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A career in sails: Leonie Bell

My first NYE, 1976

Leonie Bell

Leonie Bell started her career at the Sydney Opera House as a chef-apprentice for Bennelong Restaurant when she was 15 years old. Three years later she was in prime position to experience Sydney's first-ever, world-famous New Year’s Eve fireworks show. Now part of the Front of House team 45 years later, Leonie shares a kitchen secret or two what it was like working in the lead up to that faithful night in 1976.

Grease. Heat. Hamburgers. Hotdogs. Never-ending queues. Oh yes and FIREWORKS! New Year’s Eve 1976. 

In November 1973 my dad took me to a job interview at Summit Restaurant in the city. I had always liked cooking, and the prospective job was an apprenticeship as a chef with one of Sydney’s most well-known catering companies. They employed around 40 apprentices (39 young men and one woman) across a range of restaurants including Flanagan’s Afloat seafood restaurant in Rose Bay, Cahills Restaurants in the city and The Summit revolving restaurant at the top of Harry Seidler’s famous round skyscraper, Australia Square. 

Two weeks later I commenced my first job as a 15-year-old first-year apprentice at their latest acquisition, the Bennelong Restaurant at Sydney Opera House, a mere 6 weeks after the country’s spectacular icon opened to the public. Forget about Gap Year. I finished the School Certificate on Friday and started work Monday. 

Three years later I was in a prime position to enjoy the City of Sydney’s newest spectacle, the New Year’s Eve Fireworks.

I can still recall much of the Bennelong menu: such ‘sophisticated’ fare as Oysters Kilpatrick, Oxtail Soup, Prawn Cocktail, Tornedos Rossini, Surf and Turf, Grilled Sole a la Meuniere, finished off with Chocolate Mousse or Strawberries Victoria, In the evenings we would prepare ‘silver service’, that is, the food for the entire table was arranged on a single stainless steel platter and the waiter would deftly serve it to the plate with a fork and spoon. I spent a substantial portion of my time peeling hundreds of kilos of potatoes, cutting bags and bags of onions, carrots and zucchini, and skinning the horrible slimy sole.

Summit’s catering contract was not restricted to Bennelong. They ran the Green Room, with its sandwich bar and cafeteria-style self-serve eatery, where you collected a tray, slid it along the stainless steel track and were served basics from the hot press, like fish and chips, roast dinners, lasagna, schnitzel and curry. The lasagna was always a useful way to save money, by tossing minced leftover roast and vegetables from the previous day’s offerings into the Bolognese sauce. 

We prepared a lot of functions back then, working on steel benches, placed in the corridor which today is a thoroughfare between the Western Foyer and the Central Passage, but which was conveniently located outside the three large cool rooms. This frequently involved plating ornate classic buffet platters. Those stainless steel platters and mirrored display boards would be decorated with diced coloured aspic, palm trees carved from carrots with zig-zag cut capsicum upended to form the palm leaves, splayed selections of sliced ham and salami, radish roses, curly celery stalks and handfuls of parsley. It was also in the days of traditional European decorated hams and turkeys, which were coated in white béchamel sauce and aspic, topped with coloured patterns of thinly sliced fake black truffle, red capsicum and other assorted edible foodstuffs. 

Then there was the Harbour Restaurant on the Northern Broadwalk (today’s Yallamundi Rooms), which served similar food to the Green Room. Much of the food was cooked in bulk in the main kitchen which serviced Bennelong, transported on trolleys in huge plastic tubs and 20-litre buckets through the long Central Corridor. It was not uncommon to have to scrape 50 kg of curry off the concrete floor (yes into the garbage) after a tub slid off a trolley in an uncontrolled moment. 

Like the Green Room, it too was self-serve. You slid your wooden tray along the rail, collecting food along the way, then paid the girl at the register at the far end of the room. Customers had not yet been ‘trained’ by the recently imported American phenomenon McDonalds, to clear their own food after eating, so staff were employed to clear the tables. They would scrape leftovers into a bucket and stack filthy plates on a stainless-steel trolley, to be washed in the long thin corridor kitchen running at the rear of the restaurant. Frequently the seagulls would swoop to scavenge from the discarded crockery littering the white plastic outdoor tables, which were scattered amongst the potted olive trees.

In the last three years, I had worked in every section of the Opera House catering department, but much of my time was spent in the Harbour Restaurant. That was where I was located on the evening of that first fireworks event. 

The evening was jam-packed, but unlike today, it did not require hordes of security personnel, bag checks, security checkpoints, closed and barricaded streets, or paid-event-only spaces – although the Botanic Garden was partially barricaded off in a vain attempt to protect the foliage from being trampled by eager foreshore crowds. 

The Harbour Restaurant menu was simplified for the evening. We served hamburgers and hot dogs by the thousands. Families had assembled early to get the best spot for the midnight spectacular. They were hungry, and the queue snaked out the door all evening. We worked hard and fast without respite. 

At midnight everything stopped. Suddenly the crowd dissipated, and the catering staff joined them on the Northern Boardwalk to “ooh” and “aah” at the spectacular bursts of colour and light emanating from fireworks barges in the harbour. Twenty minutes of smoke, explosions and brilliance filled the night, then suddenly it was all over. The staff returned to their positions and the crowd again besieged the Harbour Restaurant. We resumed cooking hamburgers and hot dogs until thankfully the food ran out at 1.30 am. 

Wearily we washed down the benches, changed out of grubby uniforms and drove home. 

What a night.

Want to experience an unforgettable NYE at the Opera House yourself? Ring in 2022 and take your pick of one of our events – from open-air harbourside parties at Portside Sydney or Opera Bar, to viewing the fireworks from the Forecourt, and more. Discover what’s on.

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