Josh & Fleur: The rise of Rata & the Madam Woo Duo

Go Travel New Zealand - - Nz Dining -

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!

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