Peter Gordon

26th April 2016

Interview: Molly Tait-Hyland
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

26th April 2016

Interview: Molly Tait-Hyland
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

It’s only 9am when we arrive at Peter Gordon’s home in east London but we’re already looking forward to lunch – for several reasons. To start, Peter is an incredible chef. Since his days at the Sugar Club in the late 90s, where he thoughtfully combined ingredients and techniques from Southeast Asia and Europe, the New Zealander has been known as the godfather of fusion. Furthermore, we’ve had a sneak preview of the menu – last night he emailed us with a list of dishes he was planning to make from his stunning new book Savour. So as we enter his bright, art-filled house in London Fields, it’s with thoughts of kale couscous and celeriac & satsuma salad playing on our minds.

For a chef with a dizzying number of operations on opposite ends of the globe – he runs restaurants in Auckland and London, is a consultant for Air New Zealand, has a stake in Crosstown Doughnuts and writes a newspaper column, among other things – Peter is surprisingly relaxed and down-to-earth. We sit in the front room, where he entertains us with stories from his childhood. Then we move to the small kitchen, crammed with ingredients from Peter’s travels, and sip coffee as he nips about, stirring this, slicing that, while the Nespresso machine whirs and pots bubble on the stove.

Before lunch, we slip out to admire the garden, Peter’s homage to the New Zealand landscape. He points out Lancewood and Kōwhai, a feijoa tree, Tasmanian tree ferns (the New Zealand varieties don’t survive London frost) and a grapevine. Then we take our seats in the living room and dig in. The dishes are moreish and wholesome, the combinations of flavours (freekeh is served with mushrooms, Swiss chard and a thick tahini mascarpone) unique and inspired. Afterwards, Peter puts the leftovers in Tupperware containers for our supper. We leave happy and refreshed – and transported, briefly, to the other side of the world.

Continued below...

Where did you grow up?

Whanganui, a town of 40,000 on the longest navigable river in New Zealand. It’s on the west coast, so picture black sand and rough, cold Tasman seawaters. It wasn’t very foodie in those days, I can’t even remember that we had restaurants. But I had the best childhood, I loved it there.

What was your family like?

Our family was quite mixed up. Mum and dad had four kids (I’m the baby) and then divorced when I was four. Dad remarried a woman with two kids and they had another one, so suddenly there were seven of us kids. My mum moved to Auckland and married a guy with three sons and they had another son.

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Tell me some of your food memories from that time.

When dad and mum split up, my sister and I went to live with my grandma Molly in Wellington. She had lived through two depressions and could turn a shoulder of mutton into a meal for 50 people. In her garden she would grow pumpkins through the macrocarpa trees – at certain times of the year it looked like there were little orange lanterns hanging from the branches. Molly’s mum, my great-grandma Shout, used to send us down to the beach to fill up a glass milk bottle with seawater that she would drink during the day.

In her garden my grandmother would grow pumpkins through the macrocarpa trees – at certain times of the year it looked like there were little orange lanterns hanging from the branches

What for?

I don’t know. She was a quarter Maori and the family have always seen food as… not exactly medicine, but key, in so many ways. I think there was some belief that the minerals you get in the ocean was stuff that you needed. She lived to 103.

Were your parents interested in food?

We weren’t foodies at all. We never had olive oil and I didn’t see a corn chip or an avocado until I was 18. I always thought spaghetti came out of a can. One of my older cousins, Lynette, drove a Volkswagen Beetle, wore dungarees and had a five-litre drum of olive oil at her house in Wellington. I thought, God, she’s so glamorous!
We had bantams for eggs and grew as much food as we could – beans, tomatoes, pumpkins, passion fruit – because we enjoyed it and it was cheaper. We’d go fishing all the time. In summer, before school, we’d be down at the beach when dad’s mates were bringing in all the fishing nets. We had a pet sheep at home called Lamb Chop… which we ate.

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Did you cook much as a child?

Mum loves to tell people that one day she found me pulling recipes out of Woman’s Weekly and sticking them into a scrapbook. I was four. Even at that age, there was something about food that interested me.

What was the first dish you made for your family?

I barely cooked, but I baked. I went through a phase where I was making lots of butterfly cakes. I would become obsessed with things. There was this ad on television for a wok set, so I saved up all my pocket money and bought one. It came with a recipe for spring rolls, I spent the whole day making them for dinner. I was frying everything in beef fat and it was hot and disgusting. Usually we had dinner at 6 o’clock, dad got his at 9.30, the pastry looked more like pita bread.

Did you always want to cook for a living?

When I was 15, I applied to Air New Zealand to do an apprenticeship and become a chef. You could travel and cook and it seemed like the perfect job for me. But I didn’t get it so I decided to study horticultural science and become a winemaker. I honestly have no idea why, we never drank wine. All the family were like, “Oh, that’s a bit strange”. I was a bit stupid I think… bright, but stupid.
I went to study horticultural science in Palmerston North. At the end of the first term, a tutor advised me to go and study in Adelaide instead. So I went to Melbourne, intending to earn some cash and put myself through college. Then I got a job in a restaurant as a waiter and suddenly realised that I didn’t want to be a waiter or a winemaker, I wanted to be a chef. At 18, I started a four-year apprenticeship. By the fourth year, I was running the kitchen at Rogalsky’s, one of the top restaurants in Melbourne.

I eat at Hill & Szrok at least once a week. The last time, I had lamb hearts and it was just really simple and delicious.
Peter on his favourite restaurants in London – see Address Book

What did you do next?

After my apprenticeship I went backpacking around Southeast Asia for a year. Locals would say, “Can you teach us how to make spaghetti bolognese or hamburgers?”, as that’s what the tourists wanted. In exchange, they’d let me hang out in their kitchen. In Bali they do this thing with babi guling, or suckling pig, where they drain the blood and cook rice in it, then serve it with coconut sambal and satay sauce. It was really good watching how people produced delicious food using just a wok and a blunt machete.

Tell me about a memorable meal from that trip.

I was on an island called Pulau Perhentian Besar on the northeast coast of Malaysia. I met some young guys who invited me back to their village Kampang Pau. They slaughtered a duck for me and we had a little feast. The duck was smoked on the bone and served with rice and ikan bilis [little dried anchovies]. It was just gorgeous, and unusual to have a beast killed for you.

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Where did you go after that?

I went to London in 1986. I didn’t intend to go back to New Zealand, but Dad was sick so I needed to go home. Some people, I didn’t know them, were opening a restaurant called the Sugar Club in Wellington and they needed a chef. I’d run out of cash and they were going to pay my airfare, so it was a really good deal. It was supposed to be a 10-week contract.

Where was it?

The owners Ash [Sumner] and Viv [Hayman] had cracked this cool spot on Vivian Street. It was a pretty dodgy area, where all the hookers and fa’afafine1 would hang out. You’d walk up the road and there’d be six-foot two heterosexual cross-dressing Samoans, Tongans and Fijians. A really fun part of town, but you could get beaten up for looking at someone the wrong way.

Lucien Freud would buy me a whisky at the end of the night and I’d find myself thinking, I’m from Castle Cliff in Whanganui, look what I’ve done!

Was it successful?

Hugely. But I wanted to live in the UK. Ash and Viv said, “We’ll all move to London and open up a restaurant”. We were naive enough. But in 1989 there was an economic crash and we had no credit rating. We all moved over, but the Sugar Club didn’t open in London until 1995.

What did you do between 1989 and 95?

I had hundreds of jobs. When Margot and Fergus set up the French House Dining Room2, I went in a bit and helped – I would threaten to use coconut cream, coriander and galangal.
I set up a restaurant called Green Street, a private members club in Mayfair. Brad Pitt and Mick Jagger were members, Lucien Freud would buy me a whisky at the end of the night. I’d often find myself thinking, I’m from Castle Cliff in Whanganui, look what I’ve done! I was young and it was a world of possibility. I was having the best time of my life.
Then we opened the Sugar Club in Notting Hill.

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What was the menu like?

The food was really simple compared to what I do now. Things like corn-fed chicken breast with a tomato chilli jam on wok-fried black beans and bok choi.

Was it well received?

Yeah, no one else was doing the food we were doing and it ticked all the boxes. People like Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein would say in magazine Q&As that it was their favourite place to go in London – as far as I know, they never actually came. We famously turned Madonna away (we just couldn’t fit her in) and it got into the papers. By turning her away we became the most popular restaurant in London.
But a lot of chefs just find the whole fusion concept ridiculous. Antony Worrall Thompson coined the phrase “confusion, not fusion” and a lot of foodie people feel that describes the food. I don’t get it, but whatever.

Are you influenced by one cuisine more than others?

There’s always a generic Southeast Asian influence going through my food – tamarind and ginger and coconut milk. I’d say my food is generally really healthy. I find rich, savoury food hard work. I’m a great lover of soups and stews.

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What kind of food do you cook at home?

Simple things, maybe a salad with a bit of chorizo or eggs. Cooking in restaurants is a whole different sort of fun. I don’t know if I would employ me because when I go in the kitchen, I can be really disruptive. I sing too much and tell terrible jokes, and don’t take it very seriously. I keep thinking, Peter you’re supposed to be showing the way… But home is where I love to cook, I generally have lots of people around once a week. I admire those who actually have the food ready before their guests arrive. I never manage to pull it off and always end up sending people out to buy ingredients.

We famously turned Madonna away (we just couldn’t fit her in) and it got into the papers. By turning her away we became the most popular restaurant in London

Talk me through an average day in terms of food.

I get up around 7 or 7.30. I come downstairs and have a coffee – a single or double espresso with a bit of sugar. Then I put some muesli (I prefer the old-fashioned kind) in a bowl and pour on boiling water and go and have a shower; by the time I come back it’s like porridge and I have it with soya milk or yoghurt. That’s how I start off the day. And I always eat a date. My grandmother Molly would always make us eat one in the morning – “Keeps you regular”, she would say.

And for lunch?

There’s no typical day. Yesterday, Rachel [Peter’s business manager] and I had a meeting in Westminster and we ended up going to Pachamama [a Peruvian-style restaurant in Marylebone] and had a really surprising lunch – it was meant to be a quick bite but we had like 15 plates. When I got home I thought I didn’t need to eat, but I went to Hill & Szrok [see Address Book] and had a lovely spider steak, which I’d never heard of, and some lamb hearts.

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Do you structure your day around food?

My day is structured around the cooking of food or the purchasing of it or the production of it or the demonstrating of it or the writing about it. Food is 24/7. I like the variety. What I do with Air New Zealand is so different to gourmet doughnuts, which is so different to a meal at Providores or a cooking demo in some country or writing a recipe for the New Zealand Herald.

What’s it like doing food for an airline?

It’s a logistical nightmare. The teams in Los Angeles are predominantly from Central America, and then there’s a lot of Indian and Pakistani folk over here. Their skills are very different, so you try to understand what each kitchen can do best. You don’t design the menu around them, but if you want to make succotash, you know it’s going to be better out of LA.

Do you listen to music while you cook?

I often play classical music. I’ve been listening to lots of Bach’s cello suites. I think the cello is the best instrument.

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What kind of wine do you like?

Mostly red. I like Syrahs and Pinots and a lot of natural wine because I find them quite quirky. The Providores has the largest New Zealand wine list in Europe. We’re being instrumental in getting distributors over here for producers over there.
We owned a vineyard in the Waitaki Valley and produced wine for about seven years, but then the company shut. The joke goes: “How do you make a small fortune from wine?” and the answer is: “Start off with a big fortune”. It’s a shame: in 2006, Jancis Robinson named it a classic of the future.

On The Menu

Lunch with Peter Gordon
East London, February 2016

To eat:

Pastries from Pavilion Bakery
Freekeh, walnut, Swiss chard, mushrooms and tahini mascarpone (recipe)
Kale and preserved lemon couscous (recipe)
Celeriac, satsuma, pear, fennel and red cabbage (recipe)

To drink:

Espressos
Water

What is your ultimate comfort food?

If it’s something more than toast (I eat an awful lot of toast with various toppings) then it would have to be a grain risotto. It could be barley, orzo, spelt or freekeh cooked with veggies and spices, lots of ginger and tamarind, and finished with heaps of grated manchego, parmesan or pecorino – whatever is in the fridge.

Any good kitchen wisdom to share?

Don’t buy too many gadgets because they are a waste of money and you won’t use them (says he who has so many things). You’re better to have three really good expensive pots than 10 mediocre ones. Have one or two really good chopping boards (I’ve got about 20), keep your knives sharp. Spend more money on less things – go the Vivienne Westwood route rather than the Primark route.

For more information on Peter’s restaurants and other projects, visit his website

Follow Peter: Instagram | Facebook

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  1. A recognized identity/role since at least the early 20th century in Samoan society, and some theorize an integral part of traditional Samoan culture, fa’afafine are male at birth, and explicitly embody both masculine and feminine gender traits, fashioned in a way unique to this part of the world. Source: Wikipedia
  2. He’s referring to Margot Henderson, who went on to set up Rochelle Canteen, and her husband Fergus of St John fame, who would not have been pleased to find coconut cream and galangal in his cooking

Posted 26th April 2016

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Interview: Molly Tait-Hyland
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

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