A household name in the Australian culinary scene, Damien Pignolet is a man that needs no introduction.

Along with running 11 successful venues and driving the evolution of the Sydney pub dining scene, Pignolet was the co-founder of one of the nation’s most coveted competitions for young chefs, the Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year Award. The award celebrated its 25th anniversary last year and boasts a stellar alumni including Mark Best (Marque), Mitch Orr (ACME) and Phil Wood (Rockpool).

After a number of years in consulting, 2016 has seen Pignolet return to the kitchen, taking on the executive chef role at Rose Bay fine diner, Regatta. Speaking with Hospitality, Pignolet shares his experiences from the past and excitement for the future of Australia’s culinary landscape.

“Going back to the 70s was when the revolution – as I call it – began both in Sydney and Melbourne, with Adelaide following a little later. In Sydney it was Gay and Tony Bilson at Berowra Waters Inn, and in Melbourne it was Stephanie Alexander in her restaurant Stephanie’s in North Carlton. Both restaurants were doing amazing food that was so far away from the prices that were being charged by other establishments. The apprenticeships at the time were very broad too, meaning that young people could become very good chefs and support the growing industry. The movement of the press in magazines and newspapers at the time was also encouraging, but most particularly, it was when chefs started writing books. That really fuelled the excitement in the industry.


“At that point there was still a good intake of people doing apprenticeships but the pay was appalling. I remember in the early days at the bistro (Bistro Moncur) I had one really talented young boy working for me. The week before he was about to qualify, I asked him if he was going to stay on with me and he said “Chef, I’d love to but the money is just not good enough. I can earn more money in a surf shop.” It brought tears to my eyes. And today, there are less and less apprentices coming into the market so it’s really difficult to secure good staff, but for chefs that are really talented, they now have an opportunity to get really good money because there is a such demand.”

Pub dining redefined

As the pioneering force behind the evolution of pub dining in Sydney, we have much to thank Pignolet for. A number of years after purchasing Woollahra fine diner Claudes with his late wife Josephine, Pignolet went into partnership with Ron White and purchased the Woollahra Hotel. It was here that Pignolet revolutionised pub dining in Sydney by creating Bistro Moncur. The venue was the first real ‘’gastro pub’ of its kind, offering refined bistro food that was an immediate hit amongst diners. The venue quickly became an eastern suburbs icon and it was at Bistro Moncur that Pignolet mentored talented head chefs including Colin Holt, Jason Roberts and Michael Morrison.

“What we achieved at Bistro Moncur was beyond anything that I could have ever imagined,” says Pignolet. “I thought we would do maybe 800 covers a week; we were doing 1,800 covers per week. It was completely out of control because no one had really done anything quite like it. The predecessor in casual dining was Bayswater Brasserie, but nobody did it like we did. We had tablecloths, the food was genuine and had incredible style. The place looked terrific and was launched just out of the recession. It just exploded.”

Although Pignolet sold the Woollahra Hotel back in 2011, following the death of  White, the legacy of what the pair started lives on today in esteemed, quality pub offerings like that of The Imperial in Paddington, The Botany View Hotel in Newtown, The Riverview Hotel Balmain and Merivale’s The Paddington, just to name a few.

damien-and-peter.jpgDamien Pignolet and Peter Nield

A new chapter

Pignolet’s new role as executive chef at Rose Bay institution Regatta, which launched in 2014, marks a return to his fine dining roots. The menu stays true to the venue’s seafood focus, but with the addition of Pignolet’s French flair, reflected in dishes such as double lamb cutlets with onion soubise, crispy chat potatoes and French-style peas; the roast king salmon fillet on a potato and eschalot gratin, with chunky anchovy butter; and the slow cooked free range chicken breast with tarragon and garlic cloves.

Pignolet says his team at Regatta is one of the best he's ever worked with. “The front of house team was already here and is run by my colleague Peter Nield. The kitchen is 18-strong with two from the previous team.”

After successfully running 11 venues, it’s safe to say that Pignolet knows a thing or two about how to conduct a good service. The hard part of course is maintaining energy both in the kitchen and front of house, day in and day out.

“After a few services you really get to fine tune everything to look the way you want it to look, and to taste the way you want it to taste, but the most important thing about a restaurant is the way a customer feels as they approach the building. The restaurant needs to have a feeling of hospitality and people need to feel comfortable. Then when a customer walks in, the most incredibly important thing is acknowledgement.”

Once the diner is greeted with warmth and positivity, shown to their table, and presented with a menu and wine list, Pignolet stresses that the quality of service must be maintained throughout the whole dining experience.

“If something is wrong, how you go about rectifying the situation is important. By saying ‘Oh, we’ll just take it off the bill,’ – that doesn’t solve the problem at all… Some may see a situation as  negative, but if it’s properly handled it’s not a negative at all – it’s a positive. And finally and absolutely importantly, when the diner wants the bill, they get the bill. It must be handled correctly and positively.

“In terms of the kitchen, the two most important people are number one, the dishwasher, and number two the head chef. If a kitchen isn’t kept clean, if the dishes aren’t washed quickly enough, if the place isn’t kept in order, you don’t have a kitchen.

“That’s what you’ve got to do to make a service work and as far as I’m concerned, that only works if the people that are providing the service, either in the kitchen or on the floor, have one desire: to make the customer happy.”


A timeline of Damien Pignolet's career

  • 1978: Pignolet is appointed executive chef of Pavillion on the Park. He is also co-owner and executive chef at both Butlers and The Old Bank.
  • 1981: Damien and his wife, Josephine, purchase Claudes restaurant in Woollahra
  • 1987: Josephine is tragically killed in a car accident which also leaves Damien seriously injured. His injuries prevented him cooking so he enlists the help of head chefs Colin Holt and Tim Pak Poyl
  • 1992: Pignolet goes into partnership with Ron White and purchases the Woollahra Hotel, where Bistro Moncur is born. The pair also purchase The Sackville Hotel.
  • 1993: Tim Pak Poyl purchases Claudes off Pignolet.
  • 2005: White and Pignolet purchase The Bellevue Hotel in Paddington. 
  • 2008: Pignolet becomes  co-owner of the Cleopatra Restaurant and Guesthouse in Blackheath
  • 2011: Following White’s death, the Woollahra and Bellevue hotels are sold and Pignolet goes into consulting full time.
  • Late 2015: Pignolet joins Regatta Restaurant & Bar in Rose Bay as executive chef


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