Executive chef Simon Gault has just taken out the top prize at the hospitality industry's annual Lewisham Awards. We talk to all four finalists who competed for the honour.
Running a restaurant in this fair city of ours can be a tough game. What's hot one week can be forgotten about the next. The quality of food, service and ambience have to be just right to keep the punters coming back for more.
Here we meet four men who are at the top of the industry with a host of award-winning restaurants and cafes to their names. They were all finalists in this year's Lewisham Awards, competing for the title of Hospitality Personality of the Year.
Each was nominated because they have what it takes to create standout establishments. This week, Simon Gault was announced as the overall winner, but here they all share with Viva the secrets of their successes.
Luke Dallow, proprietor of Sale St and Chapel Bar & Bistro, has friends who are partial to ribbing him, and he's determined to prove them wrong.
"They all look at me and laugh and say: 'Luke, you're not a restaurateur; you're a bar owner.' I say; 'No. I am a restaurateur'. So that's why I developed Dallow's," he explains.
Dallow's is the recently opened 40-seat restaurant - "a space within a space" - located at the Sale St premises, where chef Nick Honeyman cooks up "French-based cuisine with a New Zealand characteristic" such as a smoke-infused lamb dish and crab cannelloni.
A self-described "hands-on operator", Dallow, 37, sees his primary role as "overseeing, being that personality in the bars and restaurants and making sure everyone's having a great experience. I always welcome people into my place as though they're coming into my home. And there's no stuffy atmosphere."
Having started up a variety of watering holes and eateries - including Salsa, Malt, Salt and Garnet Bar & Kitchen - Dallow is well-known for his energy and entrepreneurial spirit.
"I'm a big picture person. I think of an idea one night and I activate it immediately. I'd always wanted to have a fish'n'chip shop, never done one before, so I ripped into it, had [Salt] for six weeks then sold it," he says.
"I do love developing and I've got a few more bar ideas up in my head and restaurant ideas." One such embryonic idea involves hiring a "big brass band" to bring some entertainment into the dining scene.
His first job was washing dishes 22 years ago in South Auckland but perhaps his most formative years in the hospitality business were spent working at the Hard Rock Cafe in the 90s. Initially he was a bus boy at the London outlet but swiftly moved through the ranks, eventually opening the Copenhagen and Antwerp branches.
Dallow's personality shone through even while clearing tables in the London restaurant.
"We had a lot of celebrities and I was known as the 'celebrity waiter' because I was the most natural in front of them."
So what did he learn from drinking Jack Daniels with Jack Nicholson, dancing with Cyndi Lauper and joking with Elton John?
"Treat people with respect and don't judge a book by its cover. Just be yourself."
He'd like to see restaurants with the confidence to present a set menu that simply lists the entree, main and dessert the chef will be cooking that day, thus freeing up busy patrons from decision-making.
"When I go out to dinner I say to the waiter: 'Please can you give me the most popular dish and wine match it please?' I don't even look at the menu. I can just carry on with my conversation and concentrate on the company." It's a concept he plans to introduce to Dallow's shortly.
"We'll have, like, on a Tuesday night: 'This is your meal, this is what you're getting. Enjoy'."
Despite having qualified as a chef at Wanganui Polytechnic, Dylan Marychurch has never cooked for a living. Today he's the general manager of Mac's brewbar the Northern Steamship Co.
"Front-of-house is my passion. It's just the people, I love the people," he says.
"Without the love of people you're doomed, but if you combine that with enthusiasm and passion, as best you can I think it's a recipe for success."
Marychurch, 30, says the Northern Steamship Co. offers "good, old-fashioned, heart-warming home food, that really 'wow' attitude and service, but in a relaxed and informal way".
The most popular dishes on the menu are uncomplicated fare such as Philly steak sandwiches and a roasted lemon-and-rosemary half chicken.
"I've always been highly involved with the food. I still do about one shift a week in the kitchen with the chefs just to learn, keep on top of stuff. I like to have my finger on the pulse in all departments - in the bar, on the floor and in the kitchen," he says.
Marychurch is convinced that accessibility and an upbeat attitude make the difference for patrons. "It's really quite a simple attitude. It's amazing how a bit of engagement with the customer will change a venue. We're all about Southern hospitality. Even though I was raised in the north, my spiritual home's definitely the South Island."
Having honed his front-of-house skills working variously as waiter, bartender and maitre d' for establishments such as the Backbenchers and Opera in Wellington and Queenstown's Lone Star, Marychurch managed a couple of Queenstown bars: Barmuda and Bardeaux.
He also did a stint at Sydney's Bayswater Brasserie where his love for the hospitality industry was cemented. He especially relishes the more demanding parts of his role.
"Those customers that come in that are quite difficult or aren't happy about something, the challenge of turning them around and having them leave positive, those challenges are my favourite. I get the most fulfilment out of that."
Being at work when other people are at play is an inevitable fact of the restaurant and bar trade. Marychurch is reminded of this annually when invitations to spend the New Year on the Coromandel arrive at the very height of the hospitality season. "Every year I have to say 'no'."
But the rewards definitely outweigh the downsides and Marychurch's role has just expanded to take on two new places - the Viaduct's Cargo and Four Nations - where no doubt he'll roll out his trademark philosophy.
"It's just a bit of: 'Hi, how are you? How can we help you?' We approach the customer before they approach us. And we're very welcoming and engaging. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel. We're just trying to look after people and look after them well."
A sommelier by trade, Michael Dearth is host with the most at The Grove, the central Auckland restaurant he and wife Annette established six years ago. Hailing from Connecticut, on the east coast of the US, Dearth brought a fresh perspective to the Auckland hospitality trade.
"When I first came here I thought that you really didn't get what you paid for. I was really surprised at all the different people that were charging $35 to $40 for mains," he says.
"I [thought]: 'I think I can do a little better than that'."
Dearth, who started in the industry by washing dishes at the age of 15, describes his years in restaurants in San Francisco as his own personal "university of hospitality training."
He worked for "some amazing, super-talented chefs" including Michael Mina, George Morrone, and Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys - and also at Rubicon, a restaurant which was owned by Francis Ford Coppola, Robert de Niro and Robin Williams.
Dearth, 40, now includes The Grove's own chef, Benjamin Bayly, among the ranks of the "super-talented". Two of his specialties are an entree of tuna, cucumber, avocado and crispy shallots, and an eye fillet main with smoked pomme puree.
"The food is French-style cuisine with a modern New Zealand feel; it's not fusion," says Dearth. "The philosophy is pretty much 'an experience'.
But also that accessibility - the waiters are really knowledgeable in the service about food and wine but they're not pretentious."
The Grove is somewhat famous for the tendency of its head chefs, namely Michael Meredith and Sid Sahrawat, to head off to open their own well-received restaurants.
"I joke around. I say: 'I have a restaurant camp'," says Dearth.
"I'm always going to be faced with chefs leaving so I might as well have them leave shining."
And while he doesn't personally cook for a living, Dearth calls himself "a closet chef".
His favourite concoction is chicken soup; he finds the process of chopping and simmering to be healing and therapeutic in itself.
Dearth recalls one particular night when The Grove, despite having been open only a few weeks, was full - and convivial laughter and conversation spilled from every table.
"I was hit with this realisation that people were just having fun in my restaurant. It gave me the warm fuzzies. It just was an incredible feeling."
And, to what does he attribute his success in the hospitality industry?
"I love food, I love wine and I love people."
Through the Nourish Group, the much-awarded Simon Gault is the executive chef for a total of five restaurants: Euro and Jervois Steak House in Auckland; Bistro Lago in Taupo; and Wellington's Shed 5 and Pravda.
Gault, who won the inaugural Corbans Wine and Food Challenge, has worked internationally as a personal chef for Larry Ellison of Oracle and American Idol's Simon Fuller. Most recently, Gault was one of the judges on New Zealand's first MasterChef television series.
The 45-year-old's culinary credentials may be impeccable but even he had to start somewhere. He did his apprenticeship at upscale Parnell restaurant Antoine's and vividly recalls the time he passed a piece of steak, cut to the incorrect size for steak tartare, to proprietor Tony Astle.
"So he threw it at me and I happened to catch it by accident. So he came and grabbed it off me and threw it at me again," says Gault. "But you know, you never chop the piece of meat the wrong size again. It was a great place to start because he taught me that second-best wasn't good enough."
Gault finds inspiration for his "globally influenced" cuisine in his journeys throughout the world. He learned how to cook cactus in Mexico and last year offered to wash dishes in a restaurant in Milan, Italy, in exchange for being shown how to make one of their stand-out recipes - ravioli stuffed with rabbit, veal and pork, which is now on the menu of two of Gault's own establishments.
He considers that the local restaurant scene is in fine form and "punching well above its weight" - helped no doubt by increasingly savvy diners.
"New Zealanders travel overseas and they get to try all these things - take prosciutto, for example - and they come back and start asking for them. The diner has become more sophisticated and more adventurous, which from a restaurant point of view is fantastic."
But it hasn't always been easy. Gault was caught out by Auckland's notoriously fickle restaurant crowd in the 90s.
"When the Whitbread yachts left town all of Gault's on Quay's customers left along with the fleet. I started making meringue roulades and selling them to cafes to stay alive."
And the extended power-outage of 1998 saw him fashioning "a pretty elaborate kitchen" consisting of little more than a series of gas-fired barbecues.
"I've been through the tough times."
In his capacity as executive chef, Gault - who is currently enamoured with Spanish ingredients and cooking style - writes the menus and works with the chefs in his five restaurants.
He sees no issue inherent in the fact that, by definition, his role is one of visionary and advisor rather than hands-on chef.
"Without sounding arrogant. I mean, Giorgio Armani doesn't sew every suit."