]. The people came they ate the food, they were happy, they bought a copy of the book."

He has also been working as a consultant to Sir Moses Montefiore Homes. He said it's a challenge injecting more style and interesting dishes into a menu for 700 people. 

At 66 he doesn't think he has the strength let alone the money to open another restaurant.

"Physically I couldn't do it. I want to in my soul, but I couldn't do it." 

Meanwhile, he continues to "do the room" at Fratelli Paradiso. 

Reporter Laura Corrigan 

Article originally appeared on Local news from postcode 2011 (http://postcode2011.com.au/).
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