Simon Gault talks about his love af­fair with Italy


Food - - Contents - WORDS CATH BEN­NETT

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.”


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.

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