Opulence is everywhere at The Charles Grand Brasserie. In its stately corner spot in the CBD, glass double doors take you through to a very special dining room with soaring ceilings, art deco detailing and golden light fixtures haloing overhead. And while there’s plenty of theatre in the main courses – both silver and gueridon service – it’s the roving desserts that star for us.
Rhiann Mead – who trained under Peter Gilmore at Quay, is the former head pastry chef at Bennelong, and just made her screen debut on Dessert Masters – is responsible for the spectacular trolley offering. On any given day, creations like a 28-layer Russian honey cake, lemon meringue pie, a rich and glossy flan, ready-to-fill cannoli and more wheel between lanes of diners. “We make absolutely everything from scratch,” Mead tells Broadsheet. “Even the simplest stuff. It’s a good habit to be in, but we’re always busy.”
Mead spent five minutes with Broadsheet chatting Peter Gilmore’s creativity, her sweet tooth and working in pursuit of delight.
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Rhiann, what’s it like working in such a grand building?
Every day when you walk into it, it’s breathtaking. It’s such a special place to work visually, but also the way the food gets put out – the style of service. It’s more like going to an event rather than just lunch or dinner. There’s a theatrical element.
Do you make everything on-site?
Yes. I’ve been there from the opening and we make everything absolutely everything from scratch – that was the standard I set when I began. I’ve had quite a few of my pastry chefs come in, and they’re like, “Surely the cakes on the trolley are frozen and you pull them out each morning.” And I’m like, “No, every day. We do everything fresh.”
When I visited, I was honestly delighted. I had an amazing passionfruit jelly with a marshmallow on top, and a tarragon-and-mustard chocolate. How do you develop the treats?
I like to be creative – like the tarragon-and-mustard chocolate, the taste is so different to what you’d think.
It’s also anything [the team is] inspired by. If we see a new flavour combination, something on Instagram or a new trend, we play with it and put it on. The whole idea with the trolley is that nostalgic, exciting experience. When you see the trolley go by, it’s just so exciting. It does bring out that giddy childhood kind of excitement. It can be elegant, but it’s quite playful.
What’s your favourite on the trolley right now?
The chocolate-feuilletine-and-hazelnut bar – it kind of tastes like a Kit Kat. It’s crunchy, not too sweet, and snackable.
When did you know that you wanted to be a pastry chef?
I’d enrolled to study to be a physiotherapist – I’d never dreamed of being a chef. I decided to travel when I turned 18 and got a part-time job in the Harrods Food Halls. Coming from a small town in Australia and going to the food hall, there were just so many ingredients I’d never seen before. I didn’t realise patisserie was such a big thing – we just had a local bakery that did meringue worms. Being in London and seeing the world of chocolates to patisserie to food, it really opened up my eyes. I fell in love with it.
I got an apprenticeship to become a pastry chef [with chocolatier William Curley], and stayed in London for five years. Then I moved back to Australia and started working with Peter Gilmore [at Quay and Bennelong].
What was that like?
Incredible. Pete’s one of my favourite people in the world. He’s such an incredible chef and, working between Quay and Bennelong, he’s so creative – the way he thinks is just so outside of the box. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to think like him, but just being able to see how his mind works, how he creates dishes, that’s had a huge impact on me.
Have you always had a sweet tooth?
Growing up, I had a massive sweet tooth. I used to hide little packets of sugar [from cafes] under my bed. Maybe that was a giveaway of what was my career going to be!
Do you bake a lot at home?
Not as much as I’d like to – I make instant ramen at home. That was one of my favourite parts of lockdown: it brought out that love of baking at home, not having the pressure of fine dining.
What are you inspired by?
Just seeing what everyone else is doing. Instagram is an amazing tool – you get to see what people from all over the world are creating. That, for me, has been a huge inspiration, especially [with The Charles] being a European brasserie. Pastry is [typically] French or Italian, so you can see people from Hungary and Russia, and tap in and hear of dishes you’d never heard of before. And other chefs, especially in Sydney – it’s quite a tight-knit group. Seeing what everyone’s doing and how much they’re pushing themselves really pushes me to want to keep up. Like a playful competitiveness.