Trailblazers who put sophistication and savvy on the Kiwi menu

By Kirsten Macfarlane

There was a time when restaurant diners endured prohibition-style licensing laws, caviar was an impossible dream and if you wanted brioche you had to bake it yourself.

It took a group of enterprising foodies to change our culinary landscape, every dollop of their sophistication and perseverance stirring up the mix to produce a vibrant and diverse scene. What they pioneered has influenced what is on our tables in 2007. So give thanks, as you quaff your gold-medal Chardonnay and nibble on your toasted ciabatta, to those who made a difference. From an impressive list of foodie legends, we've chosen six who led the way.

Graham Kerr
The first television chef

Before Jamie Oliver began talking up food on telly, there was Graham Kerr.

New Zealand's first television chef, Kerr's Galloping Gourmet TV series became an instant hit in the 70s. As he once famously said: "I'm possibly the best known food authority in the world, certainly the highest paid."

With his Elvis-style mop and Sinatra charm, Kerr set hearts racing, even if his early dishes could bring on a coronary; think crayfish newburg with cream and marsala sauce.

The flamboyant British-born chef, who once served in New Zealand's armed forces, loved the booze and it was often one slurp for the dish and three for the chef.

It made for good telly, until he became a born-again Christian concerned with the problem of world hunger and with cooking healthier and cheaper meals. Renouncing his winey, meaty and sweet pre-reformation menu, he adopted a natural, additive-free and less sugary diet.

In his book Love Feast, he proposed boeuf bourguignonne with grape juice instead of wine. The original celebrity chef, he was 30 years ahead of his time with his you-are-what-you-eat attitude.

Valerie Littlejohn
The hostess with the mostess

A hostess with all the perfect mix of elegance and charm, Valerie Littlejohn was one of the early restaurant pioneers. In 1958, still in her twenties with a baby daughter and no formal hospitality experience, Littlejohn opened Orsinis with her late husband Phillip in Wellington.

She was front-of-house, and he ran the kitchen. For patrons the cosy restaurant was a welcome reprieve from the country's austere hotel dining rooms.

As Littlejohn told Hospitality magazine in 2004: "We wanted to create a nice environment with service that one would have when one was in a very lovely home ... it was all about the food, how you presented it, the service and the surroundings - what I always called the package deal."

With its attentive host, candlelit tables and lively music, it was unlike dining in your average Kiwi home. Orsinis had two dinner settings, with the 9pm supper menu being popular with the dance crowd.

Littlejohn had an uncanny talent for reading customers, instantly matching the right waiting staff to diners.

In 1981, the couple left Wellington, to set up Orsinis in Auckland. They sold the restaurant in 1987, but came out of retirement to buy the waterfront restaurant Sails in 1991. It's still in the family, with son Bart at the helm.

Enzo Bettio
Filling our pantries with fine food

Enzo Bettio had a dream of importing foie gras, caviar and truffles. His friends thought he was crazy. The Swiss-born foodie flummoxed them all, turning his love of fine food into a thriving business.

Established in 1980, the Delmaine Trading Company began importing Mediterranean foods, selling direct to the public under its own label. The company is now the largest supplier of imported gourmet foods to supermarkets and restaurants.

A whip round the supermarket and you'll find all manner of speciality goods, from antipasto and cheese to olive oil.

Bettio and his wife Margaret later established Vin Alto vineyard in Clevedon Hills.

His philosophy: wine enhances food and food brings out the best in wine. Who are we to disagree?

Otto Groen
The restaurant trailblazer

He was New Zealand's first licensed restaurant owner, but what a battle it was to secure this title. It was seven years of badgering politicians and dodging flack from the anti-liquor campaigners, before Dutch-born Groen was awarded a licence for his Gourmet restaurant in 1961. During his unlicensed days, patrons would smuggle in alcoholic drinks.

"It was impossible to control, people came in with bottles - and even glasses - under their coats," laughs Groen.

They were willing to risk a vice squad raid and the wrath of church groups to fine dine at Gourmet.

Groen set new standards in cuisine and restaurant management, recognised by a QSM and admission to the Food Service Association's Hall of Fame in 1992.

His swanky, three-level, 175-seater inner-city restaurant was a 60s trailblazer with its intimate booth seating, artist David Kennedy's works lining the walls and open-plan kitchen and dining area. He also designed a refrigerated salad bar and a charcoal broiler for steaks and crayfish tails.

His cooking skills were matched by a flair for marketing, creating a "Gourmet credit card" for regulars; branding crockery and glassware; enticing tourists with such novelties as toheroa soup; covering tables with fine linen and dressing waiters in white shirts and bowties.

One Christmas, he presented his regulars with a 45 RPM vinyl recording of a variety show performed at the restaurant. It was like Las Vegas had come to Auckland.

"I used to say to my staff that when we open the doors at 6pm, the curtain goes up and we are on stage and everyone has their role to play."

The Sapphire room doubled as a stage, with actors performing political satire penned by Bruce Mason.

Groen went on to own and operate other establishments, including the famous Chefs Bar at Smith & Caughey's and the Geyser Room restaurant at the 1970 Japan Expo.

The dapper 78-year-old is now head of the North Shore International Academy (NSIA), a private training school for hospitality workers.

In October, the Restaurant Association awarded the academy its annual award for training excellence. At the academy entrance, Groen stands before a poster-size copy of a Gourmet menu and laughs: "If only we could still order chateaubriand for 10 shillings."

Kaye Tollenaar
The artisan baker

Kaye Tollenaar was sure to rise. With the opening of Pandoro Panetteria in 1992, she created an artisan bakery dedicated to creating breads using authentic methods and natural ingredients.

Aucklanders craving crunchy baguettes with their morning coffee, could skip Paris for Parnell.

From their suburban bakery, Tollenaar and her husband Richard produced baskets of brioche, stuffed breads, focaccia, bagels, sourdoughs, biscotti, ciabatta, wholemeal breads and mouth-watering sweet delights.

Trained as pastry chef, Tollenaar was an early proponent of healthy eating, producing breads with no pre-mixes or additives. Fans couldn't get enough.

In 2002, established breadmaker Malcolm North took over Pandoro Bakery, promising it would stay true to its artisan baking approach.

The family now lives in Hastings "enjoying the sunshine, renovating an old house, the kids are going to school here and you get involved in that and I'm trying to get my handicap down".

Michael Brajkovich
The master winemaker

Michael Brajkovich's grandparents founded Kumeu River Wines in 1944 and since he took over production in the early 80s, the accolades have flowed.

Pitted against heavyweight European winemakers, Brajkovich was the upstart whose Kumeu River chardonnay leaped to fame in the United States.

Wine Spectator magazine listed the easy-drinking white in its top 100 wines five times; the 1994 chardonnay ranking at number 6.

One American critic raved that Brajkovich was New Zealand's greatest chardonnay producer.

In 1989, he became New Zealand's first member of the Institute of Masters of Wine, London.

Six years ago, he set about transforming the New Zealand wine industry, convincing winemakers to swap corks for screw caps to eliminate the problem of cork taint and oxidation.

As Chairman of the International Screw Cap Initiative, Brajkovich now has the job of persuading conservative overseas winemakers to abandon tradition in favour of the nifty screw cap.

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