Tony Astle spills the beans

SARAH CATHERALL
Last updated 05:00 07/11/2012
Tony Astle
Phil Doyle

THE GODFATHER: Tony Astle has been in the restaurant industry for 50 years.

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The godfather of fine dining, Tony Astle, runs off the changes he has seen during his 50-year cooking career like a list of ingredients.

It may be fashionable and sexy to be a chef these days, but it wasn't when the successful owner-operator of Antoine's Restaurant in Parnell, Auckland, started out. In fact, the careers advisor at Shirley Boys' High School in Christchurch was horrified that a man would want to make a career out of cooking and Astle's father almost refused to talk to him.

Astle was one of only two men at Graham Kerr's cooking school in Wellington in the 1960s. These days, men make up most trainees on chef courses and in restaurant kitchens. Most of the big names in the kitchens of our award-winning eateries are now men, while cooking is no longer something that non-academic students are pushed into post school.

"We get 10 times as many men as women applying for jobs here," Astle says.

"Today, restaurant cooking is the hot, sexy thing to do.

"You can thank TV for that, and guys like Gordon Ramsay, who have beamed food programmes into the home."

Astle's Parnell restaurant celebrates its 40th year of operation this year and despite the many changes its owner and wife Beth have seen over that time, Antoine's is still nostalgically old-fashioned.

One of New Zealand's only silver-service restaurants, diners have to ring a doorbell to get in.

While male diners are no longer expected to wear a tie, Antoine's is still a semi-formal restaurant where you would look starkly out of place in jeans and jandals.

When Astle began as a waiter at Wellington's Normandy Restaurant in 1965, diners were typically served ham steak with pineapple, fried chicken in a basket and chicken maryland.

Astle cooked dinner for guests seated at the table. "Once I set a guest's hair on fire," he laughs.

Today, his restaurant embraces the trend for molecular cooking, and he serves modern, contemporary Kiwi cuisine, cooking at every shift.

"We are now very international, with a heavy leaning to Pacific basin and Asian flavours."

He also has a nostalgia menu and serves dishes he has been cooking at Antoine's since he opened the restaurant at the age of 23, such as seafood chowder and designer bread-and-butter pudding.

Other nostalgia dishes have been updated, such as offal, duck, oxtail and onion soup.

"Tripe is our biggest-selling entree and young people love it. My generation was forced to eat tripe because it was cheap and offal was poor man's food.

"Now, it's trendy. People are playing around with these foods."

Astle has witnessed many food trends, including during the early 80s when meat went out of fashion and "people started fiddling around with things and coming up with these bizarre combinations. That was when we decided to stick to our knitting, but modernise."

During his career, Astle has trained many chefs who have gone on to be big names. Among his proteges are Simon Gault, of Euro, and Michael Meredith, of Meredith's. Together, they will concoct the dishes at the VIP opening night of Auckland's Taste Festival on Thursday, November 15, where Astle will cook a dish that pays homage to Antoine's gastronomic history.

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"You see a lot of chefs who become famous, but a lot don't. Everyone thinks restaurants are glamorous, but it's hard work.

"We're lucky because we have our own established and loyal customer base," Astle says, "but the economy is a mess and it has been a tough year.

"I think we now have our own New Zealand cuisine here.

"Everyone has got into their own thing and they're quite comfortable in their own skin."

Taste of Auckland, November 15-18, Victoria Park. tasteofauckland.co.nz

- Wellington

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