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Author profile: Damien Pignolet

Damien Pignolet

Damien Pignolet has been an influential chef and teacher of cookery in Australia for more than four decades. He trained at the William Angliss College of Catering in Melbourne, and had a distinguished career as a chef in and around Sydney, leading the kitchen at restaurants including Pavilion in the Park, Claude's and Bistro Moncur in Woollahra. He is the author of two cookbooks, French and Salades, both now available in full on ckbk.

By Roberta Muir

Damien Pignolet prides himself on being a third-generation Australian of French descent, his grandfather having arrived in Australia from Brittany via Mauritius in the late 1800s. Grand-père Edmund was famous in Melbourne society for his cooking and elaborate soirées – and it seems the pomme didn’t fall far from the pommier.

Damien has taught me more about classic cooking than anyone, and I vividly recall our first food conversation. I was seated next to him waiting for a meeting to start and I must have mentioned Caesar salad. For the next five minutes he described in elaborate detail, with hand gestures, how to dress a perfect Caesar salad. I was fascinated!

Damien credits his mother – “an excellent home cook” – with sparking his love of food and cookery, saying: “Dinner lives in my memory as a simple daily ceremony. Every meal began with soup and always finished with dessert.” His pure chicken noodle soup is based on one of his mother’s recipes.

Food was central to the Pignolets’ life and Damien recalls mushroom foraging in the Dandenong Ranges with his family then cooking the mushrooms “in a fry-up with lashings of butter and bacon.” He attributes the recipe to his maternal Grandmother and cautions :“Grandmother Morgan’s recipe might seem outrageously heavy on the butter, but reduce it and the texture and taste of this simple dish will suffer.”

Mastering the fundamentals

Damien loves sharing his passion for classic French cuisine and – as well as being a fascinating collection of recipes and stories – French is the perfect text for anyone serious about mastering the fundamentals of French cookery. In writing and in conversation Damien is equal part storyteller and technician, as I was reminded when I chatted with him recently about writing French.

Damien learned his craft at the highly-regarded William Angliss College of Catering and Food Studies in Melbourne. “Our training was classical,” he explains, “based on Escoffier. We were taught haute cuisine by a very thorough English chef following strict classical format.

Everything in the French repertoire is derivative, we’d learn how to make a proper brown stock, which takes about 6 hours of slow cooking and frequent skimming. Then we’d make a roux, add vegetables then the stock and cook it out for a long time to dissipate the flour but leave it with some binding. This sauce (Espagnole) is the foundation of a classic demi-glace. It’s mixed with more first-grade beef stock (made with great care so that it’s very clear) and reduced to half its volume – ergo demi-glace meaning half-glaze. Demi-glace is the foundation for all the meat sauces, including Bordelaise, Lyonnaise  and game sauce.” 

“Once you talk about hollandaise, you have a whole new world of derivative sauces including Maltaise and Béarnaise (perfect for dressing a simple grilled fillet steak). Then from Béarnaise you make choron and foyot.” 

I remind Damien that we haven’t gone beyond French’s first chapter, stocks and sauces, yet, and he reminds me that without taking time to learn these basics, we will never master French cookery. “The important words are ‘method’ and ‘technique,’” he tells me. “The method is a set of step-by step instructions to be followed, but technique explains the complexity behind each of the steps, why they are being done. In writing French I wove the technique into each relevant step of the method to build the reader’s foundation of knowledge.”

Developing a style at Pavilion on the Park

Any conversation with Damien inevitably leads to Danish chef Mogens Bay Esbensen, his greatest mentor who asked him to move to Sydney from Melbourne in 1979 to become executive chef at Pavilion on the Park. “He was the mentor that you could only dream of,” Damien enthuses. “He was so supportive, constantly creating opportunities for me and challenges as well. What I learned from him was inestimable. He had so much faith in me that after I’d been there one week he pushed the keys across the table and said ‘I think you’ve got this now – I’m going away for three months.’ Can you imagine?”

“For the next three months I organised the menus for our à la carte lunch and 7-course table d’hôte dinner service, which changed every day. I came in at 6 in the morning and called all our suppliers. The vegetable supplier really understood what we needed and the style of the evening menu. He’d say: ‘I have 80 pieces of squash the size of a 10-cent piece’. I’d write the menu around whatever he had. If asparagus was in season and he had beautiful thick stalks we’d always have asparagus with coddled egg and toasted breadcrumbs, inspired by a dish at Stephanie’s first restaurant in North Carlton.”


The Pavilion’s table d’hôte menu always included a composed salad, one of Damien’s favourite courses. “A salade composé is all about balancing texture, taste and colour,” he explains.” Salads are so integral to a classic French meal, that Damien dedicated an entire book to them. Salades features a number of composed salads from the Pavilion menu, including green goddess, Florida and Mimosa

At Pavilion on the Park, Damien met a young apprentice, Josephine Carroll, who later became Josephine Pignolet. Together with Mogens they ran Butler’s in Potts Point with a much more nouvelle cuisine focus than the classic Pavilion menu. “Mogens was a Dane with classic French training who’d worked all over the world, including many years in Thailand”, Damien explains. “He wasn’t afraid to do things differently. At Butler’s, he took the breast off the long-cooked boiling fowls used to make his chicken and fig soup and stir-fried them with peppercorns; despite the long cooking, they were still moist and delicious.”

In 1981, Damien and Josephine bought Claude’s in Woollahra from founder Claude Corne. They lived upstairs in the tiny terrace at 10 Oxford St while downstairs they created Sydney’s most talked about classic French restaurant. “Jo and I did everything because we had to,” Damien recalls. “There were 2 people, 4 courses and 36 guests, and we took turns working one week on (preparing hot entrée and main) and one week off (cold entrée and dessert).”


Eve’s Chocolate Cake from French by Damien Pignolet


“One day Chris Parisi (the greengrocer) called to say ‘I have unbelievable tomatoes’. I told him to bring them around. I had come down early to make the chocolate cake and start the day’s prep. Josephine came down at 11.30 and I crushed a clove of garlic, threw it into a pan with a handful of butter, added thick slices of the tomatoes with salt, pepper and lots of French tarragon and let it all infuse for a few minutes until you could see the juices coming out of the tomato and the butter going into it. I served it on thick slices of toasted brioche and oh my God it was sooo delicious.”

“Josephine said: ‘that’s going on the menu tonight’, but I said ‘it’s too rustic.’ That afternoon when I was writing the menu Jo came in and said ‘I’ve done all the mis-en-place for the tomatoes, so put it on the menu.’ That evening Gay Bilson came to dinner and ran into the kitchen saying ‘that’s the best entrée I’ve eaten anywhere in the world.’ Of course Josephine said ‘I told you!’”

“Many of the recipes in French are favourites from the Claude’s menu. Soufflé à la Suissese (a twice-baked cheese soufflé) remained even after the restaurant changed hands. Quenelle of harbour prawnsyabbies with rémoulade and tartare of scallops were all very popular entrées.” 

“I love cooking with game”, Damien says, “and whenever we could get them, I’d roast pheasants to serve with beurre noisette and bread sauce and grilled guinea fowl breast was on the menu 90% of the 10 years I had Claude’s.”

“Dessert soufflés were a very important part of the Claude’s menu and one of the most popular was raspberry soufflé omelette

Classics like tarte Tatin, blancmanger and quince frangipane tart also featured.”


Quince Frangipane Tart from French by Damien Pignolet


When Josephine died in a car accident in 1987, Damien continued Claude’s alone for another 6 years. But his heart was no longer in it and, in 1993, he sold it to one of his chefs, Tim Pak Poy. “It was the most exciting thing that ever happened,” he says, adding (as he so often does): “I’ll give you a little background.” 

“I was one of 20 people taken to Milton Park as it was being developed by Ron White and his partners – that’s how I met them – they would come to Claude’s and Jo and I would go to Milton Park and so we developed a friendship. After Jo died and Claude’s business recovered, I was at Dov having my morning coffee and Ron came over and asked: ‘If money was no object and you could do whatever you wanted what would you do?’ I replied without hesitation: ‘Parisian bistro food as authentic as you can make it.’ A month later he comes over and says: ‘Are you still interested? The Woollahra Hotel went on the market this morning.” I grabbed paper and sketched the menu and a week later we bought it.”

Our food at Bistro Moncur was very very simple, for example lamb marinated with herbes de Provençe char-grilled with a coriander seed vinaigrette and grilled capsicum. Of course there was sirloin with Café de Paris and salade frisée lardons.” 


Grilled Sirloin Café de Paris from French by Damien Pignolet


I remind him that it wasn’t all French, the occasional Italian influence appeared too such as the linguine with chilli, anchovies and tomato that I always ordered along with either the simple mozzarella salad or grilled red pepper and asparagus salad

“In 2000 I took over Cleopatra,” Damien reminds me. “It was a beautiful old house in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney built in the 1850s and converted into a luxurious five bedroom restaurant with rooms. We could do about 50 covers for lunch and dinner and I created a menu around French country food with dishes like terrine, daube of beef and soufflés of course.”

“Charcuterie is a passion of mine – one of my favourite recipes in French is duck liver parfait.  I made it for the bar menu at Margaret working with Neil Perry. On the opening night in 2021 Sydney went into its second COVID lockdown. I’d made that parfait with the best duck livers I’ve ever seen in my life – oh my God they were extraordinary. The staff thought it was terrific.”


Duck Liver Parfait from French by Damien Pignolet


I can’t imagine anyone who was more fortunate than me in having Mogens for a mentor,” Damien replies when I ask what the greatest influence of his career has been. “That’s what I’ve tried to do for the young chefs who’ve worked for me,” he adds, “they had complete freedom with the daily specials and created dishes like Jason Robert’s boudin blanc of salmon inspired by my boudin blanc of chicken

So we come full circle, classic French cooking is derivative, one dish leads to another, as having a great mentor often leads to becoming one. Through the Josephine Pignolet Award, established in memory of his late wife, Damien has mentored and promoted some of Australia’s finest chefs including Brett Graham, Mark Best, Dan Hong and Phil Wood. And through French and Salades he continues to inspire generations of home cooks to master the techniques of French cooking along with methods for both simple and complex recipes.

Merci beaucoup, Damien.


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