Food & Wine
One street, seven kitchens and four world-class cooks. Kim Knight grills the celebrity chefs of Auckland's recently refurbished Federal Street.
ANIMAL, VEGETABLE OR MINERAL?
Peter Gordon: Animal. They decide their own fate, mostly, unlike a vegetable waiting to be plucked from the ground, or a mineral that hangs about for millions of years until an animal decides it's needed for a new technology.
Sean Connolly: Jersey cow. Milk, cream and butter make people happy and put smiles on faces.
Nic Watt: It would have to be vegetable, I'm looking at my garden and some beautiful seasonal tamarillos that are begging to be picked and poached.
Al Brown: Animal. I just love protein. Any protein, cooked any way and I'm not afraid to eat anything if it's protein and I love it all from primary cuts to secondary cuts to every part of the fish, every part of the rabbit. I grew up on a sheep and cattle farm so meat's been a big part of my life. I grew up eating, at times, lamb or mutton or hogget three times a day.
HAVE YOU EVER THROWN A KNIFE? OR ANY OTHER KITCHEN UTENSIL?
Peter Gordon: No, if you mean at anyone else. Yes, if you mean when as a child I thought I might be a circus performer.
Sean Connolly: I threw a bowl of mashed potato at my vege chef - it came straight back and hit me on the head.
Nic Watt: I have been guilty of throwing an egg, but that would be another story about London parking wardens.
Al Brown: Never thrown a pan in my life. But I've had fun with them. You put a skillet in the freezer until it's really cold, and you walk past someone going "hot pan, hot pan" and then you fall into them and it's so cold that when it hits their skin it feels like a burn.
But no pan throwing. I think that old school yelling and screaming that Ramsay-ish mentality is more based around European and English kitchens.
I hate feeling intimidated and I can't work under those conditions. But kitchens are high octane places. Anyone who has worked for me will know that when I'm angry, it's dead silence. You'll know when I'm pissed off. It will have gone very, very quiet.
THE BEST THING YOU CAN DO WITH A POTATO IS:
Peter Gordon: Smoked mashed potato.
Sean Connolly: Duck fat chips.
Nic Watt: With any that have gone soft and turned the starch into sugars - plant them for new season's spuds.
Al Brown: Turn it into gnocchi. I was going to say mash it, but . . . gnocchi, a beautiful meat sauce, veal and pork and a bit of liver through it. I remember having gnocchi for the first time in New York and that was the way it was served on a Sunday lunchtime.
HOW MANY HOURS DO YOU WORK NOW, COMPARED TO YOUR APPRENTICE DAYS?
Peter Gordon: More than double. As an apprentice it was all about standing on the line prepping and cooking. Now it's some of that and lots of emails, meetings, strategy, planning, media, writing . . .
Sean Connolly: I still work as hard, but I use brain power rather than brawn.
Nic Watt: It's gone from doing huge hours physically, to being 24/7 thinking about the business, living and breathing the restaurant. I prefer the latter.
Al Brown: It's completely different. The longer you cook, the less you cook, which is pretty much the same with any business. There's hardly a week that's the same and I crave routine.
THE LAST THING YOU COOKED WAS:
Peter Gordon: Chicken with chipotle, cacao nib and pumpkin seed mole sauce.
Sean Connolly: Kangaroo Island marrons and yabbies straight out of the pond and onto a barbecue with lemon, salt, olive oil - simple and sublime.
Nic Watt: Poached eggs from Ninja, she's one of the chickens we have in our back yard. She's a plymouth barred hen and she has beautiful big yolks.
Al Brown: We have management meeting every Tuesday at 10.30 and one of us is on home baking and it was my turn and I did lemon slice and jalapeno and tomato mousetraps.
IF YOU WEREN'T A CHEF, WHAT WOULD YOU BE?
Peter Gordon: A gardener.
Sean Connolly: An artist. I'm a frustrated painter. If that turned to custard, maybe a bricklayer. I love to lay bricks; it's a very satisfying pastime.
Nic Watt: A food photographer. I love bringing food to life through a lens.
Al Brown: A butcher. I love meat fabrication; cutting fish, cutting animals. We still buy whole fish, whole lambs. My style of cooking, and Kyle Street who runs the kitchen's style of cooking is all about a knife and a pan and heat. We don't have Vitamixs, we don't cook in plastic bags. We don't do dots on plates or foams or schmears.
WHAT DO YOU DO ON YOUR DAYS OFF?
Peter Gordon: I garden and try to find time to swim.
Sean Connolly: Hang out with family and friends. I love to cook for them. They are the most important thing to me.
Nic Watt: I play host to the endless activities of my two kids and then eat and plan the next meal.
Al Brown: Days off?
IS THERE A FOOD YOU LOATHED AS A KID AND LOVE AS AN ADULT?
Peter Gordon: Fresh fruit.
Sean Connolly: I hated beetroot and now love it. Don't ask me why, but I love the flavour, the colour, everything about it. I feel like I've missed out for so many years.
Nic Watt: As a kid I ate most things and as an adult I eat everything - including roast pigeon head in Macau.
Al Brown: We didn't really have coriander as a kid, but that's one herb when I first tasted I didn't get it at all, but then when I travelled and it was in Mexican food or Spanish food I suddenly fell in love with it.
DO YOU KEEP A FAITH? OR HAVE A MANTRA?
Peter Gordon: No. "Work hard and live like there's no tomorrow."
Sean Connolly: "Never, never give up." Always look for a reason why and how we can do stuff. I hate negativity.
Nic Watt: "A dedication to detail and a passion for flavour."
Al Brown: I'm reading a book called The Happiness Project at the moment . . . I'm only halfway through it. I'm always trying to be a better person.
THE MOST NERVOUS YOU'VE BEEN IN A KITCHEN WAS WHEN . . .
Peter Gordon: I cooked lunch for the Queen, Duke and two friends in London. The head of security was in the kitchen with me.
Sean Connolly: I was being judged for my first chef's hat. The food writer came in and I just froze - my team had all worked so hard.
Nic Watt: Still, to this day, it would be cooking for mum. She always says it's delicious (as mums do) but she would be my highest critic.
Al Brown: Not in a kitchen, but last year I was at the Margaret River Gourmet Escape with all the big stars - Heston [Blumenthal] was there, and Rick [Stein], it was a who's who - I didn't actually cook with them, I was on the card but pretty low down, but I get really intimidated around those people . . . it's kind of like if an All Black walks in the room, I get all fluttery and hot sweats.
THE SECRET OF YOUR SUCCESS IS . . .
Peter Gordon: Hard work and hopefully some degree of talent.
Sean Connolly: Hard work, never say never, always push the boundaries and always work with the best professionals in your particular field.
Nic Watt: Focus, push hard, never give up, taste, taste, learn, continue learning and believe in your dreams.
Al Brown: Surrounding myself with talented people. I love being around people who can do things I can't do, and yet we've all got a common goal and mutual respect and that's how we've built all our businesses. The more we seem to do, the more you realise you can do, when you bring other great people around you.
DESCRIBE YOURSELF IN FIVE WORDS
Peter Gordon: Hmmm.
Sean Connolly: Passionate, creative, driven, mentor, not sure about a fifth.
Nic Watt: Detailed. Passionate. Energiser. Experimental. Expressive. Sounds like a dating app!
Al Brown: Extraordinarily competitive. Fun. Fair. Generous. Stubborn.
WHAT'S THE KITCHEN IMPLEMENT YOU CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT?
Peter Gordon: Ignoring my knives, a food processor.
Sean Connolly: A tasting spoon. You have to taste everything, absolutely everything.
Nic Watt: It would have to be the microplane. You can get the finest zest, make ginger juice - totally versatile.
Al Brown: A knife. I've tried just using a fork and a spoon but everything took a lot longer to get done.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD RESTAURANT CUSTOMER?
Peter Gordon: Genuine, honest feedback.
Sean Connolly: Someone who appreciates the art and theatre of what a restaurateur does and what we are trying to achieve.
Nic Watt: Someone who comes to any restaurant with an open mind to experience what the restaurateur has crafted the experience to be.
Al Brown: Someone who trusts the evening and doesn't have a time restraint. We're in the entertainment game, not just the hunger game. Ooh, that's a good line.
YOU CAN TAKE THREE INGREDIENTS TO A DESERT ISLAND. WHAT WOULD THEY BE, AND WHY?
Peter Gordon: Miso paste - salty, savoury and a little sweet; Olive oil - great with everything; Lemons - as before.
Sean Connolly: Miso paste because it tastes so damn good in everything, Indian dry chilli flakes because I love my spice and duck fat because it's versatile - you can even cook New Zealand salmon in it.
Nic Watt: Soy sauce, because I'll be hoping to catch some fish, and chilli, because what would a meal and life be without spice?
Al Brown: Lemons. Butter. Can I have salt and pepper?
AUCKLAND'S FEDERAL ST: 220 METRES, SEVEN KITCHENS - PROS AND CONS OF OPERATING IN A "CELEBRITY" DINING PRECINCT?
Peter Gordon: Expectations raised and that's always good for the team. So many options, we need to stand out - which is also good for the team.
Sean Connolly: No cons, it's all pro, bro!
Nic Watt: There are only pros. To be among these great guys and their teams is fantastic, we have great camaraderie.
Al Brown: Variety in a very small street. I don't like the word "celebrity" but they're all very competent, well known chefs so your chances of having a great occasion and an amazing meal are very high. I don't think there are any cons, are there?
HOW OFTEN DO YOU COOK AT HOME?
Peter Gordon: As often as I can, but realistically once a week for a proper meal. Lots of playing around though.
Sean Connolly: I try to cook once a week. I find it really relaxing, believe it or not.
Nic Watt: At least twice a week, usually a Sunday morning breakfast and something else along the way.
Al Brown: I cooked last night. We both cooked actually, I did steak and polenta chips and Lizzie did leeks and zucchini on the side.
WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU CRIED?
Peter Gordon: This morning.
Sean Connolly: When I opened Gusto at the Grand. I am so proud of that restaurant; I have been passionate about Italian food for close to a couple of decades, it was a lot of hard work, blood, sweat and tears.
Nic Watt: Yesterday! I was stuck in Bali airport after my bank froze my cards as they were trying to protect me from fraud. But instead I couldn't get any money out.
Al Brown: Watching that Sunday night show that's just been on - Broadchurch. But I cry at all the Telecom ads . . . I think chefs are all pretty emotional actually. It's a tough exterior but they're all pretty quick to melt.
- Sunday Star Times
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