Lunchtime le­gends

Chicken cooked with ba­nana and served with Ma­teus rosé was once the height of cool — now it’s plant-based pro­tein and sparkling water. Five hospo stal­warts re­flect on the evo­lu­tion of Auck­land’s restau­rant scene.


Chicken cooked with ba­nana and served with Ma­teus rosé was once the height of cool — now it’s plant-based pro­tein and sparkling water. Five hospo stal­warts re­flect on the evo­lu­tion of Auck­land’s restau­rant scene.

Tony Ad­cock

When we started Le Brie in 1975, there were only a few old dine­and-dance-type res­tau­rants and we were at the start of the change. I was 26. I’d been to ho­tel man­age­ment school at East Sydney Tech and I got in­ter­ested in food on my OE. I hitch­hiked through Europe and found food I’d never had be­fore — sar­dines, squid, oc­to­pus.

When we tried to put on cala­mari at Le Brie in 1979, we couldn’t find it any­where. The sup­plier had some frozen stuff they called bait, so we bought that. The first time we put it on the menu, we sold about six por­tions a day. The sec­ond time, a year later, it was the top seller. Peo­ple’s taste­buds change.

Back then, we were hav­ing to lead the customer, coax them into changes. The menu was all French, so we’d go through and trans­late it all. Now the customer’s telling you what they want, be­cause we’ve got the in­ter­net and TV cook­ing pro­grammes.

At Le Brie we had a lot of lawyers dur­ing the day be­cause we were down by the courts. At night, it was mainly peo­ple who had ex­pe­ri­enced things over­seas. The day we opened — luck­ily, as it hap­pened, be­cause we didn’t have any money — we had 30 for lunch and I think we did 60 for din­ner, and it just kept go­ing, for 19 years in three dif­fer­ent places.

Even in 75, es­pe­cially on Fri­days, once those guys were there at lunchtime they didn’t go back. There was far more drink­ing at lunchtime back then. About 1980, we opened Carthew’s on Pon­sonby Rd. We were the first ones to get a li­cence for Sunday brunch. We had jazz mu­sic — Beaver would sing there — and we’d start with black vel­vet Cham­pagne, which was Cham­pagne with a lit­tle Guin­ness and an oys­ter in it. Peo­ple would be there all day. It was huge.

We all used to party a lot. I don’t think many peo­ple in res­tau­rants thought of it as a busi­ness. We all knew each other and we’d go out and have a laugh, drink­ing and smok­ing pot.

In the 80s, Club Mi­rage was the place — that was Emer­ald Gil­mour’s. It was very ex­ces­sive — the Gloss look was big. One night, af­ter fin­ish­ing ser­vice at Carthew’s, we went to Club Mi­rage, then went straight to work from the club the next morn­ing.

We opened Har­bour­side in 1988, and were re­ally busy from the start. Af­ter one long lunch [Auck­land car-in­dus­try big wig] Jerry Clay­ton jumped off the balco- ny into the drink for a dare.

Even though the crash hap­pened in 87, the re­ces­sion didn’t re­ally start un­til 1991, when the banks called in their money. In one year, turnover at Har­bour­side dropped by a mil­lion dol­lars. Luck­ily, at the same time the Em­ploy­ment Con­tracts Act came in. We no longer had to pay dou­ble time on Sunday.

Res­tau­rants are ba­si­cally in the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try these days — it’s about the whole ex­pe­ri­ence. It used to be that peo­ple would travel a long way just for the food.

Af­ter run­ning res­tau­rants for more than 40 years, Tony Ad­cock is now a pri­vate restau­rant con­sul­tant and in-house busi­ness men­tor at the Restau­rant As­so­ci­a­tion of New Zealand.

Ju­dith Tabron

We’re def­i­nitely see­ing the trend of healthy eat­ing at the mo­ment. No one says they’re on a diet any more, they just say they’re eat­ing healthy.

And the shar­ing trend is fun, but it suits ca­sual din­ing more than busi­ness peo­ple. It dumbs down any serv­ing skills, too — you won’t get the food in the right spot any more, it’s just go­ing to get dropped in the mid­dle. We still have a drink­ing cul­ture, but lots of peo­ple have only one glass or a cou­ple — it’s not al­ways a straight-into-a-bot­tle sit­u­a­tion. Port’s no longer the drink but espresso mar­ti­nis — man!

By the time I was 20, I was head chef at Ben­jamin’s Bistro at the top of Par­nell Rd, then I got the head-chef role at DeBrett’s. I was very un­der-skilled and the stress caused me to be a bit of a bitch, prob­a­bly. There was prob­a­bly a bit much scream­ing.

When I was 23, I packed my bags and went to Lon­don to gain more knowl­edge, and to be hon­est, I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t done that. By the time I went to Lon­don, I’d al­ready got to the top and then I had to go back to the bot­tom and learn what I didn’t know. I worked at L’Es­car­got and did a lot of work in spe­cial­ist ar­eas where I knew I had gaps.

I came back to Auck­land and pretty much took over as head chef at Sails. That was in 87, just be­fore the crash. Auck­land was to­tally go­ing off and then I watched the rev­enue at Sails drop by $20,000 a week overnight. It was all huge rents, ya­hoo… then boom.

But not long af­ter that, in 89, I opened my own restau­rant, Ram­ses, in New­mar­ket, which I had for nine years. I was 26. It prob­a­bly seemed like it was a big suc­cess — I learnt a lot there, but I didn’t make a lot of money. My fa­ther had to step in as ac­coun­tant and slap me around.

My sis­ter worked at TV3, so we be­came like a TV3 com­pany caff, and lots of [ad­ver­tis­ing] agen­cies were pre­dom­i­nant over those years. That’s when bot­tles of port were con­sumed and lunch never stopped, it just rolled into din­ner. We used to hand out du­bi­ous achieve­ment awards to our cus­tomers for their be­hav­iour — long­est lunch, things like that.

When the night fin­ished, I used to put on my top 10 for the staff and we’d dance. We shouldn’t even have been there at 3 or 4 in the morn­ing — we were only li­censed till 1 o’clock — and you could see right into it. We’d be full-on danc­ing and cars would be go­ing up and down Khy­ber Pass, but no­body seemed to care.

Although my fa­ther was keep­ing his eye on me, he wouldn’t care that we sat at the bar drink­ing, as long as every­thing we drank got rung up on the till. He did watch how much XO Cognac one of the wait­ers was drink­ing — he used to mark the bot­tle. Get­ting home at 4 or 5am was nor­mal. It’s prob­a­bly why my first mar­riage didn’t work.

Dif­fer­ent sec­tors of the busi­ness mar­ket seem to have more money at dif­fer­ent times. Over the years, we saw the prop­erty guys have all the money, then it was very much agen­cies and tele­vi­sion and news­pa­pers who were big spenders, and then the in­sur­ance guys. Banking’s do­ing well at the mo­ment.

When I opened Soul in 2001, there had been one Amer­ica’s Cup but af­ter­wards the Viaduct had faded — Auck­land hadn’t yet started its love af­fair with the wa­ter­front. Then the Amer­ica’s Cup in 2003 was crazy and it al­lowed me to pretty much pay off Soul. It’s prob­a­bly just as busy now, if not busier.

I still meet men who, on learn­ing I own a restau­rant, say, “And what does your hus­band do there?” They as­sume you say you’re the owner but it’s re­ally your hus­band. They never con­sider

that it was your in­vest­ment, not your hus­band’s in­vest­ment and you were the lit­tle wife do­ing the flow­ers. That still hap­pens. I find it of­fen­sive. Some­times I bite back; in later years I’ve said, “Wow, that’s pretty sex­ist.”

Ju­dith Tabron sold Soul Bar & Bistro to Nour­ish Group last year and leaves the Viaduct land­mark in a cou­ple of months.

Geel­ing Ching

Back in the 80s, there was a lot of fruit with pro­teins. Ba­nana with chicken — oh my god, re­ally? Mango with fish. It’s changed rad­i­cally and I think one of the great things is the af­fir­ma­tion of sea­son­al­ity and think­ing about air miles. Crikey, din­ers are fussy now, though. Back then, there was no such thing as gluten in­tol­er­ance and we cer­tainly hadn’t heard of pa­leo.

In the 80s, I had been mod­el­ling and work­ing in hospo in Sydney, and I moved back to New Zealand for [TV se­ries] Gloss. Then they canned Gloss, so I started work­ing in res­tau­rants. The first was Cin Cin on Quay, with Tonci and Luis Farac, and that was ground­break­ing. It was a brasserie — they had wood-fired piz­zas!

One night at Cin Cin, a guy came rac­ing through the door scream­ing and cov­ered in blood, closely fol­lowed by an­other guy with a club in his hand.

The whole restau­rant scat­tered — it was like some­thing out of a movie. The guy ended up be­ing locked in the men’s toi­let, and I was locked in the women’s toi­let with other peo­ple. You could hear the guy with the club bash­ing on the door and the other guy scream­ing. The po­lice took them both away and we closed the restau­rant. Then one of the own­ers came down and told us off for clos­ing and for let­ting the trau­ma­tised cus­tomers leave with­out pay­ing!

Af­ter a cou­ple of years, I be­came friends with the own­ers of The Ex­change in Par­nell and started work­ing there. Par­nell was the place to go — there was The Ex­change, there was Metropole, there was the VBG [Veran­dah Bar & Grill].

Then I worked at Tatler & Spec­ta­tor in Gal­way St. More he­do­nis­tic Cham­pagne drink­ing. We weren’t open on Sunday, so on Saturday night, you’d fin­ish work and go up­stairs and fin­ish all the Cham­pagne, oth­er­wise it would go flat.

When the New Zealand wine in­dus­try was in its rel­a­tive in­fancy, we were drink­ing Black Tower and Blue Nun, and var­i­ous Ger­man wines that came in strange-shaped bot­tles. Ma­teus rosé was huge. We went through a big pe­riod of drink­ing Yalumba sparkling wine.

Meet­ing Ju­dith [Tabron] and go­ing to Ram­ses was the be­gin­ning of a 25-year friend­ship. Jude was in the kitchen ev­ery night and I was restau­rant man­ager.

Bill Ral­ston’s pro­gramme [ The Ral­ston Group] was on TV3 and af­ter the show, they’d come down to Ram­ses. A guy called Wayne Scur­rah, who was re­cently chief ex­ec­u­tive of the War­riors, had this trick of whip­ping off the white paper table­cloths while the ta­ble was fully set with­out break­ing any­thing.

Af­ter Ram­ses, I went into part­ner­ship with Con­nie Clark­son at The French Café, and then in the late 90s I moved away from hos­pi­tal­ity al­to­gether and be­came a stu­dio man­ager at South Pa­cific Pic­tures.

I was away two years and loved not be­ing in res­tau­rants — I had a so­cial life again and week­ends off. Then Ju­dith opened Soul and said come and work with me, and I said no, I’m never, ever go­ing back to hos­pi­tal­ity. Then she in­vited me to Soul for lunch and by the end of lunch I’d signed the con­tract. I was there for 12 years.

I’ve seen my share of bad be­hav­iour, in­clud­ing a lot of ac­tions that would be cer­tainly in the realm of Har­vey We­in­stein’s ne­far­i­ous acts. Al­co­hol does not gen­er­ally en­cour­age pro­pri­ety.

I ad­vise my staff to be care­ful when wel­com­ing guests, when they have at­tended ear­lier in the week with an­other woman, par­tic­u­larly if they are not sure which of the ladies the gen­tle­man is es­cort­ing is his wife. I’ve also been caught out when the wife has turned to the hus­band and said ac­cus­ingly, “But I thought you were in Welling­ton last week?” Ouch.

Geel­ing Ching is ser­vice am­bas­sador at SkyCity’s Huami.

Chris Rupe

Times have changed. Baby boomers came through, Gen­er­a­tion X came through — they were all drinkers. Now, the mil­len­ni­als are com­ing through, and they’ve left us flat on our stom­ach be­cause they don’t drink. They drink water!

To­day it’s evolv­ing rapidly with the in­tro­duc­tion of the TV cook­ing shows. And it’s all about what you eat, how much you eat, and it’s price-point driven. Health, plant-based pro­tein, or­gan­ics, less sugar, less carbs were words that never came up, but they’re fac­tors that we all take into ac­count these days. Value for money, price point, nu­tri­tion and por­tion size all come into play.

My big­gest is­sue has al­ways been por­tion size — try­ing to re­duce por­tion sizes with­out of­fend­ing peo­ple. When my wife and I go out, we share an en­trée and a main — we just can’t eat those big por­tions. That’s what mil­len­ni­als do as well. Bloody mil­len­ni­als!

Along came My Food Bag and a lot of res­tau­rants took a hit from that, then came Uber Eats, and amongst all that came the lower al­co­hol lim­its for driv­ing, so the odds have been stacked against us a lit­tle bit. Then again, you can only look each other in the eyes ev­ery night for so long be­fore you have to go out for din­ner, so they all come back.

I was al­ways in­trigued by ho­tels, res­tau­rants — that type of life­style. It was some­thing I re­ally en­joyed from an early age. In 1978, when I was 18, I started a five-year ho­tel man­age­ment di­ploma at the Rose Park Ho­tel in Par­nell, and then I trav­elled over­seas and worked as a waiter, a maître d’, a man­ager. Res­tau­rants seemed to have a bit more flair and per­son­al­ity and they had the abil­ity to change, whereas the ho­tel was staid and cor­po­rate. You’re able to ex­press your­self a lot more in res­tau­rants, I felt, and you had more free­dom.

At 33, I came back to New Zealand and worked at Prego. I be­came in­volved in SPQR in 1995 with one part­ner­ship and then an­other three years later, and it’s been as is since then.

I’m truly grate­ful for all the lo­cals, the cus­tomers over the years, be­cause they’ve been very loyal and they’re re­spect­ful of the place, too, prob­a­bly be­cause they want to come back. Any­thing can hap­pen at SPQR, and I’m sure it does.

It has changed a lot over the years.

Back then it was fun, there were fewer res­tau­rants around and they were more prof­itable. To a cer­tain ex­tent there was more pas­sion, re­ally. Now it has be­come more com­mer­cial.

I’m still there be­cause I en­joy it. Valentino re­tired at 76… he had it pretty cruisy, though; prob­a­bly did a cou­ple of sketches and that was it!

Chris Rupe opened Au­gus­tus Bistro in 2016.

Kr­ishna Bot­ica

Is­tarted work­ing in the cafe at Auck­land Art Gallery when I was 13, more than 30 years ago. My mum worked there — she was an amaz­ing baker and made the scones ev­ery day. I did every­thing from food prep to till ser­vice to clear­ing, and shoo­ing away pi­geons and spar­rows and wip­ing up bird poo. I loved it — it was so­cial, it was ac­tive, it was peo­ple-ori­ented. We did things like straw­ber­ries and brie in a crois­sant — that was flash Harry food.

When I was 17, I went over­seas, and ended up work­ing in a pub in Lon­don. I lied to get my first job — I said I could carry three plates when I had no idea what I was do­ing. They said to me af­ter the first week, “We knew you lied, but you’ve got a good work ethic and that’s why we gave you a chance.”

I came back in the early 90s and started my de­gree in English and Ital­ian. I worked at Cafe Iguana, then Guadalupe on K’ Rd, then Prego. Guadalupe had the younger set, when for a long time the mar­ket had been dic­tated by white cor­po­rate men. Guadalupe broke the norm. Now it’s 20-some­thing Asian fe­males who dic­tate the mar­ket, so it has changed re­mark­ably since then. We’ve got more peo­ple from over­seas, and the Asian com­mu­nity has brought an amaz­ing level of so­phis­ti­ca­tion, and many of us have de­vel­oped a deep re­gard for the cul­tures that pro­vide the cui­sine.

I say I was at Prego for 24 years, though two and a half years of that was at SPQR as they were owned by the same peo­ple. Those were heady days — it mor­phed from Ital­ian eatery to bar seam­lessly over the course of the 16 hours that it was open.

In my early years at Prego or Guadalupe, we didn’t have to know about the prove­nance of the prod­uct, re­gional au­then­tic­ity, the cul­ture and the cul­tural norms of the way Euro­pean food was served.

In the finer-din­ing es­tab­lish­ments, that was pro­vided by the host, who was of­ten the cen­tre of at­ten­tion, and the kitchen was hid­den away.

The peo­ple side of it was ex­hil­a­rat­ing enough for me. I re­ally had no idea what they did in their own time, or what made them all crazy and happy… I was very naive. I had no idea staff were drink­ing be­hind the bar — I would wait till 11 o’clock when we were al­lowed to have our shot.

There’s al­ways been plenty of shenani­gans. I re­mem­ber two guests at SPQR broke the sink in the toi­lets be­cause they were hav­ing sex in there. Back then, there were quite a few half­way houses around so we’d put the staff on high alert when there was a full moon, be­cause re­ally weird stuff would hap­pen.

Mar­garet [well-known fre­quenter of Pon­sonby and Karanga­hape Rds at the time] punched me in the ribs once. She’d started to dis­turb some other patrons, so I was like, “Come on, Mar­garet, we need to go out the side door, we need to have a chat.” She turned and went, “Oh, give me a hug,” and I was like, “Oh god, here we go,” so I went to give her a hug and she pulled my hair and gave me an up­per­cut in the ribs.

I used to use red and yel­low cards to con­trol our reg­u­lar cus­tomers at Prego, my way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with them to keep it cool. I’d keep the cards un­der my bra strap and poke them out from un­der­neath my top and make sure I grabbed their eye, and just go, “You’re in the yel­low-card zone, you don’t want to go there.”

Now the mil­len­ni­als are com­ing through and they’ve left us flat on our stom­ach be­cause they don’t drink. They drink water! Bloody mil­len­ni­als!

ABOVE— Ju­dith Tabron pho­tographed in the Ram­ses Bar and Grill kitchen in the mid-90s.

RIGHT— Tony Ad­cock (cen­tre) with Le Brie part­ners Jimmy Ger­ard (left) and Larry Quick­enden out­side the restau­rant in the early 1980s.

ABOVE— Restau­rant veter­ans (from left) Chris Rupe, Kr­ishna Bot­ica, Tony Ad­cock, Geel­ing Ching and Ju­dith Tabron, pho­tographed at SPQR on Pon­sonby Rd.

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