A French Toast to 20 Years in Australia

3 June 2011

When I was a little boy, I used to follow my mum into the kitchen and that’s where the magic happened. The sounds were like a live orchestra to my ears as the jam bubbled, releasing air pockets through the thick fruity surface.

When I was a little boy, I used to follow my mum into the kitchen and that’s where the magic happened. The sounds were like a live orchestra to my ears as the jam bubbled, releasing air pockets through the thick fruity surface.

Hearty casseroles simmered for hours on the stovetop as the mélange of meat with freshly picked garden herbs and vegetables came together in a delicious sauce. I’m sure this melody was the secret ingredient that helped mum’s brioche to rise so perfectly. Our door was always open and mum cooked in generous batches using seasonal produce.

It was only natural that I chose to become a chef and spend hours reliving the memories of cooking with my mum and two brothers during my childhood. On September the 5th in 1984 I began my apprenticeship in Paris filled with enthusiasm until I was ordered to sweep the floor, empty the bins and then clean fish. Making pastry was a luxury after the mundane tasks I’d been performing so far and my first attempt is one I will never forget.

The chef told me it wasn’t right and I made the mistake of answering back with “yes it is”. Before I had time to react, my leg was numb from the chef’s hard fist and he barked at me “the only thing I want to hear is yes chef!!!” I remember it was minus ten degrees outside and tears began to well up in my eyes – that was my introduction to becoming a chef.

With a brand new diploma in my possession and filled with pride, I was eager to put my newly learned skills to the test at La Colombe Argenteuil in Paris followed by The Carlton in Cannes. It was around Christmas of 1989 in Switzerland when I met two couples who were dining at La Fontaine. They spoke so highly of their home country that I was convinced to move to Australia and experience the lifestyle for myself. Using my industry connections, I secured a job and one week’s accommodation at the Intercontinental in Sydney.

On Anzac Day of 1991 at 22 years of age, my feet touched Australian soil. 32kg of luggage in hand, less than $1,000 to my name and I barely understood a word of English. Straight from the airport, I arrived at The Treasury ready to work with the help of an electronic language translator. Relocating to Sydney became so much more than a career move when I had the fortune of working beside my friend Maggie Beer who was a guest chef at The Treasury.

I could never have imagined that 20 years later, the foreword in my first cookbook would be penned by Maggie Beer with such a vivid recollection of our first meeting. Those who know me would say “I was living the dream”. I was forming great friendships, had a new job, I was and still am very proud to call Australia my home, and then my life really changed the day I met Sohani.

Sohani was training at the Intercontinental hotel school and the rest is history. We’ve been married for 14 years and have two amazing children – my family is the motivation to stretch my limits in business and personal challenges. Investing long hours, blood, sweat and tears into a list of renowned kitchens provided irreplaceable preparation for what lay ahead.

Gecko Restaurant at Sheraton on The Park is where I had my first taste of being the head chef and seeing my name on the menu was a highlight of my career. But I still had a yearning to leave a mark – do things my own way. Sohani and I shared a dream of one day opening a coffee shop and producing boutique style jams and condiments like we’d tasted in a little shop in Berrima.

Bitton wouldn’t be what it is today without the vision, passion and devotion of my family and friends. My wife, in laws, business partner and friend of 17 years Gaby and his wife were all there to help fulfil our first large order of Bitton Gourmet products for 1,200 corporate hampers. We required all hands on deck and it took 10 people 4 days to complete packaging and hand labelling the jars; it was such an adrenalin rush.

Our 10 year anniversary was another overwhelming milestone especially since it was also the launch of our first book ’a French-inspired café cookbook’. We learnt some invaluable lessons from the concept to launch of this book and it was truly a labour of love that saw the printed copies finally in our hands and on the shelves.

The next book will focus on building and maintaining a successful business and sharing the mistakes that I made along the way. What a journey it has been! Our products are available in 6 countries, sold in over 450 stores and we’re planning to open additional cafes throughout Sydney in small numbers to maintain the personal touch Bitton is known for.

It’s a great feeling to know that Bitton is a regular meeting spot for the locals, many of which have become dear friends and supporters of our evolution. When I step into the café every morning and see familiar faces I feel like I’ve come home rather than arrived at work. I can say the same of my staff who work hard to keep the business running like a well-oiled machine to make sure customers leave with a smile, a full tummy and feeling like a VIP.

David Bitton