In October 2018, Sean Connolly was the featured visiting chef at The Box restaurant at Ettalong Beach. Among the diners were Karina and Brian Barry, owners of Bells at Killcare and Pretty Beach House. Sean stopped by for a chat and the three hit it off immediately. They were so impressed with his food and the man himself that they decided to join forces and, just a short five months later, Sean and the Barrys opened the new Bon Pavilion restaurant, in John Singleton’s Bonython Tower in downtown Gosford.
Bon Pavilion has four zones based around the meaning of ‘pavilion’ as a group of related areas under one roof. The restaurant divides into four zones with the Bon Bon Café; Bon Vin, the wine room; Bon Bar; and Bon Fire where the open grill is located.
‘Casual dining but chic,’ is how Sean describes it. ‘With easy to understand food (you don’t need a waiter hovering over your shoulder to describe what you’re reading on the menu). I’m determined to use the best produce — local when we can, but also national, wherever it’s grown best across Australia.’
It’s a philosophy that Sean has successfully translated into his six other restaurants in Sydney, Byron Bay and Adelaide, Auckland and, most recently, in Dubai. Although Sean doesn’t mention it himself, he’s no stranger to awards. Think, AHA and Good Food Guide Chef of the Year gongs (four times in all), a 2-hatted restaurant in New Zealand, AHA Hall of Fame Award for Excellence, to name just a few, as well as appearing on a slew of television programs.
In spite of his far flung restaurants, home is Sydney’s Randwick to Sean and his family. But he is no newcomer to the Coast, he’s been coming here for 30 years, and 20 of them with his children.
What does a celebrity chef cook at home?
‘I don’t really cook at home. We’ve been married 23 years and my wife is an awesome cook and she likes to cook for the family.’
Who influenced his cooking style most?
‘The late Antonio Carluccio, the Italian chef and restaurateur, considered by many to be the godfather of Italian cuisine.’ (He launched Jamie Oliver’s career, among others.)
Sean and Carluccio met ten years ago through fine food providore, Simon Johnson, at the Slow Food Festival in Turin and, although Antonio was much in demand, the two of them talked over a period of three to four days about food, cooking, and their experiences. ‘He taught me you can’t just be a chef or a cook, you need to be a storyteller and that you need to get out there and meet the customer.
’How did his interest in food start?
‘At the elbow of my grandmother, watching her cook while my mum and dad went out to work. She had learnt to cook in a post-war Britain constrained by a ration book, which meant she had to be creative in what she could do — always cooking something from nothing.
’Dad was an academic, not interested in cooking, but he got me a job at the local Hilton Hotel [in Yorkshire] for three or four years on Saturday nights. The chef was an old fashioned style chef, very strict but he took me under his wing. I wasn’t paid. My first full-time job was for Peter Midwood and he was basically the Gordon Ramsey of Yorkshire, very gifted but arrogant and rude — to staff and customers alike.
‘I worked in order to learn. I learnt a work ethic as well as having all the great experiences of working with the best over the years.
‘Kids don’t do that today. They’re missing out on the value of an internship.’
The person he’d most like to cook for?
‘My grandmother, 40 years on. Just to bring us back together and for her to see the way I am now. I still remember those years in the 70s, that whole era with her — watching old movies together, standing in the kitchen as she cooked for my family, lots of fun, lots of laughter and stories.
’Unexpectedly, Sean wipes tears from his eyes. If only she could see him today.
The secret of his success?
Sean laughs. ‘Fear of failure.’
He is quick to credit the people who have helped make him successful.
‘You’re only as good as the people you work with. I’ve brought my A-Team to Bon Pavilion, with the best from New Zealand, Sydney and Brisbane. We have the best-equipped kitchen on the Central Coast, and I’ve brought everything I’ve learnt in my career to Bon Pavilion. You use the best, you keep it simple, and then you have nowhere to hide.‘
And I want to pass that on to my staff too. I want them to forget how they’ve done something in the past and I’ll take them back and show them how to cook everything from scratch: a truly beautiful béchamel; an amazing crème anglaise; the perfect meringue, lemon tart, opera tart…
’In many ways, Bon Pavilion is symbolic of the birth of a new Gosford, with Sean Connolly and Brian and Karina Barry its talented midwives. We think Sean’s grandmother would have liked that.
WORDS CATHARINE RETTER
PHOTOS JACS POWELL