Simon Gault talks about his love affair with Italy
SIMON GAULT HAS BEEN AT THE TOP OF HIS GAME FOR MORE THAN THREE DECADES, AND HAVING JUST RETURNED FROM AN INSPIRATIONAL TRIP TO ITALY, HE’S SHOWING NO SIGNS OF SLOWING DOWN
If you ever want to ignite your passion for food, take a trip to Italy… or perhaps just chat to Simon Gault. The popular Kiwi chef is positively buzzing, having just returned from a week touring around the north of the European country, and his excitement about the culinary mecca is contagious.
“I love the people; I love the love of food,” he says, his face lighting up as he recalls sampling the fresh cheese in Reggio Emilia and visiting the seafood market in Treviso. “It’s just different – it’s got a different energy, a different vibe. You feel good being there.”
Having spent a year living in Italy in the 1990s, when he was personal chef to music mogul Simon Fuller, the dad-of-one’s dream would be to one day return there longer term. But in the meantime, Simon contents himself with channelling all he adores about the place into his cooking, his businesses and his life here in New Zealand.
“I go into any restaurant in Italy and I get inspiration,” he enthuses, explaining how he often turns up with a couple of dozen beers for the kitchen staff to establish a rapport. “The minute you show interest, that energy comes back to you tenfold, and that is passion.”
A WINDING JOURNEY
There’s no doubt passion has been a constant in Simon’s career, which began when he was a teenager working in celebrated Auckland restaurant Antoine’s, and has taken him around the world, onto the small screen, into the business world and finally back to his own restaurant.
Food is sitting down with the 53-year-old as he marks a year since opening eatery Giraffe – which was named by his five-year-old daughter Hazel – in Auckland’s viaduct.
The decision to embark on the new venture came after a tumultuous period in which Simon was diagnosed with type-2 diabetes, stepped away from his role as executive chef of the Nourish Group and its nine restaurants, and had to deal with the much publicised breakdown of his marriage.
To watch him gesticulating in excitement as he chats about food, family and his various projects – which
‘Do I want my daughter to reremember me as a great chef, a business owner or a dad?’
range from his food import business and his own line of seasoning and stocks, to his health documentaries – it seems the challenging times are behind him. Are they?
“It’s still tricky,” he admits, although the cheery smile doesn’t falter. “It’s not easy running a business. You have good days and bad days and you try to put the right face on.”
‘Putting the right face on’ is always easier when his focus is on his passion projects – as demonstrated when he starts talking about Gault’s Tomato Sauce. A creation that combines Simon’s food knowledge with his determination to make a difference to the health of New Zealanders, he has devoted a huge amount of time and money to it over the past three years.
“It’s a project I believe in; everyone who tastes it loves it,” he says, as he eagerly describes the condiment that uses veges instead of sweeteners in a bid to provide an alternative to the usual sugar laden options. “I did it because I thought it would be something that would help out kids.”
He has also developed follow-up products such as icecream and chocolates, which he’d love to market in the future; he is just waiting for the tide of public opinion to turn further against sugar. “The chocolate has no added white sugar or stevia and it tastes awesome,” explains Simon, who is in favour of a tax on sugar. “People put sugar in things because it’s cheap and addictive – but we shouldn’t eat so much of it. Do people care that New Zealand is the third most obese country in the world?”
Generous in both his praise (“I try and employ people who are better than me”), as well as his actions (“I took four of the Giraffe family to Italy with me to inspire them”), Simon has also long had a philanthropic streak, regularly getting involved with foodie fundraisers.
But becoming something of a health warrior wasn’t originally in the grand plan for this entrepreneur, who ate his way through five seasons of Masterchef New Zealand judging.
Simon freely admits that for many years he buried his head in the sand when it came to his own health and his type-2 diabetes.
It was the combination of becoming a dad and having a doctor who “read me the riot act like I’ve never had it read to me before” that made the cookbook author not only address his own weight issues, but try and help others too.
This has taken the form of fronting Prime TV documentary Why Are We Fat?, together with a still-to-be-screened follow-up, What We Eat, as well as getting on board with the Dot Aotearoa Project, a health programme designed to help those with metabolic conditions such as obesity and pre-diabetes.
“I’m going to do a programme myself and hopefully take people on it and inspire and motivate them to get there,” explains Simon. “I’m fortunate enough that I get to meet world experts in the areas of the microbiome [gut bacteria], sugar and sleep – it’s nice to be able to pass that on and share it with people so it makes a difference to their lives.”
It’s clear he is just as passionate about this as he is about his culinary career – and finds it just as fulfilling.
“I had a woman come up to me in the restaurant and tell me her husband was too shy to approach me,” he recalls. “Then she burst into tears and said I saved his life; due to the weight he’s lost, he’s become a different person. That’s pretty rewarding, right?”
The desire to make a difference in the world, the food empire, the slightly laddish rough-around-the edges manner – even the passion for Italian food – sound familiar?
Simon has no problem with being dubbed the Kiwi Jamie Oliver – after all, the two of them jostle for space
in homeware stores selling their cookware, both are ideas men with a slightly gung-ho attitude to business, and, in essence, both are family guys whose hearts are set on doing right.
“I think it would be good if people thought that,” he says of the comparison. “That’s what I’m trying to do – make a difference.”
He admits it has to be in reason (“I get a minimum of two enquiries a day for charity stuff – I hate saying no to people but if I did it all I’d be a full-time charity person”), but feels he has gained perspective since becoming a father.
“Do I want my daughter to remember me as a great chef, a business owner or a dad?” he says as he proudly scrolls through pictures on his phone, pointing out an angelic-looking girl grinning toothily at the camera. “She is 110 per cent my focus. I’m a single dad and when I have her that’s where it’s at.”
This might indicate that after more than three decades in the business, he’s ready to slow down… or not.
He believes the key to juggling it all is delegation.
“It’s about having the right family around who can take the reins and be
me,” he explains. “And as that team grows, you can take on more.”
And there is clearly plenty more to come. “There’s so much to do, so much I’d love to do – I haven’t scratched the surface!” he says enthusiastically.
He might shudder at the thought of Hazel following him into the culinary world, but with a dad whose passion is so palpable, it might be unavoidable.
HOLIDAY SNAPS (clockwise from right): Terraced prosecco vineyards north of Venice; the bottled grape; an old winery; meats in a deli; wheels of cheese.
Simon is passionate about the Italian produce and other gourmet foods he imports to Gault’s Deli.