Twelve Questions: Peter Gordon

Chef Peter Gordon left New Zealand at the age of 21 and now owns restaurants in Auckland (Sugar Club, Bellota) and London (Providores, Kopapa). He has written seven books, many columns and stars in a new TV3 series about feasting on marae.

Peter Gordon says he had one of the best childhoods of anyone he knows. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Peter Gordon says he had one of the best childhoods of anyone he knows. Photo / Brett Phibbs

1. How would you describe the Wanganui of your childhood?

When I tell people I grew up in Wanganui they ask me if I went to [Wanganui] Collegiate. I say no, Castlecliff. It's a bit of a jaw dropper that, Castlecliff Primary. I had a fantastic childhood. My parents divorced when I was 4 and I think I was the only kid at school with divorced parents. Mum moved to live in Auckland and every school holidays we'd go up there. It seemed really flash. She and her husband ran a pharmacy. It was all a long way from my Wanganui homelife so we had these great two lives.

2. Was it difficult growing up without your mum?

She lost custody of us four kids but then my two sisters went to live with her. Dad married Rose and she had children - sometimes there'd be seven of us at home. My stepmum is gorgeous so that was all good. It was a bit odd I suppose, but better by the time I got through high school. I totally think I had one of the best childhoods of anyone I know.

3. How would you describe your family kitchen?

Formica tops. Washing machine in the kitchen. Hotwater cupboard. A poppy red oven. Fisher & Paykel fridge that was so full of food, loads of seafood and veges from the garden. We had a chest freezer in the dining room which I liked to sit on and it was full of crayfish, whitebait, paua. My stepmum did lots of bottling - tomato chutneys, piccalillies. Right from the beginning I'd spend a lot of time in there, helping dad. He was a Sunday night souffle omelette guy.

4. You had a terrible accident in the kitchen aged 7. How did it happen?

Dad was cooking fish and chips and fried oysters - deep frying them in beef dripping - and I was standing on a wobbly four-legged stool helping him. I fell off the stool and grabbed at the deep fryer tipping it over my head. I remember every single second of it. What was on the TV. My sister screaming. Dad running in and slipping on the fat on the floor, burning his knees. The ambulance never turning up. I didn't feel any pain, not then. When they got me to the hospital I was straight on the morphine. I was smothered in white thick cream and at one stage I could see myself lying there, from high in the corner of the room, looking down, and it was all clean and crisp and peaceful.

5. Was that an out-of-body experience?

Yes. It was probably the painkillers and stuff. I never felt like I'd died or anything but I could see myself on the bed. Am I spiritual? Not really, no. I believe that when we die, that's it. I quite like that. We are here once and you have to make the most of it. I was in hospital for a couple of months and some other young children came in with burns, they'd fallen in boiling jam pots or whatever, and they didn't make it. I remember thinking how lucky I was.

6. Was the aftermath terrible?

There were these huge crusty burns on my head and chest and down my arm. Really bubbly - like the bits you find at the bottom of a roasting dish with a leg of lamb. That was agony, it was so itchy. I was found hiding in the doctors' coat rack with a pair of blunt scissors trying to get them off. It didn't put me off kitchens, obviously. It was just an accident.

7. Were you teased about your scars back at school?

I was always in a sunhat and went swimming in a T-shirt which was a bit different in those days. Kids were pretty cruel. They'd call me scab head, which I was. I was a really short kid and when I got into a scrap, the only way I could fight back was to cling on to them. That was my technique. But kids pick on you and then they get bored and move on to someone else. When I was being called scab head I just thought, well I am. It didn't really affect me.

8. Did being different at school make it easier when you came out?

I was 21 when I had my first gay experience. I'd been wanting to have it forever. I had girlfriends before that and I had girlfriends after but I think I always knew I was gay. You're aware as a kid: there were poofs, who were just effeminate people. Hudson and Halls who I thought were hilarious and everyone loved them. No one was surprised when I came out, not even my former girlfriends, and my family were always very accepting.

9. You've done restaurants, books, columns and TV shows: are you the Antipodean Jamie Oliver?

No. I really love Jamie Oliver and think he's a terrific guy. His manner isn't me, that cheeky chappy thing, but I love that he's focused on the important things in his life - his kids, food, training. It's not just about Jamie and how fabulous he is. There was a period when I thought I wouldn't mind being a Jamie Oliver character, banking all that cash and taking more holidays. But that's not me. I have got a PA but she just does 10 hours a week for me. The rest of what I do is me saying yes to stuff. I still have that feeling when people email or call and ask me to do something "I'm that boy from Wanganui and you're asking me to do this [amazing] thing".

10. Haven't you made oodles of money too?

No, no! People think I'm oodley rich but I'm not. I've got mortgages on two houses in the UK. It'd be nice to be mortgage free. If I was an employee rather than a boss I'd probably earn more money than I do. Some of our businesses don't earn any money yet because they're still getting up and going.

11. What's the worst restaurant review you've ever had?

When I opened Kopapa, [Sunday Times reviewer] A.A. Gill said something along the lines of "the food tasted like boiled Lego". He hates the whole fusion thing. I thought, you're so rude, but I don't worry about it too much. I just know he hates everything I do. When you open the doors of a new restaurant, it's impossible for everything to go perfectly. It takes a little while to settle down, just like it has at Sugar Club. Now it's really humming. I always read the reviews though. Even with the people who are nasty, if you remove the personal stuff there can be things in there you'd be wise to listen to.

12. You've been cooking at hangi around the country for your new Fusion Feasts show: do Pakeha have misconceptions about what happens on marae?

I think people can find marae not exactly scary but perhaps not really understand what goes on there. Even after being on these eight marae for the show I can get a bit confused. There are misconceptions, I think, and different regions have quite different ways of approaching things, even hangi. Some of the kitchens were really flash. Some were pretty basic. But there are these women who can turn out food for hundreds of people, some of them who haven't even cooked before the marae. That's what marae are about really. People coming together for a reason and hanging out. Feasting is such a big part of that.

* Peter Gordon's Fusion Feasts starts on TV3 on Saturday, 7pm.

- NZ Herald

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