"You've come a long way, baby," is the phrase on my mind as I head up to the 53rd floor of the Sky Tower, towards the fourth incarnation of The Sugar Club.
As you exit the lift you enter a very grown-up world.
Expansive views sweeping across New Zealand's most populated city give this place an international feel.
As your eyes focus back into the room you start to notice the details - beautiful cabinetry, fabulous light fittings, soft-coloured marble on the tables and wall coverings that look like cut black velvet. It's stylish and sophisticated, yet achieves a warm and welcoming ambience.
The first incarnation of The Sugar Club in Wellington (circa 1986) was a somewhat different place. It was housed in a space that had fed people for years. As a Greek restaurant during World War II it served American troops. That was followed by a very good Chinese restaurant called The Lantern, then some film-industry types turned the space into The Sugar Club (Mark I). They planted up the back deck with rambling vegetation and employed Peter Gordon as the chef.
Located in Wellington's "red light" Vivian St, this new restaurant attracted the capital's adventurous foodies. Its tiny kitchen had a concrete floor and patched-up, painted shelving; it looked time-worn and barely adequate. I used to marvel at the thought of how much good food it produced over the years. The Sugar Club was the place to be and Peter was the chef celebre of this establishment.
Fast-forward a few years and The Sugar Club owners spy the bigger world and take off to London. Peter travels for a bit, gathering flavour inspirations around the globe and finally pops up in London to head up The Sugar Club Mark 2 in Notting Hill. Spurred on by its success, The Sugar Club Mark 3 is opened in Soho. More than 27 years later, Peter is back in New Zealand, standing on the floor of The Sugar Club Mark 4, on level 53 of the Sky Tower. There's no concrete floor this time around, rather, its stainless-steel kitchen has a 180-degree city view. Instead of rustic furniture, there are design-classic chairs, while studio pieces of Venetian glass add elegant tonal notes against the walls. In Vivian St a rambling cerise bougainvillea had provided the colour hit.
As Peter's "fusion" cooking style spread ripples through the culinary world, many who worked with him have gone on to become significant players in the food scene. Pip Wylie, now head chef at Ripe, worked in Wellington at the Sugar Club as she trained, before going on to own various restaurants. Melissa Morrow, now maitre d/partner at The Ponsonby Road Bistro, worked the floor at the Notting Hill establishment. Che Barrington worked with Peter in Soho and now heads up the MooChowChow and Blue Breeze Inn kitchens, producing some of the best Asian-inspired food in Auckland.
As we all caught up to reminisce with Peter, I asked them what their favourite recipes had been during their stints at the various Sugar Clubs. As it happened, all the dishes are on the menu at the new Sugar Club and Peter has kindly let us share them.
• Che's favourite squid, pumpkin and quail egg laksa
• Peter's favourite chocolate and star anise mousse cake
• Pip's favourite beef pesto
• Melissa's favourite grilled scallops with sweet chilli sauce and creme fraiche