The well-ordered world of Josh Emett

FAMILY MAN: Chef Josh Emett and wife Helen with their sons, Louis, 2 1/2 and Finn, 4.
Grahame Cox
FAMILY MAN: Chef Josh Emett and wife Helen with their sons, Louis, 2 1/2 and Finn, 4.

Looking out from his twinkly, hooded eyes, Josh Emett looks like a rather beautiful hawk; alert, focused, sharp. There's a lot going on behind those eyes. You can almost hear his brain ticking over. It's exhausting.

Here's what Emett's to-do list looks like right now:

■ Gear up for the launch of 'Cut' - his meat-focused recipe book inspired by life growing up on a Waikato farm.

■ Put the finishing touches to the menu of Ostro, the soon-to-open Auckland restaurant in the new Seafarers Building, Britomart.

■ Liaise with his partner on details for his second restaurant in Queenstown.

■ Film the fifth season of  'MasterChef New Zealand'.

■ Do a spot tasting of his new ready-to-eat Chef Series range.

You want to take a deep breath and have a tremendously long lie-down contemplating this sort of work agenda, but Emett is raring to go. Bright-eyed and frighteningly energetic, his mental battery is fully charged.

With this kind of schedule you just have to keep calm, the 40-year-old says. ''Don't stress it too much. If there's something that needs to be dealt with, get it done. Get it done, get it dusted, fix it and move on to the next thing.''

That's Emett to a T. Order and discipline are part of his DNA. When we meet at his Auckland home, he's neatly turned out, not a hair out of place. Even at the kitchen table during our interview he's straightening things. Pen here, book there. Order.

With so much going on in his life, he must have to delegate tasks, though one imagines that wouldn't be easy for a self-confessed control freak.

''I have to be very, very organised,'' Emett says in what is surely an enormous understatement.  ''It's easier to control things and keep them under your thumb, but you have to learn to delegate, otherwise it's not going to work. It's about trust, really, getting the right people around you who you can trust to do the job. It's about having the same drive and understanding and vision.''

The multiple Michelin star awarded chef - who's worked alongside infamously crabby celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay for 11 years - has always been very motivated. ''I'm driven, yes. Definitely. And stubborn, but not aggressive. I think I did really well with Gordon for a long, long time because I would just get the job done. No ifs, no buts. 'Tell me what you want and I'll take care of it.' That's what you want to hear. You don't want to hear lot of bullshit. You just want to know the job will get done. Discipline. It comes back to that one word.''

Emett says his wife Helen often says  ''work gets the best of Josh''. He can't argue with that.

''It doesn't matter what I am like at home, when I turn up at work I'm in work mode. I could be having the shittiest day in the world, but when I walk in those kitchen doors none of that matters anymore. It's positive, it's upbeat.  It's almost like you pour all your energy into that and you get home and you wonder why you're drained. I come home and I'm silent and quiet, pensive.''

Emett's self-imposed discipline is easy to maintain because, simply, he loves his job. ''It's a pretty easy job to love, you know.''

But with all his projects, you have to wonder, will he fall into that trap of ''celebrity chefs'' putting their names above the door but losing sight of what's going on inside?

Emett bristles.''My brand is me and I have to protect that and wrap it up in cotton wool. Your name is really the only thing you have.''

In fact, he says, despite all the other ventures he has going, taking his place in a working kitchen is still his raison d'etre.

''The cooking is why we all got into it in the first place. The purest part of the whole job is going into the kitchen and standing at a stove or a bench with your team and actually cooking.

''I'm going to have to fight to retain that because naturally you're going to get dragged here, there and everywhere doing other things, but it's really important that you push yourself  to stay attached to that simple pleasure. That's what put me here in the first place. That's my roots.

''It's easy to get pulled away to the glory of this, that or the other. But the real reason that people are interested in what you're doing is because of the food - good food and a good restaurant.''

Emett's ascent to culinary stardom began in 1999, when he got a job in the kitchen of the notorious and foul-mouthed Ramsay. He'd just finished a stint cooking on a super yacht in the South of France, which he took not for a slice of the good life but to fill his coffers to work in a serious kitchen in London.

Emett was ambitious and willing to do some serious hard graft to get to the top. 

''I rang the head chef at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea and he invited me to come in for a day. Gordon came and spoke to me and I told him what I wanted to do. The head chef asked me what position I wanted and I said: 'I'll take what you've got.' He asked how much I wanted to be paid and I told him: 'I'll take what you can can offer.' I got my head down and worked hard.''

Working for Ramsay was a pretty interesting ride, Emett says. Ramsay is ''very driven.''  Sounds familiar.

''If I learnt anything from him over the years it's that attention to detail and the massive amount of effort that goes into sweating the little things, getting them right, dealing with media. He's a very astute and switched-on guy.

''He's just full-on. He can walk into any situation and misbehave. He gets away with murder 'cos Gordon is Gordon. He's absolutely hilarious. I've worked with him for 11 years and gone out with him plenty. We had a lot of fun times. A lot of hard work as well.''

Ramsay's kitchen antics - that palpable rage - are the real deal. He really is naturally full-on, Emett says.

''There's not much middle ground. There's either laughter or tears.''

But kitchens in England and Europe are supposed to be hard, Emett says. It's a rite of passage for any chef worth his salt.  Emett, well, he was just a sucker for punishment.

''If it's not hard there's something not right about it. Maybe it's changed over the past few years, a bit more tame ... But [I felt] if it wasn't hard and people aren't being pushed I'd think: 'What the hell am I doing here?' I want to go somewhere where I'm pushed and motivated and driven. I sought out those places.''

Gordon was the worst of the bunch as far as anyone else was considered. He'd just been on the show 'Britain's Worst Bosses' but this didn't deter Emett. On the contrary, he went in full-throttle.

''I walked in there and LOVED it. There wasn't a lot of bullshit. It was just all about the cooking. Come in, keep your head down and work your nuts off - that suited me down to the ground.''

After helping Ramsay open Claridges, Emett was sent to run the Savoy Grill. At the helm was Marcus Wareing but Emett largely ran the restaurant, designing the menu, hiring and firing.

''Total control,'' he says almost rubbing his hands in glee. During his reign the Savoy  received a Michelin star in 2004 - the first in more than 100 years of the restaurant's history. Ramsay knew he was on to a good thing, so he sent Emett off to oversee Gordon Ramsay at The London  NYC in 2006. ''I went and took over New York,'' Emett says, and you can't help feeling he could actually run the city from the nerve centre of a bustling restaurant.

Within 10 months the restaurant was awarded two Michelin stars. But it wasn't easy. The unions were constantly threatening the operation. Kitchen porters were the trouble, he says. ''I did what I could to make it work; be nice to them, be nasty to them, play games with them, you name it. There were times I felt pretty threatened. The union rep would come in and bring 10 other people on a random night and antagonise us. They'd throw the first aid boxes in the rubbish, pour chemicals down the drain and stare us out.

''Maybe I'd given a staff member grief and they'd gone to the union and said they'd been cussed at or something and that's where it would eventuate. I'd tell them; 'What the f... are you guys doing here? Leave us alone. I'm trying to run a restaurant.'

''Sometimes I'd be looking over my shoulder as I left the restaurant but no one ever turned up with a baseball bat, even if they did threaten to.''

Emett spent more than four years in New York. During that time he opened Gordon Ramsay at The London West Hollywood, which also got a coveted Michelin star. Ramsay's restaurants attracted many a celeb and Emett has cooked for them all - the Spice Girls, Mick Jagger, Tony Blair, Prince Andrew, Kate Moss, David Beckham.

''Now he was a good guy,'' he says of the footballer. ''Really thoughtful and aware of everything around him. He was well spoken and just such a nice guy.

"Often  these people would come into the kitchen. If Gordon wasn't there I'd go over and say 'G'day, how was your meal?' and show them round. It was pretty interesting.''

During his US stint he was named New York Rising Star Chef (2008) and before long the world of television opened up and embraced him. He appeared in TV cooking show 'Chopped', where he competed and won a cook-off against other New York City chefs. He also appeared as a guest on Ramsay's 'Hell's Kitchen'.

''That was good fun, but it's pretty hammed up. It's gotta be pretty obvious for the Americans otherwise it might go over their heads.''

While in New York, Emett had another life-changing event occur. In 2007, he met his now-wife Helen at a party thrown by some Kiwi mates of Emett's from Hamilton. He was married at the time to a French woman. They'd been together for years, but married for just five months when they realised the relationship was pretty much done and dusted, Emett says.

''We'd decided to end things after Christmas because neither of us wanted to be alone on Christmas Day.''

It was pretty clean-cut, he says. Given Emett's penchant for order and neatness, you kind of believe him.

After that, he wooed British-born Helen and the couple now have two children, Finn, 4, and Louis, 2 1/2. Emett and his family moved to Melbourne in 2010 to open two more restaurants for the ubiquitous Ramsay. While there he appeared on 'MasterChef Australia' as a celebrity judge. He was a hit when he appeared as a guest judge on 'MasterChef New Zealand' and was brought in as a full-time judge for series two.

TV felt like a natural way to diversify, Emett says. He reckons the show's appeal is in the contestants themselves and their own stories. But for him it naturally comes down to the grub.

''Food is the highlight. I love eating and the food gets better because the contestants learn and develop so much during their time on the show. That's what impresses me the most.''

Now the Emetts are back in New Zealand juggling a multitude of projects. He opened Rata in Queenstown 18 months ago and another restaurant down there is in the planning. Ostro - part of a six-level hospitality precinct including eateries, bars, a screening room, an event space and private membership club - opens next month.

Josh has designed the kitchen and will oversee the food. ''It's an exciting and ambitions project, but I've done this sort of thing before. I know logistically what needs to happen to make it work. I like projects that have multiple levels to them, where lots of different things are going on. I like to make a puzzle fit.''

Since returning from New Jersey, where the family still keep a home, Josh and Helen have also launched their Chef Series - seven  braised meat products vacuum-packed with sauces.

''These are the same recipes that I've used in a Michelin starred restaurant, the same recipes I cook at home for my family. It's pretty pure.''

He's also filming the fifth series of 'MasterChef'

Emett grew up on a farm in Waikato, the middle child of three. His mother, Raewyn, now lives in Hamilton. His father, Roger, died two years ago of cancer. Hunting shooting and fishing were all part of his idyllic boyhood.

He learned to take apart an animal from an early age, a skill that has served him well in his career. Butchery kills are the foundation of cheffing, he says. ''The better you can butcher something the more options you have for cooking different dishes and the less you'll waste.''

His book 'Cut', so named because it focuses on different cuts of meat, is published next month. It was another labour of love for Emett and a subject close to his heart.

''I spent my whole childhood out on the farm shooting rabbits and ducks. The first Saturday in May was the one day of the year that meant the most to me growing up - the first day of the duck shooting season. Me and my mates used to build maimais [hunters' huts] and plan for weeks what we'd eat.''

Fishing was a favourite pastime for the young Emett and one he indulged in with his grandfather.

''I used to spent time with my poppa out at Papamoa or Aotea. We'd go out on the boat overnight, catch snapper and eat it between slices of bread. We'd catch stingrays in the middle of the night. I'd drink Coke and pour him a rum and Coke. Sometimes we'd just hang out at the boat ramp and he'd give me a running commentary of people backing their boats badly into the water. They were great times.''

He learned to cook from both his parents, his mother in particular. He recalls jar upon jar of her preserves lined up in the pantry - peaches, pears, apricots, quince. Emett was helping his mother in the kitchen from the time be could stand on a stool.

''The first thing I ever made would have been chocolate-chip cookies.  I used to make eggs on toast in the morning when I was seven years old.

''I used to make a lot of cakes. I baked because I liked eating and I have a sweet tooth. We never had [bought] cakes in the pantry. But we did have litres and litres of milk, eggs from the chooks and flour. Mum used to say, 'If you want to make a cake ... go for your life'.

Cooking was always a magnet for Emett. But it's something he's  had to work at.

''There are a few cooks out there who are naturals in the kitchen, but cooking is something you learn. It's a science, isn't it? Food is what got me into it. A love of eating and a love of food. And hard work. Horrible hard work. Give me something that's physically and mentally hard. I don't feel I've done a good day's work unless I'm ruined at the end of the day.

''I quite like heavy, labour-intensive stuff. Give me butchery any day of the week. The bigger the beast the better. The harder the work is, the more intricate, the more satisfaction I get.''

Well, hard work is what he's up against.  He and Helen are rarely in bed before midnight and they are up between six and seven most mornings. He sets aside family days where he can enjoy time with his boys. They bake and boil eggs. 

Life is all about balance, Emett says.

''It took me till I was 35 before I figured that one out - balance and a happy medium rather than going at 100 miles an hour at work. That's what's important.''

Balance. Discipline. Order.

- Ostro opens  early next month, 'Cut' (Random House $65)  comes out on November 15 and 'MasterChef' starts early next year.

Fairfax Media