Greg Bruce meets up-and-coming restaurant queen Diva Giles.
Diva Giles was 24 when she and business partner Logan Birch entered the restaurant game in 2020, opening Beau, in Ponsonby, a few weeks before the country went into its first lockdown. Having weathered their first year, in a notoriously difficult industry, during one of the most economically difficult times in its history, one of their staff died. It was sudden and unexpected and a massive shock not just for Giles but for everyone associated with the restaurant. She describes it as a major turning point in her life.
"In any element of your life, you get to go, like, 'Who do we want to be right now? And in that moment, I think, in the Pākehā framework of grieving, you just keep calm and carry on and you just go about your day. Something awful happens and the world moves on. The world keeps turning. But it actually doesn't for a little while. It stops. So that was when I realised that, for me personally, having a tikanga approach, a Māori approach to things, was really important."
From that point on, Giles, who is Ngāti Whātua, says she's been more aware of incorporating the values of growing up Māori into her business and life. She and Birch decided to close their doors for two days, then invited staff back in, just to gather and discuss and spend time together. It was a big financial hit, she says, but the right thing to do.
"That was when I realised that actually you can have a business and it can be successful and all of that stuff, but you can also be a part of your community and have a community that's a part of you. And we just put a sign up on the door and people gave us nothing but love. That was a real turning point of, 'We can actually operate with compassion and kindness, for others and for ourselves.'"
Hospitality is a tough place to work, with all the difficulties inherent in serving an endless stream of not-always-pleasant people with their high expectations derived from paying hundreds of dollars for dinner while drinking reasonable quantities of alcohol. As a result, it has a reputation for attracting or developing leaders who are hard-asses. Giles, who works front-of-house as well as running the business with Birch, is not like that, doesn't want to be like that, and doesn't want her staff to be like that. She is open about the fact she's not always okay and wants her staff to be open about it too, even though they're working in an industry where they're paid to pretend they are.
I met her at Beau on a recent weekday morning and we talked while sitting at a table in the restaurant's private dining room upstairs. At one stage she gestured to the floor at the table's far end and said she can sometimes be found down there crying. It was not the first time she'd talked about crying during our interview, nor was it the last.
"It probably sounds like I cry a lot," she said, then laughed, then said, "I do. I'm not sure why I was going to try and laugh that off."
She described her emotional capacity as like a cup. She said each time something goes wrong - she says something stupid, someone doesn't get the best version of her, she makes a mistake, she fails to give someone what they need - the cup fills a little more. When it's full, she said, she goes to bed and doesn't get up for two days. She estimated that happens every three months. After two days in bed, her cup is empty and she starts again. She said: "I probably need to get better at managing it more."
She told the story of the night she greeted one of her restaurant's regular customers in her usual way: friendly, enthusiastic, with a big smile: "I said, 'Take a seat! Really nice to see you!' And she just looks at me and she's like, 'What's wrong?' And I'm like, 'Nothing's wrong.' I'm like, 'What do you mean? I'm having a great day' and whatever. And she just puts her hand on me and says, 'Are you okay?' And I just burst into tears. And it was one of those moments. I was so embarrassed, as you can imagine. I'm like, 'Oh my God, it's a Friday night at 5pm. We're about to get really busy. The dinner rush is going to start. And I'm here crying.'
"But I kind of realised that that's actually okay. It's okay to have a reciprocal relationship, because that's what community is. It's having people that are part of the community, but you can also have a relationship with them and they're allowed to care about you. I had this realisation that when you work in hospitality, it doesn't have to be a one-sided relationship."
She also mentioned an interview she had once given for a blog, in which she talked about how kids at school had sometimes called her King Kong because, being pale-skinned and Māori, the hair on her arms stood out. After the interview, she grappled for a long time with calling the blogger and asking her not to include it. In the end, she didn't, but it showed, she said, the conflicting forces at play in her mind.
"I'm very intense and I'm pretty headstrong, but I'm trying to show my vulnerabilities a bit more because I am still a person. I think sometimes you kind of have to be a bad bitch. You have to be. And I would say that I am. But I also go home and cry and I think that it's important to acknowledge that and talk about it and normalise it."
She said: "I think I'm probably contradictory a lot of the time, because I'm actually just 26."
She spoke openly about her anxieties, her tendency to overthink things. She said she often wakes in the middle of the night, worrying about things she's said and done and how they might have affected people. She read aloud a poem called Things, by Fleur Adcock, to which she said she related:
"There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse."
She said: "I say something to a customer and it just doesn't land. Or maybe I was a bit off and I wasn't my best self for the team member, or I wasn't my best self for the supplier, or sometimes you're just tired - the rubbish didn't get collected and you just f***ing need the rubbish to get collected because it's a Friday and your bins are full - and you're not your best self in that moment, and then I just don't stop thinking about it. And then it'll hit me at five in the morning just lying there."
She said her worries are typically about how she's made people feel: Did she offend someone? Did she come across like an idiot?
"At the end of the day, you just have to come to terms with the fact that you're going to mess it up sometimes. And that just has to be okay and you have to be able to live with it because that's the thing: how do you live with yourself? And if i'm trying to be my best self every day I can live with that. And, if I'm not my best self every day, in a non-religious way I can atone for that - both with the person that was impacted by it, and myself."
When you meet Giles, you realise that the fact Beau has succeeded in the midst of the pandemic - in one of the hardest-hit industries, in one of that industry's most competitive locations - is not an accident. As Viva restaurant reviewer Jesse Mulligan wrote in his rave review in September 2020: "This is what Auckland needs right now — restaurants run by good people who feel like friends the first time you meet them."