Many, many years ago, when the Sydney restaurant scene was a very different place, I was treated to a birthday lunch by my mother. Two important things were happening at the time, one personal and one much more resonant.
I had just started working in commercial kitchens - it was to be a turning point in my life, and one that will affect me for many years to come. At the same time, one of the most renowned and celebrated restaurants in Australia - and also considered highly abroad, was about to close its doors for the very last time. The place was Berowra Waters Inn.
Berowra was always a bit of a destination restaurant. It was over an hour's drive north of central Sydney, nestled in an inlet of the beautiful Hawkesbury River. Those who were unlucky enough not to arrive by sea plane still needed to park their cars across the creek and catch a boat across, there was no road access. Even the journey to the dining room became part of the mystique. I was obsessed by the place from an early age. It was supposedly the best (and most expensive) food in the country - some even intoned in hushed words - the world. I had never eaten there and was dying to.
My mother had contacted me a few days earlier to arrange a birthday lunch. She would be picking me up at my apartment at 10:50 AM. What? No-one eats lunch that early! My imagination went into overdrive. There was only one possibility as far as I was concerned - we were driving to Berowra, hence the early start allowing us to arrive just in time for lunch. I was giddy.
I had just started a new chef's job and was naïve to the absolute debauchery that can accompany a career in the kitchen. Of course once the staff found out that I was to be a year older come midnight, they insisted on some polite partying. What to do? I was keen to get home and rest for the amazing feast that lay in store for me the next day, yet I also dearly wanted to appease my new workmates. A compromise had to be struck.
The way I figured it, I could party for a good part of the night with the work crew, catch a few hours sleep, then let my mother pick me up. I knew the drive to Berowra was over an hour, so I could catch up on any missing sleep in the car.
Sure enough, next day I had an A grade hangover. The buzzer rang in my apartment and I stumbled down to my mother's car waiting for my extra hour's sleep. Yet all did not go to plan. Barely a scant 5 minutes of drive time had passed, when my mother pulled the car up at a 5 star hotel and yelled "Happy Birthday!"
She handed me an envelope containing a single pass to a cooking lesson/lunch with Tony Bilson, then chef at the Sydney Hotel Intercontinental. The early start was to fit the cookery lesson in before lunch.
Shocked and bleary-eyed, I thanked my mother and stumbled out into the glaring morning sunlight to make my way, solo, into the hotel. It was horrendous. I was shaking and reeking of cheap beer.
The affair was very up market and regimented. The other patrons were mainly middle-aged housewives and seriously clad businessmen. Both parties looked upon my attire, attitude and general dishevelment with more than a little disdain. Suited waiters soon arrived bearing champagne flutes, bottles of champagne and a dusty little old bottle with quaint hand-written French lettering on the front. The old bottle was cassis and I was about to have my first Kir Royal.
Thankfully, be-suited businessmen being the creatures that they are, I was put at ease by their glaring faux pas almost immediately. A tiny amount of cassis was poured into each flute and two of these buffoon-headed captains of industry proceeded to swill it straight. Even a naïve and new 20 year old like me knew that sparkling wine was meant to top up the drink.
Once the Kir Royal had passed my lips and I began to settle into things, it turned out to be a great and memorable day. I learned things in the kitchen, met some nice people, ate fabulous food and drank divine wine - yet the thing I will always remember was that Kir Royal. I still have at least one every birthday.
Pour the cassis into a chilled champagne flute. Gently top up with sparkling wine and be seduced as the hue moves from black to purple, then to irresistible vermilion. Drink and be merry.