It has been a tough few years for restaurateur Chris Gibb, but the future is looking bright. He talks to Ian Allen as he prepares to open his new restaurant, Gibbs on Godfrey.
Just inside the bright red door at Marlborough's newest restaurant, a massive pepper grinder takes pride of place on the bar.
Two Swiss dolls sit on the fridge and an old leather chair shepherds guests into the main seated area.
Casting its watchful eye over the dining room is a striking image of Mt Cook.
These features might seem like contemporary, swanky decor, but to owner Chris Gibb they are a constant reminder that his late wife Heidi is still very much part of the new restaurant.
Her favourite colour was red, the pepper grinder a wedding present, the dolls are from Heidi's home region in Switzerland, she loved that green leather chair and the couple met at Mt Cook working in a hotel kitchen.
"That's where it all started," Mr Gibb says, staring at the moody picture hanging on the blue feature wall.
Heidi died in August this year after a two-year battle with cancer and an eventual brain tumour. She had been a driving force behind the new restaurant, Gibbs on Godfrey, which opens tomorrow.
Opening night would be like closing one chapter but starting another, Mr Gibb said.
"Heidi is here . . . she is a part of here."
Gibbs on Godfrey, located at the old River Farm winery near Renwick, isn't the couple's first business venture together.
They opened a restaurant in Switzerland shortly after they got married in 1990.
It was a turbulent time for the newlyweds.
"There were lots of huge fights, lots of explosions and not being able to handle the moment," Mr Gibb said. "My mother thought it wouldn't last six months."
But they soon learned how to work together - Mr Gibb in the kitchen and his wife front of house.
"We learnt to look after our own patch," he said. "We learnt, as relationships evolve, to discuss and sometimes agree to disagree."
The restaurant was doing up to 90 covers a day between lunch and the a la carte menu.
However, after six years and a trip to his physiotherapist, Mr Gibb realised he was starting to burn out at a young age.
He was 39 and decided to move back to New Zealand with Heidi in 1997.
But after 10 years immersed in Swiss culture and speaking Swiss-German every day, he came back a different person.
"I was probably even dreaming in Swiss-German," he said. "It was actually a culture shock [to return]."
But it didn't take long for the couple to get back into the food industry.
And after two years of evening dining at Lawson Dry Hills, in Blenheim, they established their Gibbs at Cairnbrae restaurant on Jacksons Rd. It would later become Gibbs Vineyard Restaurant.
The first four years were tough going, Mr Gibb said.
"In 2004, it came to the point if the restaurant didn't improve dramatically we would have to let it go . . . but the bloody thing took off. I went from being a solo chef to a team leader and that was quite a transition. I had to learn to deal and delegate . . . let the baby go."
The restaurant started to build a reputation as one of Marlborough's top fine dining establishments.
"The food I have always been proud of, but that was only part of the story. Heidi had an amazing rapport with people. Someone could arrive two years [after first visiting] and she would pull their name out of the hat. She would almost be able to remember what they had to drink. She was Miss Hospo [hospitality], it was in her blood."
Then in late January 2011, just as business was booming, the restaurant was gutted by a fire.
Mr Gibb remembers driving to the scene that morning.
"I looked at Heidi and said, ‘There's no smoke, it must be a false alarm'. It wasn't like that at all . . . it was gone. It was pretty horrific."
Less than two months after the blaze Heidi was diagnosed with bowel cancer. In April of that year, she had her first operation.
The following months and years were like a rollercoaster, Mr Gibb said.
They returned to Switzerland in 2012 so Heidi could be with family and friends and she celebrated her 50th birthday there. They came back to New Zealand in March and six weeks later doctors found a brain tumour.
With Heidi sick, the couple felt they needed help to turn their new dream into a reality.
Mr Gibb turned to Dutch chef Sander de Wildt, who had been building his own reputation in Marlborough as head chef at the Brancott Estate Heritage Centre.
Mr de Wildt trained in Amsterdam before honing his skills across Europe, including a stint at the Oxo Tower Restaurant in London.
It was in Barcelona, though, that he met and fell for a Blenheim girl, who convinced him to move to New Zealand.
Mr de Wildt worked at central Otago's most talked about winery restaurant, Amisfield, near Arrowtown, before the couple moved to Blenheim after the birth of their first son in 2009. They wanted to be closer to family.
It wasn't until Mr de Wildt started setting up the kitchen at the new Brancott restaurant in 2011 that he met Mr Gibb.
They struck up an instant friendship, as did their partners, and they kept in touch over the next two years.
Mr Gibb said there was great chemistry between the two chefs from the start but Heidi played a huge part in convincing Mr de Wildt to join their new venture.
She also recruited countryman Stefan Wernli, who had worked at Gibbs Vineyard Restaurant for two summers, to look after front of house. He came back from Switzerland to take up the post and fulfil Heidi's wish.
Mr Gibb said they felt it was time, with him in his 50s and Heidi with her illness, to start involving the younger generation.
That was also the reason he decided to invest heavily in a new kitchen, he said.
"I wanted something that would hold for a long time. I realised that if I wanted the business to be effective it needed to be good quality. This place is designed to be here for a generation."
Mr de Wildt made the decision to come on board while Heidi was in Hospice Marlborough.
"I promised her I was going to help Chris out and she smiled . . . that was a few days before she died."
There were exciting times ahead for Gibbs on Godfrey, he said.
Not being aligned to a particular winery meant the restaurant could focus on food.
"A lot of cellar doors only provide their own wine. This is a great opportunity to showcase the whole region and become an independent hub for the wine industry in Marlborough. But it's food first with great wine on the side - it's the other way round with wineries."
The restaurant, which sits about 60 people, has already created a buzz in Marlborough as people eagerly await its opening tomorrow night.
And despite his vast experience of running successful restaurants, Mr Gibb still said he hoped people would not be disappointed.
The expectations were enormous, he said.
"One thing I can guarantee, we have put everything into it."
- The Marlborough Express
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