1. Were you always a foodie?
Not at all. When I was a kid my mum would make these incredible meals at home and I never appreciated any of them. I've heard a theory that kids with developed palates are like that. I would refuse to eat anything that had wine in it, because I could taste it. I just wanted simple food. I'm not sure if that's true - they say there are super tasters and super smellers but don't quote me on it.
2. What did your parents do?
Dad was a barrister and Mum a radiographer. I was the only child and they were both super busy. We left Cape Town when I was about 3 because they didn't agree with apartheid, and we moved to Perth. We went back again when Mandela come to power. They always gave me amazing freedom - when I was about 8, my mate and I would get on our bikes, catch trains, be 40km away from home in Perth, just riding around. When I was a teenager in Cape Town I had a lot of freedom too, even though it was pretty dangerous. I think my parents could see I had my wits about me. When I left school I'd enrolled for architecture at university but they could see my heart wasn't really in it. So Mum and Dad bought me a round-the-world plane ticket and told me to go and explore. I did six continents in a year.
3. How did you pay your way?
Well, Mum and Dad really but my first stop was Sydney and I got a job washing dishes in a restaurant. I'd never washed dishes before - I was an only child remember - but the moment I walked into that kitchen I could just feel the energy of it. I watched this head chef and he was like a captain on the rugby field, driving this team on, and it was just awesome.
4. Is that how you ended up flying in the States when September 11 happened?
Yeah, I'd been in Miami with a friend who was playing golf there and I stayed for two months playing golf every day at a resort. We went to New York for a week and then flew back to Florida on September 11. We were on stand-by because there'd been an electric storm that had delayed flights the night before. We got seat 1a and 1b on the 6.30am flight, bumped up to first class. By the time we landed the first tower had been hit. The one thing I remember is the blank looks on everyone's face when we got into the terminal in Florida. Everyone was just staring up at the [TV] screens. I couldn't fly out of there for the best part of a month afterwards. It's surreal looking back but it didn't really hit me until a couple of years later. I've still got the boarding pass.
5. By the time you got back to South Africa, did you know you wanted to be a chef?
Yeah, I did. I'd been a really small kid - the smallest kid at school - which meant I hadn't eaten much. When I hit 15 I grew and got really into food. I would watch my mum make bechamel sauce and loved how the butter and flour would go in and sometimes it was smooth and sometimes it wasn't. Was I bullied for being small? Yeah, I was. I had a lot of that from other kids and it wasn't pleasant. I never got into fights. I wanted to, but I was too small.
6. Why did you choose to go to Sydney to cook?
My mum's sister lived there and I had an Australian passport and so I enrolled in a Tafe course. I'd study one day a week and got a job in a restaurant with a good Chinese chef called Gavin. We were making modern Australian food, pretty simple stuff, but he was great to me. It was really lonely though. My aunt lived miles out in the western suburbs and there weren't many young people my age out there. I found it really hard to make friends. I think I stayed because I wanted to make my parents' proud. They'd sent me off into the world and I wanted to repay them somehow. After a couple of years Gavin told me I should go and do fine dining. It was really kind of him - I know now that you don't want to lose your hardworking staff.
7. What's it like working in Michelin-star restaurants in Paris?
You work for free. There were 10 chefs in L'Astrance [one of the 50 best restaurants in the world] when I worked there and four of them were paid. It's tough, but it's like a university degree, getting those jobs. I'd do weddings at the weekend to make money and I'd sold everything when I left Australia. I had six months there and came back with a $20,000 debt. But it's amazing, you know? I learned French in the mornings and worked in the afternoons and nights.
8. What do you talk about in those kitchens?
Every kitchen you go into it's like a family. You have some really deep and meaningful conversations with each other. You can talk and cook and you establish really strong connections. Maybe it's because the kitchen deals together with so much stress.
9. Do you find it stressful?
I totally have. I'm working on that now, finding more balance in life. In New Zealand I've had amazing opportunities and was on a roll with good reviews then when I first got [to the Sofitel] I had one terrible review. It was tough to deal with. I'd been working 100-hour weeks just getting my head around the hotel and that review crushed me. It came out on my 32nd birthday and the thing that got me most was all these people had organised lovely birthday surprises for me and [the review] put me in such a dark space that I could feel myself projecting it on everyone else.
10. How did you cope with it?
It's an ongoing progress but I've been reading books on mind power, things like that. I find the pressure of being judged every day quite taxing and I've been really hard on myself. Everyone has self-doubt but I see myself as a student of life. I think that review matured me as a chef. I wasn't arrogant but I didn't realise how lucky I had been. It made me realise I wasn't the new kid on the block anymore and people had expectations and if you don't perform, things happen.
11. Who are Auckland's best chefs, in your opinion?
Simon Wright, who is also one of the nicest guys, and Michael Meredith. I came to Auckland for a weekend and a friend said I should go to the French Cafe. I talked to Simon and he offered me a job. I still ask him for advice. If I could do anything for Auckland I'd double the population, to help the restaurants. I don't think we realise how good the standard is. The talent pool is incredible.
12. Where will you be in 10 years' time?
Chasing summer with restaurants around the world. I'll come back to New Zealand for summer - two weeks a year.