Lunch is done. Short ribs stripped to flat, bare bones; oysters slicked live from their shells. The harbour is a fresh flute of money. Shiny, sparkly, spangly. Chairs pushed back, third bottle on the way. No one is checking the time.

Simon Gault has zero time. Skinny legs in skinny jeans walking fast past the bars, the restaurants - the competition.

Once, Gault was the King of the Viaduct. When the Whitbread Round the World Yacht races stopped here in the 1990s, there were two restaurants to namecheck: Kermadec and Gault's on Quay. You know his face. He was a judge on MasterChef NZ, he sells chicken stock and Kiwi seasoning in Countdown and pots and placemats in Briscoes. He started the food import business Sous Chef, because he wanted buffalo mozzarella and a whole wheel of parmesan. He's partnered with retirement village behemoth Metlifecare and flogged joinery for Fletcher Aluminium.

Nourish Group liked the look of his brand so much they signed him as their executive chef. He did 12 years with the Jervois Steakhouse, Shed 5, Fish, The Crab Shack - nine restaurants in total, including waterfront jewel, Euro.


In June, 2015, Gault quit. He said he had not been pushed: "I can categorically tell you that is absolutely not the case." He said he wanted to have his own restaurant, "my best yet".

Two years later, at the Viaduct, in the corner next to Soul Bar and Bistro in the space that used to be Mecca and the Bubble Champagne Lounge, Gault is opening that restaurant. At the behest of his daughter, he has called it Giraffe.

It's six sleeps from first service. Gault is walking and talking. Yesterday, he was told four pieces of kitchen equipment would not be here for opening night. On the day of this interview, the supplier revised that figure upward to 12 - and then left the country. That kind of stuff never happened, says Gault, when he was with Nourish.

Inside Giraffe it is gib board and total chaos. Extension cords are piled like spaghetti. The only thing glinting in the sun is construction dust.

"This would make great television," I say.

"Wouldn't it?!" says Gault.

But there are no cameras. Gault, unfiltered and on his own.

"You've always got something to prove, haven't you? I want it to be great, I want people to love it."

Get knocked down. Get up again.

"I don't know if I've been down. I don't feel like I've been down. I'm doing this for fun."

No one opens a restaurant for fun. Also, Gault has recently experienced the hardest 12 months of his 52-year-old life.

You've always got something to prove, haven't you? I want it to be great, I want people to love it.

Simon Gault on new restaurant, Giraffe

In April 2016, he confirmed to media he had split with his hairdresser wife Katrina Van Dam, the woman he famously wooed with Euro desserts.

"It was the toughest year of my life, basically. But I feel I'm out the other end of it. And I think everybody who has been through a separation will absolutely know what I went through and I'm no different to anyone else. I went through the same stuff.

"When it first happens, you're busy telling everybody how bad it is. You know what? People don't want to hear that. They don't want to listen to you go on and on and on about it. I went online, and read something about marriage break-ups and it said that's what you do - and I thought, 'that's exactly what I'm doing'. And the minute I stopped doing that, the minute everything started to get better. It's that simple."

The split was not, he says, his decision. It was "pretty surprising, yeah". But the number one priority: "Our daughter. We will work together 155 per cent to make sure that little girl gets the most awesome upbringing."

Hazel is 3 ½ years old. There she is, on a video on his phone, making a clay pasta bowl at the Ramarama pottery studio that's producing tableware for Giraffe.

"I was never going to be that guy who was like, 'Here's a photo of my daughter.' I was never, ever going to be that guy. But she's awesome, eh? She's just - she melts my heart, every moment."

They cook and eat together. Hazel "gets" his food passion.

"One of my bugbears is going to a restaurant and they serve a pizza, and it's the cheapest cheese and it's crap olives, and she'll be sitting there and she'll go, 'Dad - these olives aren't very good.' And I'm like, 'That's my girl.'"

He's on Facebook, mixing beetroot powder with egg for her preschool sandwiches. Once, he packed her lunchbox with smoked oysters, just because she declared them "yummy".

"She came home, and not one had been touched." He smiles an indulgent dad smile. "I think most parents would frown upon a father putting smoked oysters in the lunchbox ..."

Gault IS a King's College Old Boy. He left school to work for Tony Astle at Antoine's and opened Bell House, his first restaurant, aged 23. One night, advertising guru Kevin Roberts came in for dinner. He encountered Gault in the corridor and demanded to know who he was.

"I was wearing a chef's jacket. I'm like 'clown, who do you think I am?'"

Roberts said that if, when he came back the next week, Gault was wearing a jacket that bore his name and a Steinlager Chef of the Year credit, he'd give him a pallet of beer. Gault rang his mother and she got out the sewing machine. Gault wore the logo, got the beer - and a lifetime of mentoring. Giraffe was gestated last year over a three-day brainstorm at Robert's London home.

Brand Gault on show at the 2014 Food Show at the ASB Showgrounds. Photo / Dean Purcell
Brand Gault on show at the 2014 Food Show at the ASB Showgrounds. Photo / Dean Purcell

Gault has Everyman charm. His personal chef credentials include stints with Spice Girls manager Simon Fuller (he catches up with him when he's in Los Angeles) and Oracle Corporation founder Larry Ellison (currently listed as the world's seventh richest man).

"I was very fortunate to have those experiences, to work with those people and build a relationship with them."

He tells this great story about the time he was cooking lunch and Ellison came into the kitchen to tell his chef (a qualified pilot and long-time plane geek) that he was going flying that afternoon. They get to the airport and Gault's still in his chef's jacket. Inside the hangar, there's a jet fighter, a Pilatus PC-7 and a Pitts Special. "The biggest candy store in the world."

Gault chooses the Pilatus and tells the pilot he's had some experience with the Pitts, an aerobatic plane. He can tell the pilot's not convinced. Gault flies for a bit, but then the pilot - who has demanded aerobatics - suggests he take over.

"I pointed the thing at the ground, and I pulled up and did a vertical stall, a roll turn over the top and a vertical roll on the way down. And all I can hear from the back seat is, 'F****k!'"

After that, he was allowed to fly for an hour a week.

"But you have to realise you work for them. I remember once I elected to unpack somebody's bag and put their undies and socks and all in their drawer. Did I ever think I would be doing that for somebody? Being subservient like that? It doesn't bother me. That's all part of it. You do what you have to do. It's like sometimes, you've got to wash dishes, right? Luckily, I don't have to do that too often these days."

Will he be cooking at his new restaurant?

"I'll be conducting," he says.

Pre-opening, and he's set up his "kitchen leaders" David Hammer and Rob Hope-Ede, in a test space in Mt Wellington. "I've got some rock stars - younger, faster, better than me. I'm the inspiration. I'm the guy that's there tasting, talking to people, telling them about the food."

They're on their seventh iteration of a menu that, on the day Canvas saw it, ran an eclectic gamut: rabbit casserole, beef tendon crackers, trevally crudo, "staff" chicken, french onion fondue, collard greens and pigs' tails.

Gault scoured the country for black pudding, settling on a Napier supplier who got his recipe from an elderly man he once gave a lift home from the hospital. Gault likes the boudin noir, but more than that, he likes the origin story, the relationship. He can tell you that the rabbit comes from Gore, the crab from a couple with one boat. He's growing his own french sorrel, because it's $270 a kilogram to buy and he's not made of money, you know.

"People probably think I'm a multimillionaire. Let me tell you, I'm not."

His new business partner is Mecca founder Metin Yildiz. Nourish Group bought him out of the company, and yes, he says, that loss of regular income was nerve-racking.

"You love the money, right? You know, it helps, when you've got a mortgage to pay off and that sort of thing. I left to essentially no income with a complete unknown of how I was going to earn money. And then my life did this massive turn. And, you know, that's scary."

He left his job and his marriage left him. In the background, constantly, the spectre of Type 2 diabetes. That's his other crusade; his other life project. Gault has made a three-part television series (it has screened on BBC Asia and is sitting with Prime for scheduling) called Why Are We Fat?

"We have an epidemic of diabetes in New Zealand," he says. "Seventy per cent of Northland has diabetes."

You do what you have to do. It's like sometimes, you've got to wash dishes, right? Luckily, I don't have to do that too often these days.


On screen, Gault - literally - bares almost all. In the "bod pod" he strips down to discover he is 40 per cent fat, that one-third of his liver contains fat. He is "pissed off". It is "the most shocking news of my life". In the supermarket, he reiterates that 80 per cent of everything in there is processed, and that three core ingredients dominate - refined starch, sugar and cheap vegetable oils. But later, when white, middle-class Gault is filmed wandering past his large swimming pool, on his country property, I wonder: How will Northland relate to this?

He bristles, very slightly.

"Type 2 diabetes is the secret disease that you don't want to tell anybody about. I had Type 2 diabetes for a long time. I knew it, I didn't tell anybody. It was all highly secret. I did five years of MasterChef, eating, eating, eating desserts.

I never said a word, 'cos you're embarrassed about it.

"Let me tell you, there are a lot of people, from all walks of life, who have diabetes and don't want to tell anybody about it. And that's one of the big reasons I did this."

There are, he says, more fat people than slim people in New Zealand. He'd like to get on the speaking circuit, and share his thoughts on diet and health - but he won't be pushing that message at Giraffe.

"I'm not trying to do a healthy menu where people come in and lose weight. That's not the restaurant I want to run."

Diabetes is a "big deal". Gault says he knows when he's being bad.

"Today, I haven't had lunch. I can feel it right now. See me rubbing my eyes?"

When is his next day off? "You live there. You live there." He is delighted that Hazel will be a "restaurant brat", sharing the 5.30pm staff dinner. And, he says, she'll be asleep when he's working his hardest.

At Nourish, Gault got sick of travelling. Auckland, Queenstown, Wellington, Taupo. Repeat.

"I'd turn up to a restaurant of ours and see all these things that I didn't like, but you don't want to be the bad guy who just turns up for two days, drops a bomb and walks out. You had to pick one thing, or perhaps two, and try and help change that. I didn't know everybody's name, I didn't touch everybody like I wanted to. I was doing a lot of stuff not well. Do you know what I mean? You just can't do it all well."

But he missed restaurants. He'd been "eyeballing" Viaduct sites ("I think it's reinventing itself ... I think it's been tired for a while but there are new restaurants, a new rooftop bar") when someone suggested he approach Yildiz.

"I think we liked each other immediately. He's grounded, he's got good advice and he's a team player."

We're outside Giraffe now. Yildiz initially demurs when I ask him for a quote. He's surveying his business of 18 years, reduced to dust and gib board. "This man ..." he shakes his head. "It feels really good to have something together. Simon has lots to offer the industry. It's good for Auckland, good for New Zealand, good for everyone."

"This man" gives the guided tour of his new kingdom. He points out the chartreuse tiles he saw in a restaurant in LA, the no-place-to-hide open kitchen with no bain maries or heat lamps, the bathrooms where he's spending the glitz and glamour money.

"Because everybody talks about the toilets, right? You have your own little space, you can put your bag up there ..."

And a mirror? "That's a good question. I wonder if there is a mirror in here? Shit, I hadn't thought about that ..."

Six sleeps. And counting.

Change, says Gault, is exciting. He likes change. He's given talks on change.

"If you want to change a block of ice that's round into a block of ice that's square, you have to unfreeze it. You have to unfreeze that thinking. And then you refreeze that thinking into another shape.

"But you have to understand why you're making that change. It's not just for the sake of it. You're changing because you want that ice block to be a round ice block so it will fit in that hole."