Stepping into Bennelong at Sydney Opera House is an experience like no other. One moment you’re standing outside, beholding the white-sailed exterior in all its architectural glory. Moments later you’re seated beneath theatrical arches and glass, looking over the harbour and city. Theatre before the dishes have even arrived.
With such a grand location, it’s no surprise that Bennelong opened in 2015 to much fanfare. The restaurant has serious pedigree too: it’s a sister venue to executive chef Peter Gilmore’s feted Quay, and it was Gilmore and Quay sous chef Rob Cockerill who implemented the vision.
Cockerill says the pair wanted to make Bennelong “a little more casual” than Quay. “We knew there would be a lot of focus on the building itself,” he says. “The Sydney Opera House is the people's house. So we wanted to bring people back in there with the feeling of casual fine dining, as well as walk-in bar offerings with a more casual scene. You can pop in for an oyster and beautiful glass of bubbles or a sit-down experience."
They’re not just paying lip service to the concept of inviting people into the experience. At the Cured and Cultured counter, diners are seated looking into the kitchen, facilitating a “dining experience that's very interactive with the chefs that serve them,” says Cockerill. The Circle dining room is a “more intimate” setting, with an à la carte menu that changes each season and includes items such as Maremma duck confit with fresh currant grapes, black fungi and kampot pepper; or roasted wagyu rump cap with eschalot and buckwheat pudding and horseradish emulsion.
Having spent time in London working in kitchens such as Soho House, Cockerill says he often longed for Australia and its bounty of fresh ingredients. “I missed Australian produce and the Australian cooking scene,” he says. So much so that on return he approached Gilmore with a simple, single-minded vision for Bennelong that first coalesced in the kitchen at Quay - to make local farmers, fishers and producers “the star[s] of the show,” a focus that’s reflected in Bennelong’s seasonally changing menu.
A prime example are the red claw yabbies, which are served with lemon jam, cultured cream and buckwheat pikelets. It was one of the first dishes Cockerill and Gilmore developed for Bennelong. “We’re lucky enough to both have that wonderful memory of standing around a dam fishing for yabbies,” says Cockerill. “I would use bits of rotten sausage and stockings nicked from my mum’s drawers. We wanted to take that [approach] up a notch and not only create a food memory but also a dish.”
More of this insider knowledge will be shared at a special masterclass in partnership with Mastercard Priceless Cities, a major partner of Sydney Opera House, at Bennelong on April 11. Over 45 minutes, participants will learn everything from how and where the restaurant sources its ingredients, to the way Cockerill and team prepare some of their signature dishes. This includes shucking and slugging back a few Sydney rock oysters – procured by Cockerill from local fishmonger Joto Fresh Fish, which selects the week’s best harvest from outlying areas such as Merimbula. The class wraps up with a lunch of signature dishes and dessert paired with wine. The spectacular view is included.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Mastercard Priceless Cities.