Clooney has closed and owner Tony Stewart is talking frankly about the fights, the finances and living with cystic fibrosis. Kim Knight charts the final days of an Auckland icon.
Waterfalls of thin black cord cocoon the well-dressed and the well-fed. They are the most famous restaurant curtains in Auckland - but what was really going on behind them?
On Sunday night, Clooney called time. Last drinks, last service, last faux-mandarin with the oh-so-brittle frozen cream shell that takes two days to construct and is served at the end of an intrinsically local 11-course degustation.
Salmon that has swum in three South Island hydro catchments. Pāua that is grown in Ruakaka. A meyer lemon and packham pear drink served with smoked eel and potato paper – fish 'n' chips and L&P. It is the New Zealand story on a $180-a-head plate in one of the most elegant dining rooms in the country.
What killed Clooney?
Canvas first meets owner Tony Stewart a month out from closing. Clak-clak-clak. He drinks at least eight espressos a day and the bash and bang of the coffee machine behind the bar is a constant.
He makes me a coffee. And then he makes another because, according to him, the first was not perfect. Would I have known? "No," he says. "But I would have."
Stewart is 49. This is not a simple statistic. In recent weeks, he has publicly revealed he has cystic fibrosis. In the United States, the average life expectancy for someone with this genetic disease is 37.5 years.
"As a child, I always grew up thinking my life would be cut short at pretty much any time," he says. "As a teenager, I wasn't supposed to get past 18."
He never talked about CF. "I didn't want to be that person. I wanted to prove to everyone that I wasn't going to be a statistic, so I was aggressive. I was always fighting the perception or possibility of not making an age that all my peers were going to make."
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We could end this story right here. Why close Clooney? As Stewart gets older, the hospital trips have become more frequent - three weeks in a cardiac ward; surgery to laser-blast scar tissue from the inside of his heart. He is tired, wants time with his wife and 13-year-old son - and who could blame him? But he's fully committed to this exit interview. To talking money, ambition, pride - and that terribly public fight with his former head chef, Jacob Kear.
Growing up with CF, says Stewart, made him "incredibly driven". But three years ago, when he couldn't walk up a mountain in Japan and came back down to a diagnosis that resulted in heart surgery, he was in a very dark place.
"Very dark. But you know, I've dealt with death all my life. There would not be a week in my life that I haven't thought about the role death plays. That was embedded from an early age. It's not that I wanted to kill myself, it was just I never cared about dying, probably until my son was born.
"Now, I don't want to die. But it also wouldn't worry me if I did ... I will never, ever be in a position where I will look back and go, 'I wish I'd done that.' Because I have done it. I've done everything that I've wanted to do."
The death of Clooney was, in the beginning at least, greatly exaggerated.
In October 2017, a pre-service showdown between Stewart and his head chef made headlines. They used to be mates. Kear was a Noma alumni and, when the Copenhagen restaurant announced a pop-up in Mexico, he and Stewart travelled there to eat. (The menu is still in Stewart's office, a tiny woven straw turtle dangling from the folded white card. Young coconut and caviar. Banana ceviche. Whole grilled pumpkin. "We were eating the honey sacs of ants," marvels Stewart.)
Stewart and Kear lived over the fence from each other and they breathed a shared ambition - Clooney would be the first New Zealand establishment on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list. Its fine-dining menu was, accordingly, skewed to something more radical. Local produce as it had never been seen before – tuatua custard with puffed rice; wood-smoked eel with avocado mousse. Cuisine described it as "progressive bordering on avant-garde" and elevated Clooney to three-hat status.
Tension was mounting. Kear wanted to do degustation only; Stewart needed a la carte to pay the bills (and, he says, keep customers happy). Ten months in, it all went spectacularly pear-shaped. A heated argument and rumours (later discounted) of physical blows. The catalyst was a staff request for a vegetarian pre-service dinner - an instruction to the kitchen to cook some eggs - and the fall-out was monumental. Kear walked out and when he came back Stewart sacked him and announced Clooney would close.
Japanese-American Kear now lives in Kyoto. Canvas tracked him down to the restaurant he has just opened with two other former Clooney staff.
"It was like the darkest time in my career," Kear said. "I just went from way up in heaven, straight down to hell in one day. I lost everything. I lost my dog. I had to send my dog back to my brother, because I wasn't sure if I could have a dog in Japan. I had all my belongings in storage in Grey Lynn up until like three months ago. But when you hit rock bottom - when you truly hit rock bottom - there's nowhere else but up."
In Kyoto, his restaurant Lurra (just 12 seats, everything cooked on open flames) has been fully booked since July.
"My hatchet is buried, my gun's unloaded. I have nothing against Tony any more. I hope he comes in - to this special restaurant - and eats."
The thing is: "He's a hard guy to work with. Ninety per cent of the time we were having a good time, the other 10 we were stressing each other out ... but when you have an owner who micromanages everything and when you have a passionate chef? It's always going to clash ... it's really hard when you have a restaurant owner and you have a superstar chef working together. It's never going to happen. It doesn't happen."
Plus, Kear claims, Stewart was under financial pressure. "We were getting phone calls from vendors, asking for payments ... I had an idea we weren't financially well. "
Company Office records track the complicated state of Clooney's financial affairs. In 2006, it had multiple shareholders across four separate entities. More recently, those entities have been renamed. They are all in liquidation and they all list just one director and shareholder: Antony Stewart. But while reports show creditors' claims of $1.5m, Stewart tells Canvas his only external debt is to Inland Revenue - $265k plus penalty interest.
"The other creditor is me, from money my partners and I invested. There are no other creditors."
In an email, he explains further: "The debt lays in Clooney Restaurant Partnership, the trading company for Clooney current is Clooney Restaurant Limited."
Long story short, Clooney is for sale. Will Stewart have to go bankrupt? "Ahhh ... depends."
He traces his problems back to the year he spent in San Diego, operating Waiheke Island Yacht Club, a New Zealand-themed pop-up restaurant for the America's Cup crowd.
"And over that time, there was some tax that was not paid ... if you don't pay tax, there is substantial penalties, so yeah, that got up to a position that wasn't ... [it was] very, very difficult to be able to pay back and that's the scenario that I'm at."
Money. Health. Ambition: "I have such high aspirations of what I want to achieve. I don't know if Auckland and its population base can sustain that. I could be a farmer and just disappear, to be honest. I love the land and I love working and I love getting my hands dirty but I've got a huge passion for New Zealand and food and I don't know if Auckland can sustain things that are too niche."
Clooney was Stewart's second Auckland venture. He'd wooed a cool crowd at Match Lounge and then Fearon Hay designed this Freeman's Bay restaurant, so timeless the only changes in 13 years have been fresh carpet and some smaller tables, post the Great Financial Crash.
"I remember one review. Geraldine Johns said we were - what's the expression? 'The Emperor's new clothes.' She said the customers were so cool, they could piss ice cubes ... It used to be so flashy at the start. It was just tragic in some respects. That designer crowd that would come to every opening."
Bendon lingerie launch? Clooney. Cocktail mixology lesson? Clooney. Back then, no one cared that the octopus came from Stewart Island and the abalone was an "innovation course" showcasing a marine farming operation at Ruakaka where the pāua spawn three times year instead of the usual one. The upside of the Kear stoush? This total commitment to a New Zealand-only menu; a restaurant that is serious about its food story. Stewart is non-committal about "what next" but here's a clue:
"Culinary tourism ... We need to have an understanding of what the tourist wants. Cultural diversity, regional focus, stories. They want to know it is intrinsically New Zealand ... you need direction from the likes of Tourism New Zealand to be able to achieve it."
That pop-up in San Francisco, says Stewart, had 48,000 people through the door. It served 3800kg of lamb and 5000 bottles of New Zealand wine.
"No one has ever achieved anything like that, be it the Government or personal, in getting New Zealand food noticed overseas than what we did ... anyway, whatever. People can make up their own mind."
When Canvas requested this interview, Stewart said the only off-limit subject would be his intensely private family life. His wife works in healthcare; their son sends him texts that start, "Hey nerd neck …" Stewart grew up in Invercargill (his "Rs" are still straight out of Southland) where, for 40 years, his dad managed a produce market, auctioning cases of fresh fruit and vegetables directly off the shop floor.
Stewart quit school halfway through the sixth form and went to work for Trust Bank. When they sent him to the Queenstown branch, he became a qualified ski instructor, eventually setting up a ski shop in Christchurch.
"My friend and I were the first people to parallel import ski gear in the worst season in 50 years. Thankfully, I have a propensity to look at a glass half full, because I've done a few things that I just shake my head at and think, 'Why on Earth?'"
His first hospitality venture was Invercargill's Rocks Restaurant (it's still open, dishes include slow-roasted pork loin with Kentucky bourbon and mango barbecue sauce, $37). In Wellington, he opened Mondo Cucina, before setting up Auckland's Match Lounge in 2003.
At Clooney, the first head chef was Glen Taylor, ex-Wellington's Shed 5. Stewart says the plan was to be casual but a steak and pommes frites vision was no match for the elegance of the dining room. Chef Des Harris took the menu down the fine-dining route for almost a decade. Now at The Hunting Lodge, Harris "politely declined" to be interviewed for this story. Clooney did close, briefly, after the Kear stoush, re-opening with current head chef Nobu Lee.
"You realise how vulnerable you are," says Stewart. "I can have people walk out of that kitchen and never come back and I can't do anything about it. I can't jump into the kitchen and cook. I can't employ someone at the drop of a hat to come and run a kitchen and give direction to a style that I believe in. If a chef is invested in a restaurant, the decisions they make ultimately rest with how successful it is. It can make or break me. And it just about did break me."
That fight with Kear was, he says, the only time the job has moved him to tears.
"Afterwards. Never on the night. I just had to carry on service."
This is Stewart at the top of his game. A lithe, sparkly-eyed figure on the customer side of the pass, calling for two fish and chips, please. There are just three more dinner services to go. Canvas has been here since 10am, shadowing Stewart as he changes light bulbs and takes a screwdriver to the freshly printed wine lists - last night, the sommelier sold a $550 bottle of Domaine de Mantille Pommard. They're running down the cellar. They've been booked solid for six weeks and the phone is still ringing with people who want one last dinner at Clooney.
When Stewart pushes up his sleeves, you can see the tattoos. An owl for strength. His wife. A man, slumped, with his head down. The Norwegian god of winter. His restaurant is not there: "It's still material. It's not emotional."
The poky upstairs office is a tip. Juxtapose that with the man who, every single night, adjusts every single downstairs placemat. On one shelf, a massive tangle of what looks like electrical wiring turns out to be one of those infamous string curtains. "They make great shoelaces," says Stewart and I think he's joking until I look at his trainers.
At lunchtime, he naps. He returns to a goodbye card and a gift from a customer – a $6000 Dadelszen leather jacket. What did Clooney mean to a certain sector of Auckland? One family has been in five times over the past eight weeks. Stewart has started to add the date to the menu that is presented with the bill, because customers want a tangible reminder that they were there at the end. Forty per cent of tips are split among all staff. Last night, a staffer cleared $1000, not counting their share of the group cut.
I sit in on the staff dinner (duck and tomato stew) and the pre-service briefing (51 on the books - multiple pescatarians, one dairy intolerance and someone who doesn't like mushrooms). Lee takes the kitchen team to a separate table and lectures on grease-free plates (don't move the salmon) and the importance of communication. Those mandarins that take two days to make? If someone drops a mandarin and the kitchen is short, that person will be taken out to apologise to the entire table, he says. The first customers are due in 10 minutes. "Soon, I will never say any s*** like that again to you," says Lee.
The lights go down and the music goes up. Somewhere between the rock lobster from the CRA2 fishery and the cauliflower that has been baked for three hours and served with candied blueberries and housemade almond milk, my dining companion announces that if Clooney were a drink, it would be a martini. "It would be," he says warming to his theme, "a backless black dress".
At our first interview, Stewart said if he had the energy, he'd turn Clooney into a supper club. Low lights, live music and money to be made on a good drinks list.
"But I don't want to do that. Just dumb it down? So much of Auckland is playing to the masses and it's just not the way I'm geared."
As a kid, "I wanted to be the first person across the finish line. I wanted to be in the first XI, the first XV. I wanted to be the last one standing playing bullrush."
Fearless. Aggressive. Self-descriptors from a man so determined to be an open and honest interviewee, that when I ask if he ever got into physical fights he says, "Absolutely, lots of them." That aggression faded, he says, when he started talking about his disease to those closest to him.
"I'm not a sentimental person. I just believe what goes around comes around. I've probably had my moments with karma over the years but I think, now, I'm a good person. I haven't always been a good person but I think I am now."
Cystic fibrosis mostly affects the lungs. Stewart coughs frequently, he spends mornings and evenings clearing the mucous that otherwise settles and infects. Ask him why he is restaurateur and not a chef and the answer is devastatingly pragmatic: "The smoke."
Actually, he'd also really miss being on the floor.
"I love my five hours that I spend with my customers in any given night but at the end of it, I'm physically f***ed ... If the infection does not come up, it stays down there and then you end up with pneumonia and that's how I will die. I will drown in sputum. That's just the way it is."
The oldest New Zealander with cystic fibrosis is, says Stewart, 62.
"I'd love to think I could get to that. But the reality ... I don't think so. You know, I don't dwell on it. I never get down. That's not a bad thing, knowing that. You've got a time period that you need to do so much. If you just go on and on and on, you have the potential to do nothing."
He searches for the words. "It's not ... a gift. But it is not a bad way of looking at things."