We’re taking a slow train along a gentle coastline on a lazy afternoon. Just an hour from the centre of Tokyo, we’re heading for Bill Granger’s first international restaurant, Bills, on the beach at Shichirigahama, south-west of Yokohama, Japan.
Granger rose to fame after starting up a small café, Bills, in Sydney’s inner-city suburb of Darlinghurst in 1993. Since then he has elevated the cooking of scrambled eggs and ricotta pancakes to a fine art. With three restaurants in Sydney, a cooking show (Bill’s Food) on SKY New Zealand’s Food Television channel, and several books, including his latest, Bills Sydney Food, the laid-back Australian has become a phenomenal success. His secret? Simplicity and that antipodean knack for relaxed entertaining.
He is certainly a hit with the Japanese, who are slowly coming around to the charms of surfing, long, lazy brunches and afternoons that stretch into the evening. Shichirigahama is the ideal place for a café: there’s a long, quiet stretch of sand that’s been a legendary surfing spot for years, and the tiny town, dotted with pretty wooden holiday homes, is just over an hour from the bustle of the city. Yet before Bills came along there was little here but a couple of takeaways and an ugly car park.
While Japan shares with New Zealand a lush, volcanic landscape and accessible coastline, the beach lifestyle is almost nonexistent. “Compared with countries like New Zealand and Australia the Japanese lifestyle hasn’t developed so much,” says Masato Sekiguchi, the restaurant’s architect, who is a keen surfer. “We’re not so good at relaxing!”
Granger says of Japan: “I first went there when I was about 19 and I loved it. I spent about four months there and was incredibly inspired by the place. Even when I opened my first Bills café in Sydney I was really influenced by that pared-back Japanese style, both in the design of the café and the food. The Japanese approach to having fantastic produce and not doing a lot to it is also my philosophy.”
While Granger’s food is distinctly antipodean with its robust flavours and no-fuss presentation, Sekiguchi says it has a lot in common with Japanese cuisine. “There’s a real focus on the ingredients and a sense of respect for food in Bill’s cooking,” he says. “Japanese people really respond to the simplicity and the colours of the dishes: smoked salmon and organic eggs reflect a glowing sunset; there’s the green of the ocean in fresh spinach; even toasted sourdough bread adds an important element of colour and texture.”
Granger had always wanted to open a beachside restaurant, and eventually he got his wish – not in Sydney’s Bondi but on a beach half a world away. “When we thought about opening a restaurant [in Japan] we looked at a site in Daikanyama, a really trendy part of Tokyo, but it didn’t communicate my feelings about food,” Granger recalls. “Then when Shichirigahama came up, and it was on the beach, I knew it was what I wanted to say about food – that it’s about lifestyle. Bills is about relaxing, and with the surf shop downstairs I feel like I’m in Sydney.”
Australian food has a good reputation in London and New York, but convincing the Japanese was a challenge. “When they think of Australia most Japanese people think of koalas and surfers,” Granger says. “They think of Australian food as being pretty bad – like cheap beef and dairy. We haven’t really promoted our products well and the Japanese are incredibly sophisticated consumers.”
The first step in the education process was getting Granger’s popular cooking show onto local television. Bill’s Food is now on high rotation on Japanese cable. “They’ve showed it 171 times in the past month!” laughs Granger, who now wonders if the locals aren’t getting sick of seeing his face. His popular book, Simply Bill, has also been translated into Japanese.
“I’ve found that Japanese people are really open to our style of food and they love trying something new,” Granger says. “I guess it’s also timing; there’s a big move everywhere to food that’s fresh, organic and straightforward. Japanese people have done French food, and Italian food that is almost better than in Italy. Australian food is something fresh and new.
“It’s amazing – when we trained the Japanese crew here, you show them something once or twice and suddenly they’re doing it better than you!”
Weekend House Alley 2F, 1-1-1 Shichirigahama, Kamakura, Kanagawa-ken, Japan 248-0026
T: +81 467 33 1778