Capitol life of food and travel

CAPITOL FARE: Tom Hutchison in the kitchen at Capitol. He also owns Victoria St's WBC.
CAPITOL FARE: Tom Hutchison in the kitchen at Capitol. He also owns Victoria St's WBC.

Amy Jackman talks to Capitol and WBC owner Tom Hutchinson about cleaning for Annabel Langbein, horrible British chefs and small town France.

What was one of your favourite things to do growing up?

We'd go fishing near Lyttelton, Christchurch. We would catch red cod and leather jackets! Fresh fish, filleted and cooked in a frying pan with a bit of butter is one of my strongest food memories. Another one was my mother putting pureed spinach on pasta. We had someone around for dinner that night and they said we were lucky to eat so well. I don't think I agreed.

Did you always want to cook?

Mum tells this story of how the first thing I cooked was a soft boiled egg and it was perfect. I apparently decided then and there, at about 3 years old, that I was going to be a chef.

How did you do it?

When I was in high school in Auckland I did a lot of work experience in cafes and in fourth form I did night school classes in patisserie. That was what I wanted to do until I got into an a la carte situation. In third form I also cleaned Annabel Langbein's kitchen. She used to do children's cooking classes. I've been hoping to see her at a function and go, "Hey do you remember me? I used to cut a whole lot of grapes in half and take out the seeds for you!"

You've also worked in Europe.

Yes at The Sugar Club in Soho and La Mimosa in the Languedoc region of the south of France. When we went over, my wife Kate and I had no interest in working in a Kiwi restaurant in London. It didn't make sense, but we went into The Sugar Club and one of the guys in there goes, "You're Tom, aren't you? I used to flat with your sister." I met Peter Gordon and organised a trial.

Did you trial anywhere else?

Yes. At Aubergine, just after Gordon Ramsey left, two of Terence Conran's restaurants and another small French place. But I accepted the job at The Sugar Club, because I found the attitudes of people in the British and French style restaurants to be very closed and competitive.

How so?

People were really protective of their information. Everything was a secret. Here I was, a wide-eyed boy from the antipodes, wanting to know where the salsify (a root vegetable) came from and how it was prepared. A lot of chefs looked at you and said, "I'm not going to tell you. That's my information." It was a competition to see who could stuff something up, rather than who could make it better.

What was France like?

La Mimosa was run by a first violinist from the London Symphony Orchestra and a prima ballerina. She was from Wellington and he was English. It was a special time. A forager would turn up and there would be a basket of goodies for you to get creative with. The butcher would kill two cows every month and you'd get the pieces you could.

Was that hard for a chef?

The food was designed to highlight the ingredients - zucchini with a little bit of lemon juice and honey. It didn't need foam or three kilos of butter, truffle or chilli. It's where my appreciation of base flavours came from. Even today I still use the phrase, "Less is more". People often look at a plate and think it needs something else. Most of the time the answer is to take something away, not add to it.

What was the town like?

It was tiny. No coffee shop, no cafe. All the oldies would sit in the square and say good morning and good night. You would go crazy there without a car. Kate and I were there when The Matrix was released. We went and watched it in French three weekends in a row just to get to town and see a bit of the outside world.

How are Capitol and WBC going?

There's always stuff to do in restaurants. You can never look at it and go, "Good. That's done. Job finished." Capitol has been going for almost 13 years. When I look back at how it was when we first opened, it's quite different now. We've modified aspects of the menu to include what people like to eat now and what we like to cook, but it has to be subtle. The customer has to come in and think it's the same place, but each time is a little bit different. WBC is a year old and a great space.

What's special about the space?

I love the windows. I've never worked in a restaurant with this much beautiful natural light.

You also have a catering company. Is it hard to keep track?

No. The three are separate, but we work together. We will often process products at the catering kitchen on Dixon St. Chickens are a good example - the breasts go to Capitol, wings to WBC, the legs between both and the tenderloins for catering. We turn the bones into stock, which we use wherever it's needed.

The Wellingtonian