The air was briny with oysters and aftershave. So hot that even the $99 bottles of Champagne were pimpled with sweat. Condensation beaded on elegant necks. A woman pinched the photographer on the bum.

"Don't worry!" She tossed her head. "I'm not from Russell McVeagh!"

The Viaduct on the half-shell was salty and rich. Drink up. The waiter who sold the most Mumm got a bonus and the all-you-could-eat Bluff oyster tickets cost $175 a head.

Judith Tabron knew everybody in that room and on that terrace and in that kitchen. She had opened Soul Bar & Bistro in 2001. It was an Auckland institution.

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When the press release came out in January it signalled the end of an era. Soul — co-owned by Tabron and Eric Watson's Cullen Investments — had been sold to hospitality rival Nourish Group. The acquisition by the owners of Euro and Jervois Steak House was effective from March 1 and Tabron would work out a 90-day handover. She was proud of what she had achieved and was confident Soul had found "the best possible home". There was no comment from Watson.

Tabron would stay and oversee her last Bluff oyster day. She would ensure her chef had his month's holiday and that her head of operations took his three weeks. She would finish planning the marketing calendar and attend the annual Good Friday staff party. She would confirm to Canvas she had originally planned to buy out Watson, in partnership with senior staff, but "I just couldn't get my head around four more years."

There would have been a kind of staggered retreat. But she would have been 61 at its completion. She would have done 21 years at Soul. The numbers were just too hard to contemplate.

"It might have been difficult to do something else, you know? That would have been it. That would have been a difference, in age and in enthusiasm, maybe."

Tabron was not prepared to take the risk.

What next for the heart of Soul?

Tabron serving the crowds at Soul's all-you-can-eat Bluff oyster feast. Photo / NZ Herald
Tabron serving the crowds at Soul's all-you-can-eat Bluff oyster feast. Photo / NZ Herald

"Oh, I could open in Ponsonby or Parnell now," says Tabron. The waterfront is off-limits. An 18-month restraint of trade runs geographically from Britomart to Halsey St. She could, feasibly, be back for Team New Zealand's America's Cup defence and, she says, "Who says I won't be?"

Tabron has made a career out of winning.

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Back in November, the Bayley's real estate listing for Soul name-checked more than 20 awards and accolades collected by the restaurant it described as "the pinnacle of Auckland's corporate and high-end social scene for almost two decades".

When Metro wrote about cocaine and socialites, it was Tabron who gave a good quote. ("If we know there are two people in a cubicle together, we knock on the door. We can't tell whether it's sex or drugs.") This is the place where Beyonce and Jay-Z were photographed having lunch. Where Bono, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Hopkins and Hillary Clinton reportedly chose to eat when they were in town.

"What is a celebrity?" asks Tabron. "Certainly, if you've got Fleetwood Mac in here, or Brian May, or Beyonce, that is a celebrity. Then we've got, what, our A-listers in Auckland? Are the Real Housewives of Auckland celebrities? Because they're here every week."

(This seems entirely plausible. According to Instagram, Julia Sloane had champagne cocktails and "yummy dessert", this Mother's Day just gone).

Gossip? Scandal? Badly behaved celebrities? Tabron says she's only banned "a couple" of people. "Like, seriously, I need you to leave, I don't even want you to pay the bill, don't even come back." She's not naming names. What goes around comes around, she says. She's kept every scrap of correspondence.

Last year, restaurants and cafes in the Auckland region reported a customer spend of $1.91 billion, representing two-thirds of the national total. No food market is more crowded, no customer base more fickle. The new foodie lurches from kombucha to kale; from gentrified K Rd to pop-up warehouses. Restaurants are here today, in receivership tomorrow, and this is the only working world Tabron has ever known.

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She was in the fifth form at Onehunga High School when she went to a careers evening and met the Logan Park Hotel manager who told her she couldn't be a chef.

"I said, 'Well, what if I start as a receptionist?' And he said, all right, you can come and see the chef. It was like a one-minute interview, and then he's saying, 'Okay, I've got an apprenticeship for you. You start in December.'"

Other options that evening had included the armed services or a home sciences degree at the University of Otago. But Tabron liked to cook (still does — the night before this interview she made roast chicken with courgettes provencale for her son and husband). As a teenager, she was often in charge of dinner for seven because, slightly unusually for mid-1970's suburban New Zealand, both her parents worked.

"I'd be baking, and I was also a Girl Guide, which I think helped with the leadership roles. I like to be part of a team. I like to be part of a winning team. Those things have been common from way back then."

Hotel management sent her to Whanganui for the final phase of her apprenticeship. She bought a trail bike, went hooning on the beach with the boys and, "It was good. Four months. I can't say it was a culinary adventure."

Judith Tabron. Photo / NZ Herald
Judith Tabron. Photo / NZ Herald

Her delivery is dry. There is a bluntness to Tabron that is slightly intimidating. Soul's customers sit in top tax brackets, but watch Tabron in action at that Bluff oyster day and know she is a worker, and not an air — nor anywhere else — kisser.

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"I think, possibly, people would say I'm not as empathetic as others. I can say something and really hurt someone's feelings but I won't mean to, and then I'll have to go back and fix it ... I'm good at apologising. I'm really good at saying 'I did stuff that up'."

Her phone rings. It's Jack, her 24-year-old son from her first marriage.

"Darling, I'm a bit busy at the moment ... a quick question, yeah ... no, it's only the minimum wage that goes up ... okay, we'll talk about it tonight."

She switches her mobile to silent. "That was a mum question, wasn't it?"

But that would depend on who your mum was.

"I didn't really want to have a child until I was 30," she says. "Probably the hormones were going, but I just got myself some cats. And then some girl I worked with came in and said 'I'm pregnant' and all of a sudden I'm, 'Ooh, I wouldn't mind getting pregnant.' And that was it. And so I did. Then I don't really feel I've had that feeling much since then."

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There are no high chairs at Soul: "Seventeen years with no high chair. I think that's quite a feat. I'm quite proud of that. You know, it's not that [children are] not welcome. But I'm not going to clean their high chairs, I'm not going to store their high chairs."

Tabron was just 19 when she finished her apprenticeship. She moved to front-of-house, got some waitressing experience, followed a relationship to Wellington and wound up working as restaurant supervisor at The Oaks. "The biggest firing of my career ..."

She was "too young, too immature". She went back to cooking and at Benjamin's Bistro at the top of Parnell Rd, took two out of three categories in a competition featuring a brand new product called Trim Pork.

"Once again, it was, 'Oooh, I'm a winner.' I like that feeling."

With zero hesitation, she recites her winning dish. Sliced pork schnitzel with linguine, spinach, fresh thyme and cream. The plate is still in her head, a visual flip-file of meals imagined, made and eaten: "If you've been cooking since you were 16 ..."

Tabron was head chef at Hotel de Brett when she realised she needed overseas experience. New Zealand was iceberg lettuces and camembert in a tin from Denmark. In London she embraced bitter radicchio, tangy lamb's lettuce and rocket. The first time she tasted fresh coriander, she was expecting parsley. She rose to the rank of chef de partie on the fish section at L'Escargot. It changed her life.

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"At Logan Park, during my apprenticeship, all the john dory came in a frozen shatter-pack. When I was at Benjamin's, the orange roughy we were hauling in by the tonne was the same."

Beyonce and Jay-Z at Soul in 2010. Photo / NZ Herald
Beyonce and Jay-Z at Soul in 2010. Photo / NZ Herald

London, 1983, and it was her job to meet the trucks and select fresh product for that night's service.

"The oysters and the scallops came in the shell and you had to clean all your squid and bone all your monkfish. I had never filleted a salmon before I was in London and my first one was not good. By the time I left there, two years later, it was like 'boom, boom, boom' and it's off in a second.

"When I was in London, I was learning systems ... I already knew what I didn't know. Because I'd already got to head chef and realised I had to go back to the bottom and start again. I learned a whole new way of managing over there. They just managed better than we did. In New Zealand, it felt like it was never quite under control. It always felt on the edge, never enough chefs, too many customers. I still find that today — the number of restaurants that get opened with zillions of tables and the tiniest kitchens and they expect chefs to work in this crappy environment."

Her own place came sooner than she expected. She was cooking for John Lewis at Westhaven's Sails, when he opened Ramses in Parnell and asked her to go in as a quarter shareholder.

"And then he ended up going broke and I ended up taking over the other 75 per cent in quite a roundabout way and thank you, Daddy, for helping me. I'm not going to say it was a profitable business, I'm just going to say that I cut my teeth and learned quite a lot there."

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Yes, she says, there were days when she sat at the front desk "bawling my bloody eyes out".

Being in business is about doing the hard things: "And the first time you do them, it's hard and the more you do it, I hate to say it, but you do harden to the fact that you have to make those decisions because that's your job. Make the decisions. Be the leader."

Canvas meets with Tabron three times in the lead-up to her May 30 departure. First at the Bluff oyster day where she is introduced to the mostly male crowd as "the new waitress" (cue guffaws) and then a longer, sit-down interview where she tells us, "You know, after you left that day, we had a fire ..."

They weren't getting enough oysters out. Everyone in the kitchen was moved to the front line and, in the organised chaos, a forgotten pan of oil ignited.

"It took two fire blankets to get it out. We managed to get it out the back and on to the street without it setting off the alarm and us having to evacuate."

But, afterwards, she asked Sunita — her right-hand-woman since forever — whether she was trying to tell her something. Tabron had bought that sauteuse pan 25 years earlier, sold it along with Ramses and then bought it back for a song when the new owners went under. Was it, finally, time to let it all go?

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She claims she doesn't want a leaving party. What she wants to do next is "get bored".

"I need to just stop worrying about this and have a very clear head and, when I'm travelling, formulate a plan. I've always felt like everyone else has got like, 10 restaurants or something, and I've only ever had this one. But that doesn't mean I haven't thought of a million things I could do."

Former All Black Jeremy Stanley at the oyster feast. Photo / NZ Herald
Former All Black Jeremy Stanley at the oyster feast. Photo / NZ Herald

Three weeks out from her finish day, and she poses for a portrait by the harbour that has helped make Auckland rich and famous. She "can't wait" to finish up; to stop answering questions. There will be a holiday in the United States and a cruise with friends. Husband Nigel Burton (they met when she was billeted at his place for a mutual friend's 40th) is carrying an Achilles injury, otherwise they'd be hiking. She has five stepchildren from her two marriages, and maybe, she says, she might finally spend more time with the grandkids. There will definitely be a road trip through Spain. Possibly a visit to London with a friend.

"I hate London," she says, unexpectedly. "I hate their class system. They make you feel like you're an Antipodean piece of shit."

That bluntness again. That matter-of-factness. Tabron does not cry over spilt milk.

"My expectations of people probably aren't very high ... if you get let down, you have to go, 'Well that's what happens, it's not going to push me down.'"

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Restaurants are in for a tough year, predicts Tabron. Not enough workers, rising wages and (a longtime bugbear) the lack of industry-based apprenticeships. If she was living her life over, she points out, she would not have even qualified for entry into tertiary training.

"None of the restaurants are taking on apprentices, these poor kids end up with whacking great student loans and when they do enter the industry, with no experience, we only want to start them on minimum wage."

Her accountant father taught her financial systems — and the importance of worker welfare. She's picked up staff dentist bills and made emergency loans.

"But I'm still a capitalist aren't I? In the end, I am trying to make a business work. Although probably other people might see that I could have driven it harder."

Oh, she pauses, and points to a group by the door. The new owners have just walked in.

"You know they were quite fascinated by the fact that there was only one person who doesn't work the floor in this whole business, and that is the accountant."

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"I like to work with the team on the floor, even if it's only for an hour a day, because that's how they learn. And when you're going into some of those days we have ... some of the massive, massive days. Think of those Lions tour tests, we call them the 'over $100,000' days. You cannot do any more. You cannot get any more people in. You are absolutely running at full capacity and you're taking these kids on a journey that day, being ready for it, being mentally happy about it. We have a plan and we have to drive the plan to the end."

Tabron is wearing heeled boots. But she has a pair of sneakers under her desk.