The name Brendan Turner may not be instantly familiar but it's quite likely you've dined at one of the many Auckland establishments he's worked in over the past 27 years. He started out, aged 16, as an apprentice chef at the South Pacific Hotel then moved to Oblio's, the Auckland Club, the Hyatt and Top of the Town restaurant. Overseas, he cooked at the Grand Hyatt, Tokyo, and the Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa. He owned and operated highly regarded cafes Dizengoff and Sheinkin, and spent six years at SkyCity with responsibility for Orbit, The Observatory, Bellota and dine by Peter Gordon.
It seems hospitality runs in his blood. Regardless of his job title - whether sous chef, executive chef, restaurant manager or director of food and beverages - he had one core preoccupation: to deliver a dining experience that would exceed expectations. And although he's flown largely under the radar until now, Turner is certain to gain wider recognition in 2011.
He's the mastermind behind an ambitious project to create three exciting new eateries in Quay St's historic Union Fish Company Building and the adjacent carpark. It's a bold move but one he's unfazed by. "Three new venues at once - a lot of people would freak out at that or shirk from that I guess," says Turner, who is rather invigorated by the prospect of setting new benchmarks in the industry.
The three new establishments, which will each open on different dates over the coming weeks, are: Ebisu for contemporary Japanese; Tyler Street Garage, an eating house and bar; and Precinct cafe. Ebisu "is truly authentic in terms of back of house; Japanese chefs in the kitchen with credentials. And in terms of service delivery, we want to present a sharp, slick, professional edge. It's traditional Japanese with that modern twist on things, like seared chargrilled duck breast with freshly pickled nashi pear salad." Turner believes that Tyler Street Garage's "strong emphasis on food will set us apart from other bars" while "best-paper-bag-lunch-in-town is what we want [the cafe] to become known for".
The menus for both Tyler Street Garage and Ebisu focus on shared plates that encourage conviviality. "It's high-energy; we've got DJs performing in both venues that will add to the energy and the atmosphere," says Turner. "It's all about high-low as well. The bar has a very industrial, raw sort of interior. The juxtaposition will be the service standard and the knowledge on the part of the staff."
There was a time when the ultimate meal out centred around fine dining in rarefied surroundings. We now prefer a more casual mode of eating but we're not prepared to compromise on service or ambience. Over the years Turner has been in the business he's witnessed Auckland diners become more cosmopolitan in their tastes. "They've become a lot more sophisticated in terms of their eating style and they're far more aware than they ever were and it's really important that that's recognised. I think increasingly unless you're doing it really well, you won't survive."
Turner relied heavily on fact-gathering missions to New York for inspiration and ideas to bring back home. In particular Schillers' Liquor Bar has influenced the drinks list at Tyler Street Garage. Wine is offered by the carafe and, to help with selection, key wines are categorised under the headings "Honest", "Nice" and "Special". "We want to make it approachable, without being too high-falutin' about it. 'User-friendly' is the word." The Momofuku pork buns - "sliced pork belly in a Chinese bun with spicy relish, just so tasty" - on Ebisu's menu are unashamedly borrowed from New York master of Asian fusion cooking, David Chang.
Here, too, Turner noted a constant stream of patrons entirely unconcerned with being out late on what is typically viewed as a "school night". "In Auckland it's all over by 10 o'clock on Sunday and Monday nights but in New York it's just like a Saturday night every night of the week."
Closer to home, the informal Japanese style of Toko Restaurant and Bar in Sydney's Surry Hills, helped inspire Ebisu while Melbourne's Little Creatures Dining Hall "was a direct reference for the bar, the shared plates idea, simple style of food but just done really well."
Although he's served as senior lecturer in professional cookery at both the Manukau Institute of Technology and AUT, Turner is far from a back-room theorist. As general manager responsible for three separate outlets, he expects to be right where the action is. "I will be on the floor, very much operational, hands-on."
If there's a secret to success in the hospitality industry, Turner believes it lies in ensuring his teams of black-clad personnel are thoroughly professional and well-schooled. "There's not enough emphasis on up-skilling your staff in Auckland. In-house training is absolutely key and fundamental."
Two things prevalent in the local food scene you definitely won't find in a Turner establishment are "too-loud music or over-the-top menu descriptions. We want to create a fun atmosphere and energy. There's nothing pretentious or starchy or stiff or too intimidating about it and that's really key. And that extends to the DJs, the mood and feel of the places."
Above all, these new venues will not take themselves too seriously. Light-hearted elements on Tyler Street Garage's menu include gourmet hot dogs, New York-style pizzas, "Icey Slicey", which is "an icecream slab sandwiched between pink wafer biscuits" and beer served in enamel pitchers. Precinct cafe will specialise in toasted sandwiches with classic fillings such as pastrami, cheese and mustard.
The ex-commercial spaces lend a relaxed atmosphere, with interiors that have been stripped back to exposed brickwork, raw timber columns and industrial lighting. Viva picks that Auckland's hottest, late summer, alfresco meeting spot will be on the rooftop at Tyler Street Garage. "It has its own bar, fireplace and resort-style seating, overlooking the working port," says Turner. "I'm very big on attention to detail."