Sydney Chefs

Damien Pignolet

Damien Pignolet

In 1991, according to restaurant critic Stephen Downes Claude's was worth 15 out of 20; he called it "Sydney's best BYO". It received three hats and 18 out of 20 from The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide: "Damien Pignolet is the quiet achiever of the Sydney restaurant scene, a chef dedicated to the improvement and refinement of his craft. He's not your razzle-dazzle chef, as comfortable in a press conference as at the stoves. Pignolet prefers the solitude of his kitchen, the company of his regular clients, the security of a stable business and the support of a dedicated team. His food, as anyone who's ever dined at Claude's knows, is amongst the very best in town; conservative, classically based, superbly executed and entirely satisfying."

"My training goes back to 1966 when I did a Diploma of Hotel Management and Catering at the William Angliss College [in Melbourne] -- it was a course geared to management but did have some cooking components; in the first year there were two subjects of cooking -- one practical and one more sophisticated as well as training in food service through the College Restaurant which was open to the public. It was an excellent course at that stage. In the second year there was more emphasis on management but still with a cooking course run by Louis Ferguson who was excellent.

"My passion has always been to cook, I wanted to do a full cooking apprenticeship but my father didn't want that and insisted that I do the Hotel Management course. I had always cooked at home for as long as I can remember; my mother was a very good cook in the English Australian tradition but also did some dishes influenced by my father's French background.

"We always sat down to a proper meal of three courses; my father insisted on that and he also insisted on having soup -- every meal had to have soup. So my mother had a wonderful repertoire of soups -- all cooked from fresh ingredients and with proper stocks. My mother loved to preserve things and also grew a few vegetables.

"My four year course was interrupted by my father's death -- our family was not wealthy and could not afford the fees for me to continue so I got a scholarship through the Hospitals and Charities Commission which meant that I had to work in hospitals. I found that difficult though the cooking was not bad -- everything was fresh, with fresh vegetables and also proper stocks were made; everything was made correctly and the food was real -- but I had to get out of that environment.

"I tried lots of avenues but no-one was interested until finally I got involved in the establishment of the canteen/cafeteria at Caulfield Institute of Technology which was like a restaurant. I was involved in the kitchen set up and design and got in right at ground level. It was in the early 70's and was incredibly successful; because of funding we were able to use only the best of ingredients -- I was getting meat from [the leading Melbourne butcher] Redlichs and vegetables from a very good supplier and it was all widely successful and made a huge profit.

"However I had to break out from the institutions and tried again unsuccessfully to get into restaurants and then was offered a position with Cooking Coordinates -- Myrna and Lionel Stone -- who involved me in establishing their cooking school and at that time a newsletter which was to develop into a proper magazine as part of the establishment of the Culinary Arts Club. I was director for the school and of the club as well as the journalist/ researcher and printer of the newsletter cum magazine. Unfortunately the Stones embarked on a quarter million dollar computer project which sent them broke.

"Then in Sydney I met Mogens [Bay Esbensen] at Pavilion on the Park; simultaneously I was offered a job by Stephanie [Alexander] and by Max Redlich. What should I do?

"I decided to leave Melbourne and test myself in Sydney.

"After a short while at Pavilion I became the Executive Chef and went into partnership with Mogens to take over Butlers. It was December 1979 that I started with Mogens at Butlers. It was very much the French restaurant of Sydney at that stage. Mogens was certainly one of the most important influences in Sydney on cooking -- along with Berowra and [Patrick Julliet's] Le Cafe.

"At the beginning of Pavilion I first met [my future wife] Josephine, who was an apprentice.

"Whilst Mogens and I were together at Butlers we also established The Old Bank which was immensely successful; however as the relationship with Jo developed it became difficult to work with Mogens -- he was constantly critical, constantly changing his mind and then blaming me and being very contrary -- so we split and then Jo and I bought Claude's - nine years and nine months ago.

"I much prefer working on a smaller scale even though it can be very difficult especially at the moment -- when we do not fill on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday then we don't have much leeway to make up on Friday and Saturday as we seat so few.

"We bought Claude's because it was available and affordable and because we were desperate to establish ourselves and be alone together being fed up with Mogens temperament.

"We had no intention in starting here to make money but simply to do what we wanted to do and to make it a simple neighbourhood restaurant.

"However as the press get to you there is more and more expected of you -- you can no longer do a simple perfect roast chicken -- you have to bone it, stuff it, make quenelles, etc., etc., and then before you realise you have to become expensive, or relatively -- prices have to rise and then you are in a different category and then you don't make as much money as you did when you were much simpler.

"Claude's had reached the pinnacle of its success and was working brilliantly, the team was immaculate; all the roles were clearly defined, people were skilled and the product was at its best -- everything worked so well at the point of Jo's death in December 1987.

"Now I've changed direction, I had to as one of the major creative and cooking forces has gone -- I've tried to give the people with me doing the bulk of the cooking some avenue and some scope for their creativity. I have two boys -- Tim Pak Poy who did his apprentice with Cheong [Liew] he is half Chinese and half Scottish and quite amazing. He has been with me since December 1988 and Colin Holt who has been with me since we re-opened in March 1988 -- also another apprentice Jason Kemp now in his second year."

Damien said that now (February 1991) Mogens Bay Esbensen had severe financial problems and that he had lost Butlers, and was working somewhere in Queensland.

"He was a major force in Sydney and did extraordinarily well -- when he was at Pavilion we made $998,000 in one year". He estimated that to be worth now $3million and Damien was earning $600 which was not bad for 1979 and is certainly more than he can now earn.

How do you feel about mixed cuisine

Damien talked rapturously about Darley Street Thai and about Tetsuya "BUT -- I feel nervous about mixed cuisine and always ask myself of these people -- why do you have to do this -- why not do the things you know.

"Maybe in a hotel kitchen with a large brigade you could have some different sections doing the odd specialities from other countries but in a restaurant/small kitchen; it's impossible -- you need different techniques, different mise en place you can't confuse your staff in those ways, your whole approach has to change with the different cuisines and you can't expect your staff to be able to do that.

"There is a cultural problem with Tetsuya especially with the main courses -- when the plates get large he loses his grip -- he does not really understand the culture of French food."

Could there be another Claude's?

"It would now be impossible in Sydney to establish another Claude's -- you could not start with something so straight-forward, so simple, so correct -- you'd get destroyed by a public hungry for change -- by critics who only want new gimmicks who are bored by tradition. I've been here ten years trying to continue a tradition and to improve standards. I wonder about the relevancy of a Claude's to Sydney now."

Today, December 1996, Damien, with his partner, Dr. Ron White, is the king of the Sydney Bistro scene. With the birth of Bistro Moncur in the the Woolhara Hotel (116 Queen Street, Woolhara) has opened up new vistas for thedenizens of Sydney's eastern suburbs. Excellently cooked and conceived simple food that is appropriately priced. It is a rarity -- a dining situation that is correct in its food, its ambience, its service and its pricing.

He sold Claude's to Tim Pak Poy in 1993 it was awarded three hats in the 1995 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide and in the 1997 version. I ate there in 1996 and thought the food first class. Bookings can be made on +61 2 9331 3222.

Bistro Moncur doesn't take bookings.


The team has recently purchased (2000) Cleopatra, a boutique hotel with an excellent dining room at Cleopatra St, Blackheath 2785, in the Blue Mountains. Bookings can be made on +61 2 4787 8456

In late April 2001 Damien sold his share in Cleopatra to concentrate on Bistro Moncur

A 1999 interview (and recipes) with Damien Pignolet, an interview in 1995 from Mietta & Friends. A review of Bistro Moncur.

Mietta O'Donnell
February 1991
Updated December 1996 and April 2001
©Mietta's 1996