Cuisine - - CONTENTS -

Tracy Whit­mey meets a Bri­tish chef shar­ing the love in Christchurch

OF THE CUR­RENT buzz­words, ‘pas­sion’ is tossed around with aban­don th­ese days, but when Si­mon Levy de­scribes his dish of clams as food that “hugs you, just em­braces you” it shows that his heart and soul are poured into INATI, the Christchurch restau­rant he owns along with his wife, Lisa.

“Hugely spe­cial things are hap­pen­ing in Christchurch,” he says. “Can­ter­bury is the most amaz­ing re­gion. The food move­ment down here is tak­ing off and we’re proud of what we do, we’re proud to be able to pro­mote peo­ple around us. The city is com­ing alive again.”

Si­mon and Lisa’s ethos for INATI is all about mak­ing con­nec­tions. The very name – INATI means to share or to be ex­cep­tional and ex­cit­ing – en­com­passes ev­ery­thing they want for the restau­rant. While share plates are noth­ing new, INATI em­braces shar­ing at a whole new level with most guests din­ing at the chef’s ta­ble over­look­ing the kitchen. Set­tling into one of the deep up­hol­stered chairs at the sin­u­ous brass-topped bar, guests be­come im­mersed in the drama of the kitchen with ev­ery­thing un­fold­ing right be­fore them.

“The chef’s ta­ble idea opens us all up to a new ex­pe­ri­ence. We get to touch each guest who comes here, to give them an ex­tra ex­pe­ri­ence. Peo­ple want to know more now, they don’t want to just sit down in a quiet and stiff en­vi­ron­ment. They leave hav­ing ex­plored some­thing new.”

This style of din­ing breaks down bar­ri­ers and en­cour­ages guests to con­nect not only with wait staff and with chefs, but also with each other. Si­mon tells of one ser­vice where three dif­fer­ent par­ties were seated, a sin­gle diner be­tween two cou­ples. As din­ner pro­gressed they melded into a sin­gle group who ended up shar­ing desserts, tast­ing each other’s wine. For Si­mon and Lisa that was the big­gest com­pli­ment.

“At INATI there’s no for­mula to the way to eat, no struc­ture that says you must eat in a cer­tain way. For ex­am­ple, the boeuf-nuts could be sweet, could be savoury. They’re a play on cof­fee and dough­nuts, with cof­fee-braised beef cheeks, sugar glass, hazel­nut pra­line vanilla sea salt and puffed beef ten­don.”

The cou­ple want guests to re­lax and have fun, a vibe that shines through the menu with items such as crispy chicken ce­real, don­key car­rots and those boeuf-nuts. Si­mon says, “I try to write menus in an in­trigu­ing way so that guests ask ques­tions and in­ter­act.” For ex­am­ple, a dish named duck trum­pets casts a cheeky glance back at those child­hood ice-cream treats; a waf­fle cone, a dab of black­berry jam, duck-liver par­fait, bird-feed mix for crunch, fin­ished with duck pro­sciutto.

“It’s very nos­tal­gic, gives you a lit­tle smile. Food should make you smile. You have to cook with love, oth­er­wise it’s just a job.”

As guests in­ter­act much more with the chefs, learn about the dish and see how it’s pre­pared, Si­mon be­lieves they’re will­ing to be­come more ad­ven­tur­ous.

“Talk­ing to the chefs, guests start to em­brace the con­cept. Once they trust you they’re more open to try­ing some­thing new as they trust you to give them some­thing good. Also if guests have a di­etary re­quire­ment we make it work. We have to think a bit more and it makes us work.” Si­mon ex­plains that all but one dish on the menu are gluten free and in fact they don’t serve bread at all, pre­fer­ring to give peo­ple real food rather than hav­ing them fill up on bread.

The at­ten­tion to de­tail ex­tends far be­yond just the food. “At INATI ev­ery­thing has a per­sonal con­nec­tion to my wife and me.” To­gether with ar­chi­tect Ian Hopkins, Si­mon and Lisa de­signed ev­ery part of the restau­rant from the ceil­ing down to the plates. De­signed by Si­mon and made by Re­nate Galet­zka, a pot­ter from New Brighton, the plates pay homage to the ex­pe­ri­ences of Christchurch; pearl-white plates rep­re­sent a clean slate, but look closer to see tiny black flecks of liq­ue­fac­tion, a nod back to the earth­quake, “to show that we re­mem­ber what’s hap­pened, but we are mov­ing on.”

Hav­ing a kitchen that’s open to the guests does pro­vide its own chal­lenges not least for the chefs. Si­mon says, “They’re not just un­der reg­u­lar pres­sure in a reg­u­lar kitchen, they also have to look happy, they’ve got to be com­posed – there’s nowhere to hide.” Of the staff Si­mon says, “I’m su­per-proud of ev­ery­one. We’re only as strong as ev­ery­one who chooses to sup­port us. All hold an ex­tremely im­por­tant role – es­pe­cially the kitchen hand – with the kitchen on view ev­ery­thing has to be clean!”

Si­mon and Lisa’s two chil­dren Harry, 7, and Ivy, 3, are also part of the team.

“They’re hospo chil­dren, they come into the restau­rant with Mummy and Daddy and they know the restau­rant as well as us, for in­stance they’ll ask, ‘How many guests are com­ing tonight?’ If I’m cook­ing at home Ivy will jump onto the kitchen ta­ble and mimic me. Harry is more in­ter­ested in the tast­ing.”

Si­mon him­self started young. Help­ing his dad and grandad at their stall in Old Covent Gar­den in Lon­don, he grew up around food and fresh pro­duce, and by the age of 13 he was work­ing in a pro­fes­sional kitchen in school breaks. He cred­its that early start for push­ing along his stel­lar ca­reer, “That was key, those first five years be­tween 13 and 18; it pushed me for­ward that bit fur­ther.” Study at West­min­ster Cater­ing Col­lege ran along­side cook­ing at em­i­nent Lon­don ho­tel, Clar­idges, then straight out of col­lege Si­mon found him­self at the pres­ti­gious restau­rant, The Ivy.

“I was cook­ing for A-list celebri­ties, but more im­por­tant to me was learn­ing to cook for 200-300 peo­ple a night and keep­ing the ele­ment of qual­ity. This laid the foun­da­tion for my ca­reer so far.” That ca­reer has in­cluded be­ing head chef at Gor­don Ram­sey’s restau­rant, The War­ring­ton, and cook­ing with Pierre Koff­mann at The Berke­ley Ho­tel, a six- week gig that ended up last­ing six­teen months. He’s lav­ish with his praise of Koff­mann, “the grandad of cook­ing, an amaz­ing per­son to bounce off.” From him he

“At INATI ev­ery­thing has a per­sonal con­nec­tion to my wife and me.”


learned the mantra of sim­ple things done well, to let the food do the talk­ing. “That was most im­por­tant for me.”

Mak­ing the big, bold move to New Zealand four years ago, Si­mon cooked at Pe­ga­sus Bay and teamed up with Jonny Sch­wass for 14 months at the Har­lequin Pub­lic House, be­fore open­ing INATI in 2017.

Si­mon is shar­ing his squid bolog­nese recipe with us, a dish that demon­strates INATI’S creed of fun din­ing in a re­fined way. He says, “I want food to cud­dle me and this dish is so pow­er­ful, as it’s not what you ex­pect it to taste like. It’s some­thing to make at home but a lit­tle bit spe­cial. The flavour is su­per-en­joy­able, sim­ple, easy but full of flavour, and it’s a happy dish.”

LEFT FROM TOP Si­mon and the team in the kitchen; the chef’s ta­ble; plat­ing up a dish of squid bolog­nese BE­LOW The open kitchen viewed from the chef’s ta­ble

Si­mon in the open kitchen at INATI

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