Jacques Reymond prepares last supper
Jacques Reymond enjoys a coffee at home in the company of his 11-year-old dog Pete before commencing his last shift at the restaurant. Photo: Eddie Jim
Yesterday evening, a grey sky brings out the colour of the flowers in the garden. It’s so quiet as you come down the hall to the kitchen, one expects to find the mood of a funeral: Jacques Reymond perhaps with his head in his hands as the kitchen staff look at one another desperately and wonder what to do with 67 guests arriving in two and a half hours for a ten course meal.
"I’m not sad at all,’’ he says. "It is my greatest happiness to hand over to Thomas (Woods) and Hayden (McFarland) and to be among these young people.’’
Tonight is Reymond’s last shift in the kitchen. The Prahran French restaurant that has carried his name for 23 years will be no more. It will re-open January 15 as Woodland House, in the care of veteran offsiders Woods and McFarland. If Reymond wore a chef’s hat, tonight it would be hung on its peg for good. "I look forward to the future,’’ he says.
Even so, when Jacques Reymond arrived for work, McFarland – whose eyes grow bigger when talking of the big boots he has to fill -noticed the boss was "more reflective than usual.’’ He’d taken a walk around the gardens, and then plunged into work – which is now proceeding as normal, with no great drama and none of the raised voices you hear on television cooking shows.
"There is no need for raised voices… perhaps from people who are compensating for not knowing what they are doing,’’ says Mr Reymond, who sports a sly, sweet smile for the smallest of reasons.
He is questioning a chef about the integrity of what looks like ultra-thin brandy snaps. Will they come away from the grease-proof paper with no problem? Will they retain their crispiness? In fact it’s pieces of chicken skin with all the fat removed, ready to be tossed with cuttlefish and Peking duck tucupi. The chef quietly assures Reymond that it’s fine, and Reymond nods his head, offers a piece of advice and wanders on.
For about half an hour, he teaches apprentice Cameron Williams, 18, how to bone the lamb. He does so with alarming patience, as if there is all the time in the world – and with obvious pleasure. "I enjoy it, the teaching,’’ he says. "That’s something I will miss.’’
Just before 5pm, with no whistle or signal, all the pans are washed, the benches cleared, and the staff dinner is laid out on platters: beautifully-cooked fish, tossed greens, lentils and cabbage, and a mashed potato so smooth it should be glue, but it’s not.
The chef and his dozen crew members sit out and eat on the back steps. Some of them on milk crates. Ordinarily, their meal would be thrown down the hatch in 10 minutes and back to work. They take a little longer tonight, with small grabs of easy conversation.
Reymond sits in the middle, much a part of things, but also removed a little in the way older people get – where they are happy to sit back and listen and watch with pleasure the world they have had a part in making.
Customers start arriving at 6.30pm. Most of tonight’s guests are regulars, some going back to the restaurant’s early days. Michael Grigg and his wife Sherryl were married in the restaurant’s garden 17 years ago. Tonight is their last anniversary dinner here. Grigg believes Reymond has brought an energy to cooking and hospitality that "we’re seeing the last of.’’
Like many people, the couple have come to say goodbye but the chef stays out of sight. It’s busy. Ten courses, each a little work of art, must be assembled to order – and this is complicated by an astonishing number of diners burdened with dietary restrictions – lactose intolerant, gluten-free and so forth.
Such ailments have grown to plague proportions in recent years. "It’s a nightmare,’’ says Reymond, who then smiles: "But we have Hayden to solve these problems.’’
By 8pm the kitchen resembles the bridge of battleship, with Reymond the captain under fire. Into this complicated space where one struggles to find a place to stand, comes a series of young women wanting a photo with the chef or just to say a last hello. By 9pm, such socialising is impossible. In one corner desserts are being painted on to plates – one on an Australian theme, another Brazilian. In another the last of the fish dishes – rockling, and cuttlefish with duck and crispy chicken skin - are being plated. Further in: the meat dishes. Reymond sticks to the one spot, occasionally calling a name and getting a prompt response. He seems to see little issues fermenting and nips them in the bud with a word.
Reymond’s wife Kathy is working front of house. She cried on the drive to the restaurant and expects to cry again when Jacques eventually comes out to share a glass of champagne with the customers and his staff. "I’m trying not to talk too much to anyone," she says. "They all want to know what we’re doing next year. We don’t know yet. Just something different.’’
Melbourne’s devotees of fine dining may remember Reymond and his restaurant for creations such as his Flinders Island wallaby, corn and shimeji, mountain bush pepperberries with sheep yoghurt… or Western plains suckling pig. Chilli black bean and apple with candied tomato. But the true legacy is here is the kitchen staff, gathered around on the back step, the people he has trained and made his own. Under his command, everything happens like a ballet: with the automatic genius and wonder of people who know what they are doing. Over the years many have had their start here, and gone on to take some of his infectious energy elsewhere. That’s what Jacques Reymond is leaving behind.