Josh Emett, the brand

Josh Emett
Josh Emett

Josh Emett is a dichotomy.

No, that’s not some fancy cooking technique used to torture hapless MasterChef contestants. It describes the two opposing forces in his career: he’s a celebrity chef who nurtures the ‘‘Josh Emett’’ brand carefully, and yet he has no particular desire to be a celebrity chef.

You could be forgiven for thinking this is a bit rich coming from someone who is a reality television star, high profile restaurateur, cook book author, and food and wine business owner.

Emett’s demeanour is poised and self-possessed. ‘‘It can be a complex old world,” he reflects.

‘‘Chefs I think for the last long while have been thrust out in the spotlight. These days no-one’s happy to see them hidden away in their kitchens, it’s not where they belong, apparently.’’

He was shy growing up, and standing up in front of people is not a skill that comes naturally.

‘‘It’s always been something I’ve worked bloody hard at, there’s a bit of an art to it. And I’ve just gone out there and done it, and every time you do it, it feels better.’’

Emett knows his brand as a star chef is a key ingredient in the recipe for his business success. He takes it on in the same way he approaches his role as a judge on the wildly popular reality TV show, MasterChef.

‘‘Again, it teaches me a different side of things. The television world is a really interesting one.

‘‘It’s not really the money for me, you know, the exposure definitely helps the business... but it’s also just about trying to do something and be good at it as well.’’

MasterChef was a lot of fun, too. ‘‘You literally line up people, ingredients, and say ‘go’... and it just goes f***ing nuts, things go wrong straight away. There’s not too much need to create much drama,’’ he chuckles.

Emett certainly has it all going on at the moment. There are the three restaurants - Rata and Madam Woo in Queenstown, which he owns with business partner Fleur Caulton and a group of investors, and Ostro in Auckland, where he is food director. His first cook book, Cut, came out in November and a second is due out later this year.

Chef Series, his ready-to-cook meats business which he launched in partnership with the founders of butchery company Neat Meat, has been going two years. His latest business interest, the wine marketing venture, Master Match, is a joint effort with the founder of online wine retailer, Richard Knight. Then there are the endorsements, such as BMW for whom he is a brand ambassador.

He may not be a celebrity chef by design, but that doesn’t mean his business isn’t carefully planned.

‘‘Probably every three months I sort of map things out,’’ he says. ‘‘Normally it’s sort of pencil and paper stuff, where I’ll start with my name in the centre and then I’ll branch out to where things are and to try and get my head clear about what’s happening, and why it’s happening.

‘‘It’s not that there’s a master plan in the end, but there is a mapping out of things that logically fit into the puzzle for me, that make sense from a business point of view.’’

Does he consider himself to be an entrepreneur? Being a restaurateur is by its very nature entrepreneurial because of the risks involved, and he’s only too well aware of them, he says.

He spent 11 years working for the famously foul-mouthed British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, opening numerous restaurants for him, and says he does not find anything sexy in spending $1 million to $2 million on a restaurant fitout, ‘‘let alone spending it myself’’’.

‘‘With something like Rata we set ourselves an unrealistically low budget.

‘‘We went out and got extremely creative with how we did things and put a massive amount of effort and work [in] to pull it off.’’

He’s learned lessons over the years - such as taking restaurant sites with rents that were too high, and designing kitchen layouts that were too labour-intensive: ‘‘It’s a massive difference between make or break in a month’’.

However the financials are not his strength. He strives to understand it but doesn’t want it to rain on the creative side, so he makes sure he’s got good people to explain things in simple terms. And then he puts his neck on the block.

He developed the ideas for Chef Series - a range of pre-prepared meat dishes sold in supermarkets - over a number of years. ‘‘Sooner or later someone was going to approach me to put my name on something. That would have been the easy option.

‘‘The hard option was to go out and do what we’re doing, which was to start something from scratch and try and build that brand ourselves.’’

Lucien Law, co-owner of the Seafarers restaurant development on Auckland’s waterfront where Ostro takes pride of place, says he gelled with Emett because of his ‘‘worldliness, if that doesn’t sound too weird’’. 

He describes Seafarers as an ambitious project, and the Ostro concept as an American-style brasserie serving simple food done well.

‘‘It’s certainly not as easy as rolling into the casino and getting given a restaurant.

‘‘What we’re doing down here, and what he was attracted to I think, is entrepreneurial, because there’s not a template for doing what we’ve done at Ostro.’’

Emett has a tolerance for calculated risk, says Richard Knight, his partner in Master Match.

The two met through ‘‘NBIG’’ - Not Bad is Good, a group of ambitious business people whose tongue-in-cheek name takes a poke at the Kiwi tendency towards understatement.

They tossed around ideas and numbers for some time before creating the wine and food pairing service, Knight says.

Wineries pay to be part of Master Match, and get a QR code on their bottles which takes customers directly to a recipe created by Emett to go with the wine.

The chef is goal-oriented, focused and practical, Knight says. ‘‘It’s always good to have a person who brings you back into line.’’

Everyone Unlimited spoke to for this story cited Emett’s tremendous capacity for work as one of his key qualities in business. He himself puts it thus:

‘‘I worked in very hard kitchens in England, where you came in and you just went at it all day, and if you wanted to be better or faster or quicker or cleverer than the person beside you, you simply came in and worked longer hours.’’

It’s a chef thing, he remarks, and it’s an attribute which translates well into the business arena. ‘‘I’ll do pretty much anything anytime, anywhere, if it needs to be done.’’

Lucien Law says it’s one of the reasons he likes working with chefs in general and Emett in particular. ‘‘There’s no mucking around. The plate’s either up or it’s not up... It’s either right or it’s not right.’’

Eion Edgar, a professional director and investor and a backer of the Queenstown restaurants, also notes Emett’s work ethic.

Edgar got involved in Rata because he knew Fleur Caulton from her time running the nearby Amisfield winery and restaurant, and had promised to back her if she ever went out on her own. ‘‘I didn’t know that (The Warehouse founder) Stephen Tindall had said the same to Josh. That’s how it all started.’’

Rata and Madam Woo’s top flight group of shareholders also includes Michael Hill International deputy chairman Emma Hill, and MasterChef producers Bettina Hollings and Darryl McEwen.

Emett and Caulton are ‘‘world class’’, and the group has big plans for their fledgling restaurant venture, Edgar says.

‘‘There’s only so much you can do physically with your hands or overseeing, so if you’re going to earn reasonable money, which they deserve to because they’re both very talented, then you have to look at ways to expand the empire that doesn’t require them to be hands-on.’’

His only concern for Emett is that he doesn’t spread himself too thin. But he has also advised the younger man that he needs to grab the opportunities while he can, and he believes Emett has been clever in what he’s chosen.

Caulton says they definitely have a five-year plan, and the two restaurateurs sought the backing of experienced investors as much for their governance skills and connections as their deep pockets.

The next 12 to 18 months will be crucial in terms of planning and building the foundations for expansion. While they will look to do more in New Zealand their gaze is resting offshore, and it won’t be a franchise, she says.

‘‘It’s more about concept businesses for us. Can we deliver the concepts overseas, and not necessarily for us to be the owner operators?’’

The partners describe their working relationship as solid and complementary. ‘‘We can shoot the shit about anything,’’ Caulton says. ‘‘(Josh) has great ideas... and is obviously an amazing chef. He’s a great follow-through person. I’m definitely the business end of our businesses.’’

He is professional about his celebrity status and takes it in his stride, she says.

‘‘Josh is a very down-to-earth, very low key person. When I first met him there was no celebrity anything.

‘‘I’ve never seen him be rude to anybody or say no to a photograph. I mean, he gets hounded.’’

For his part, the serene Emett smiles wryly when asked if he wants to be New Zealand’s answer to Jamie Oliver. 

‘‘Do I want to have as many restaurants as Jamie? C***st, I don’t know.

‘‘It would be the end result of going out and doing something because it felt natural, not because you set out to do it.’’