Russell Blackstock is a senior reporter at the Weekend Herald and Herald on Sunday.

Bistro rises like phoenix from fire

Theownersof the iconic O’Connell St Bistro have spent seven months rebuilding their restaurant after fire all but destroyed it. Russell Blackstock reports on rebuilding a bistro and a business.

The 4am phonecall turned restaurateur Chris Upton's world upside down.

The O'Connell St Bistro, which he and his partner Amanda ¬ Mason had owned and operated for 19 years, was engulfed in flames. By the time Upton arrived, six fire crews were already at the scene, frantically attempting to douse the blaze that ripped through the Auckland central eatery in January, causing more than $1 million of damage.
"Fortunately, we only live 15 minutes away so I pulled on my clothes and rushed straight there," Upton says.

He arrived to find smoke billowing out of the entrance.

"It was pandemonium and a neighbouring hotel was evacuated.

"Fortunately no one was injured but I knew the damage was going to be bad."

It took firefighters more than an hour to get the flames under control and when daylight arrived the full extent of the destruction became apparent.

"In less than an hour the fire had caused carnage," Upton says. "The smoke had damaged just about everything and acid had burned through all of our computer equipment and electrical wiring.

"My heart just sank. Amanda arrived 15 minutes later and she was devastated because the business is our heart and soul.

"It was clear it was an absolute mess and we didn't know where we would go from here."

The damage at O'Connell Street Bistro after a fire ripped through the restaurant in January. Photo / Meghan Lawrence
The damage at O'Connell Street Bistro after a fire ripped through the restaurant in January. Photo / Meghan Lawrence


The accident was down to human error, Upton says. A staff member had left a pot simmering on a cooker in the kitchen. "Restaurants all over the world put stock pots on at night and we have checks in place to make sure we don't lock up until these checks are completed.

"But they weren't done that night and the pot boiled dry.

"We could have dismissed two staff for it but we didn't. Employees are our lifeblood and it was just a mistake.

"Fortunately we have very good ¬insurance cover but it was still a nightmare.

"An abiding memory is seeing a group of firefighters reading a copy of our menu and joking that we would now have to have to put things like smoked fish and blackened meat on there."

Seven months after the fire, Upton and Mason are gearing up to ¬re-open the largely refurbished bistro next Friday.

O'Connell St Bistro, on the corner of Shortland and O'Connell streets, has won a host of industry awards and ¬garnered rave reviews from international publications including The New York Times.

The intimate European-inspired eatery is known for its refined menu and private dining room, where prime ¬ministers, royalty and celebrities have enjoyed meals away from the ¬public eye.

It's also a favourite with city business people, lawyers, insurance executives and those wanting a special night out.

The damage at O'Connell Street Bistro after a fire ripped through the restaurant in January. Photo / Meghan Lawrence
The damage at O'Connell Street Bistro after a fire ripped through the restaurant in January. Photo / Meghan Lawrence

Upton says the support of regular ¬ customers was vital when the bistro was closed - new restaurants open every other week in central Auckland, where competition for diners is ¬ cut-throat.

At first it was thought the bistro would be back up and running within a month but it soon became clear the ¬ damage was far more extensive than first ¬ imagined.

"We felt lost in the days following the fire and we had plenty of sleepless nights," Upton says.

"The fear was that by being closed, we would leave a gap in the market.

"I would even come down to the ¬ bistro during the day and stand outside talking to people and reassuring them we would be back.

"Other restaurants opened in the street while we were shut, which was a worry, but the encouragement and ¬ offers of help from our regulars and surrounding businesses was very heartening.

"I began to realise we had a unique and very well-established brand and we just had to trust in that and get on with the rebuilding."

One of the first things the shocked owners did was try to salvage some beloved items from the ashes.

Upton was told to stay away from the premises but couldn't resist turning up to attempt to rescue table accessories, the 1960s coffee machine, the dining room mirror and the treasured restaurant clock.

The damage at O'Connell Street Bistro after a fire ripped through the restaurant in January. Photo / Meghan Lawrence
The damage at O'Connell Street Bistro after a fire ripped through the restaurant in January. Photo / Meghan Lawrence


"Cutlery, plates, everything, had been affected by the smoke," he says. "I just put on some overalls and got in there and grabbed what I could.

"The clock had turned black and looked ready for the skip then we ¬realised it was still working, so Amanda worked on it herself and restored it."

The couple's team of 14 staff also had to be looked after during the repairs.

"We really wanted to keep the ¬ people who had helped make the bistro a ¬ success and fortunately our insurance covered their wages while we were closed," Upton says. "The response

and help from ¬ other businesses in the area has been touching, too, and our staff haven't had to pay for a coffee or an ice cream around here for seven months."

Most of the original staff will be there when the bistro is back up and running, including head chef Mark Southon.

And many signature dishes - such as crispy fried squid, braised rabbit ¬ ragout, classic steak tartare and a Tahitian creme brulee - will also be back on the board.

"We also managed to save some of our glasses by soaking them time and time again for months and we rescued and repaired nice little table lights," ¬Mason says.

All the furniture had to be replaced because of smoke damage and artwork adorning the walls was ruined.

As re-opening day looms, the couple are pleased with the refurbishments. They brought back original designer Mike Marshall from 2.0 Design for continuity.

"It cost us $110,000 to start the bistro when we opened almost 20 years ago, it is frightening to think it has cost almost 10 times that amount to fix it," Upton says.

"The colour scheme is different and we have gone for a dark blue on the walls instead of the burgundy that was there.

"We also have a whole new kitchen because nothing survived from there and the wooden floors have been ¬ resanded and stained and have come up really well."

The couple are counting down the days.

"The good will from so many people has been amazing," Upton says. "There is genuine loyalty there.

"We are a modern, contemporary ¬bistro but the inspiration for our food still comes from New Zealand.

"Sure, we have had our moments of doubt in the past few months," he says.

"But one of the things that has ¬ driven us on is the number of people who have told us 'the street is not the same ¬ without you'."

Chris Upton, owner of O'Connell St Bistro, Auckland. Photo / Michael Craig
Chris Upton, owner of O'Connell St Bistro, Auckland. Photo / Michael Craig


Keeping the name alive with pop-ups

To keep things ticking over while repairs were under way, the bistro's name was kept alive with quirky pop-up events and dinners around Auckland.

Employees kept their hand in at other restaurants to stay busy and pop-up versions of the bistro were staged in the city, benefiting local and international charities.

In March, the team supported the Flavours of Fiji emergency food and cultural fundraiser in aid of Cyclone Winston.

Staff were deployed to other eateries in the neighbourhood two days a week and helped at other events at vineyards around Auckland and on Waiheke Island.

"We wanted to assist other business and charities by way of donating our team's skills to worthy causes while we were regrouping," Upton says.

"The staff are as passionate as we are and it was important to keep them happy and busy.

"It is also important that our returning customers see some familiar faces."

- Herald on Sunday

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf02 at 26 Feb 2017 21:41:08 Processing Time: 786ms