Josh & Fleur: The rise of Rata & the Madam Woo Duo
Award-winning restaurant Rata is owned and operated by internationally recognised Michelin starred chef Josh Emett, and highly regarded local restaurateur Fleur Caulton. Rata opened in Queenstown in 2012 and has just celebrated its fifth birthday. The duo also manage their ' Madam Woo' chain of restaurants, bringing their take on Chinese and Malaysian street food to New Zealand.
Josh and Fleur talk to GO TRAVEL about their backgrounds and approach to food and how the restaurants evolved.
The concept was simple; an intimate yet relaxed dining experience that focuses on great service. A restaurant that showcases the region not only with a locally sourced menu but also with a décor that uses natural wood, stone and native bush accents.
GT: Rata has just celebrated five years in business. Where did the concept for the restaurant come from, and how are you celebrating?
Fleur: We brought Josh out from New York to do a lunch at amisfield Winery, which I was ceO of at the time. We kept in touch afterwards and I was very keen to go back to working for myself and he was keen to come back to New Zealand in some capacity. Hence Rata came to fruition.
Josh: We celebrated our five years by having a private dinner in Rata for all our staff. We had it catered, of course, so everybody could take the night off.
GT: How would you describe Rata’s cuisine?
Josh: Our menu is seasonal and is predominantly focused on locally sourced ingredients. I don’t like to overwork ingredients and use classic techniques to create delicious dishes.
GT: Do you intend to open more Rata-themed restaurants, or is Rata unique to Queenstown?
Josh/Fleur: Not at this stage. Rata is unique to the surrounding area—if we opened in another location we would focus more on that area and create something unique.
GT: There are now five Madam Woos in New Zealand. How did the Madam Woo brand begin and evolve?
Josh/Fleur:We opened with the idea to create a fun and bustling Malaysian restaurant that reflected the cultural diversity of the street food and hawker markets we had experienced when we visited. The food we cook focuses on the Malaysian classics and we do best possible versions of them as well as creating our own versions such as the pork hawker roll, which is our best selling dish.
GT: What are the main challenges of running multiple restaurants in different cities?
Josh/Fleur: There are many challenges. Initially it felt hard not being able to oversee every dish, at every site, every day but we have made this work by having the right teams and management structure in place and we have to be good communicators. We ensure that Madam Woo remains simple—great food and great service. We love to see our regulars who come back time and time again and the reaction of people who are first timers and can’t decide on what to eat.
GT: Where do you see the brands and the business going from here?
Fleur: We are in growth mode and are very excited about the future of our business.
GT: Having both worked overseas, would you consider taking the restaurants internationally?
Josh: I definitely would. I spent 20 years away working in london, New York and Melbourne and would love the challenge of being back in those markets someday.
GT: How did this experience help you develop the Mayfare Group business?
Fleur: I had my own hospitality business for nine years from 21 and then was ceO of a well known wine company for the following nine years. These experiences gave me both sides of the business spectrum to develop Mayfare Group to where it is today—owner operator with a corporate structure.
GT: What dishes would you recommend at Rata and also Madam Woo?
Josh: at Rata to start I would order the southland cheese roll with honeycomb and pickled swede; for the main the roasted duck with preserved otago plums and smoked kumara puree.
Fleur: My favourites at Madam Woo are the mushroom spring rolls and the char Kway Teow, both interesting and so delicious—a must try for anyone who visits. at Rata the menu changes regularly to suit the seasons and the produce available. I love eating off the bites and starter menus as it allows me to sample lots of the different flavours. Rata uses such amazing produce from around the south Island you cannot go wrong with anything off either menu.
GT: Josh, What are your earliest memories of cooking? Josh: Mostly baking. I made a huge amount of cakes growing up, the first being a chocolate caramel slice. GT: You spent about 20 years overseas. Where did you work and what were your main reasons for returning to New Zealand?
Josh: I spent almost 12 years in london, four in Melbourne and four in New York, the majority of that was spent with Gordon Ramsay. I returned to NZ because I wanted to open a restaurant here which ending up being Rata. I had started to spend more time in New Zealand when I was filming Masterchef NZ, so through spending more and more time here I gradually realised it was time to return home. GT: What was it like working for Gordon Ramsay? Was he as intimidating as portrayed on TV? Josh: I had an amazing 11 years with Gordon with some incredible opportunities. The kitchen environment was full on but that is what Michelin star kitchens are like and I loved every moment of it. GT: I believe you helped Gordon set up restaurants in America and Australia. What were the highs and lows of these experiences? Josh: I think there are always tough times when opening restaurants. It is not an easy thing to do and takes a huge amount of focus and time. New york was an amazing experience given that NY had such an amazing restaurant scene. I liked the challenges of accommodating different palates and learning about new ingredients, building relationships with suppliers and hiring great staff that I could also learn from. Everyday had a challenge but was hugely exciting. GT: Did you enjoy working on Masterchef NZ and what was your favourite aspect? Josh: I loved the five seasons of Masterchef NZ I filmed, especially meeting contestants from all walks of life—great kiwis—seeing what impressive skills these home cooks had developed and getting to
taste some truly outstanding dishes. GT: What advice would you give to aspiring chefs to succeed in the industry? Josh: Get into a good kitchen and do your time. There are no shortcuts to learning the right skills and techniques. GT: We hear that you are quite outdoorsy Fleur. What are your favourite activities and places in New Zealand? Fleur: I moved to Queenstown 25 years ago to live the life I love and that includes many outdoor sports. There isn’t a day goes by that I am not out doing something. My main sports are skiing, hiking, mountain biking and waterskiing. GT: What are your favourite things to cook at home? Josh: Helen is an amazing cook and does most of the cooking. We generally eat as healthy as possible. But I also do a lot of baking for the kids because we enjoy it and of course they love the treats. Fleur: I love to cook so at home anything goes. I am really good at fridge food. My mum was an amazing cook and I have spent my life around good chefs so a few of those good skills have rubbed off on me. We entertain quite regularly and I love cooking ethnic food. I like the meal to have a direction if I am cooking for a few , so usually from a country we have visited and from which I have absorbed all the flavours. In the last five years since Rata has opened it has been Moroccan, Turkish, spanish, Indian and I always love to cook good Italian for a crowd!