Food News

Peter Doyle, in his own words

Stepping away from the stoves after a 40-plus year career at the top of the Sydney restaurant game, Peter Doyle reflects on how the business has changed.
Peter Doyle in the Cicada kitchen, in the 1990s

Peter Doyle in the Cicada kitchen, in the 1990s


My happiest moments in the kitchen have been the moments of camaraderie and banter between the staff. You spend a lot of time together, often under stress, so a friendly atmosphere is very important. Every successful service feels like a win.

The thing I remember most about my first day in the kitchen was the fast pace and the fact I nearly severed my index finger at the first joint. One of the chefs squirted some powder on the deep cut, wrapped it in a Band Aid, and I was told to “get on with it”. It only took six months to heal and I still have the scar.

Things were different then. Restaurateurs were the owners, not the chefs. Most menus tended to list the same dishes of “international cuisine”, which were broadly drawn from French-influenced cuisine. The à la carte menus were very long and the restaurant “scene” had not changed for decades.

There’s also a lot that hasn’t changed. The customer, for instance, is still always right. And it’s still a long, hard day where the satisfaction of caring for the customer and building relationships overrides the financial gains. It’s a very competitive industry.

Doyle in the kitchen at Reflections in 1984

When I started, a big night out in Sydney meant silver service. There was more emphasis on the dining room and the dishes on the menu reflected that. Waiters were formal career waiters, gueridon service was commonplace.

The average Australian restaurant-goer was out for the night and just happened to be out at a restaurant. It wasn’t necessarily about the food, the wine or even the atmosphere. It was all about going out with company to enjoy the night.

The restaurants we looked up to were Primo’s, Pruniers and D’Arcy’s. That all changed once you had dined at Tony’s Bon Gout. Tony and Gay Bilson helped to usher in the new era of nouvelle cuisine that proved to be revolutionary – velvety chicken liver parfait and brioche, whole boned whiting stuffed with scallop mousse, a lightly dressed salad of only green leaves, fresh brie direct from France, Carr’s Table Water biscuits and soufflés. Overnight, the new cuisine became about trying to acquire the best produce and incorporating new techniques.

Today, the big difference is that customers are so well educated in many aspects of food, wine and dining out. Everyone travels, even to the point of planning trips around which restaurants and wineries they wish to visit. The food press and critics have also played a large role in educating the public by featuring the new wave of chefs and restaurants. They have also helped to create an atmosphere of excitement in the industry.

Josh Niland (Saint Peter, Sydney) on working with Peter Doyle

One frantic Friday lunch service we saw a docket come through for a table of four: all the normal Est dishes and sides – but one customer had ordered a cheese omelette. Peter leapt off the pass calling for eggs and cheese. To watch a true master handle two humble ingredients with such vigour and enthusiasm was not only inspiring, but also summed up Peter as a chef. The three words that always come to mind when describing Peter Doyle are restraint, generosity, and, above all, humility.

The people I learnt the most from during my early career were Raymond Kersh at The Argyle Tavern, and Peter Bemrose at the Macquarie Inn and Sacha’s. They taught me the basic techniques of cooking, but also taught me important aspects of how a kitchen functions, such as working quickly with focus, following systems and staff relations. There are many aspects to the operation of a successful kitchen and they all have to balance. After that, it was about reading as many books as possible to learn the techniques that the new cooking required.

Looking back, the most important lessons were learnt during our camper van trip around France in 1978 and 1979. Beverley and I immersed ourselves in the markets, vineyards and restaurants of the nouvelle cuisine era. We visited many of the best restaurants such as l’Oustau de Baumanière and Pic, and those of Michel Guérard, Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, Georges Blanc, Louis Outhier (L’Oasis) and Roger Vergé (Moulin de Mougins). We also worked in a few for short periods. I realised that great cuisine was essentially simple cooking; harmonious flavours enhancing quality produce, cooked with attention to detail and flair.

Doyle at Est in the 2000s

Our first serious restaurant, Reflections in Palm Beach, followed Turrets in the Castlereagh Boutique Hotel dining room. It was the new era of destination dining. Beverley designed the restaurant with a casual elegance featuring soft white walls, black Venetian blinds, white cloths and black salt-and-pepper mills, in what had been a badly neglected fibro cottage. Seafood terrines, mousses, rockfish soup and light salads featured the greater variety of vegetables and seafood available, and more evolved desserts using fresh fruit, ice-creams and sorbets were the new benchmarks.

Le Trianon was all about attaining the fine-dining restaurant chefs of that era aspired to. We redesigned the dining room in a formal style to match the building. We’d been on the right path at Reflections, but opened Le Trianon in the city a few months before the 1987 stock-market crash. Before long, we were surrounded by the first wave of bistros that ushered in the more casual approach to dining we have today. We’d missed the era of formal restaurants. We carried on evolving the menu and introduced dishes like the prawn ravioli, and soufflés became a staple.

Cicada, on the other hand, was a return to a more relaxed attitude to dining with fine food. It was fun; “it felt like a party every night,” as one customer put it. The edgy Luigi Rosselli design was light and bright, and we had a vibrant crew of young professional waiters with personality, including our eldest daughter, Renee, who engaged the customers. The cuisine was very influenced by the Mediterranean, with a focus on fresh flavours and solid technique. It spoke of the time.

At Celsius we wanted to have a tight business centred on providing excellent food. We had a four- or five-course prix fixe menu of fine cuisine featuring great produce and a great wine list.

And at Est it’s always been about the restaurant as an entity. The Merivale group is very customer-focused, and Est is a beautiful room. We improved the kitchen layout and introduced systems to allow the restaurant to flow. Beverley fine-tuned the service to provide a professional, informed and friendly approach.

Jordan Toft (Bert’s, Sydney) on working with Peter Doyle:

Peter taught me that it’s the little things that count – the steps decide the outcome, and the knowledge and understanding of what you’re doing ultimately produces the goods. “Keep your grill clean,” he’d say; even if the guest would never know the difference, you’d know – and knowing the difference made you a particular kind of chef. Not that he’d explain this to you in so many words; it was for you to discover.

Every time you open a restaurant is tough. The first time you apply for a development application or a liquor licence, the first time you borrow credit, and the first time you design a kitchen and dining room are all scary. You become better educated with practice but I’m not sure it becomes easier.

I don’t know if you’re ever completely finished with a dish, but the dishes I’m happiest with are often the ones that seem timeless. The prawn ravioli, the Murray cod and abalone, and the squab consommé are all dishes that transcend eras and trends and prove that good, clean-tasting food never goes out of style.

Doyle with his wife Beverley at Cicada, 1996.

Karl Firla (Oscillate Wildly, Sydney) on working with Peter Doyle:

Working at Est, I always had a great deal of admiration for Peter’s constant presence in a busy kitchen, driving a powerful team of chefs – most of them half his age – and still maintaining relevance in the industry. He was a master of the fundamentals of his craft, committed to educating his staff, and proving that it doesn’t have to be about smoke and mirrors.

If I’ve instilled anything in the people that have worked for me, I hope that it’s provided a solid basis for their careers. I know they leave better skilled than when they arrived and hopefully they use that and progress. They’ve learnt important skills, especially attention to detail, focus, working at speed and, hopefully, that good manners are an asset. I’ll consider this next chapter of my career a success if I can pass on my knowledge and create a relaxed environment for students to learn and progress in the industry.

If I could give the young Peter Doyle some advice, it would be to remember that running a successful business is as important a craft as cooking itself. You need to learn that you must be able to work on the business, not just in the business – and don’t overcapitalise. But, ultimately, you must believe in yourself.

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