I’d been talking about opening a restaurant for two years but didn’t know what to call it. The name The Sugar Club has a pedigree and people remember it [the first opened in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1986, followed by two incarnations in London’s Notting Hill and Soho]. I’ve never been an owner of The Sugar Clubs – I was always the head chef – but the name was available for the taking.
The food scene in New Zealand is incredible. There’s stuff there you could drop in Notting Hill, Mayfair and Shoreditch and it would go off like a bomb. Young New Zealand chefs are travellers and are always thinking ‘what can I do next?’
When The Sugar Club opened in Notting Hill [in 1995] it was one of the most policed streets in London. Cabs wouldn’t drive down All Saints Road because it was too dodgy. My new restaurant, with views over Auckland, is a slightly different location!
I’ve travelled a lot in Asia and have an inquisitive nature when it comes to Asian food. Its influence on my cooking has been huge.
At the original Sugar Club I couldn’t find goats’ cheese, so I had to make my own. I was drying tomatoes long before sun-dried tomatoes got out of control and using pomegranate molasses before most chefs.
Notting Hill [Sugar Club] was named by the London Evening Standard as the best Pacific Rim restaurant in London. The following week it won a Time Out award for best modern British restaurant. I thought, ‘what are we?’ I read about a chef called Norman Van Aken in Chicago who described his cooking as fusion, and it made sense. I used it to describe what I was doing in the UK.
I have a really strong work ethic, something that I inherited from my father and grandmother.
I live in London for nine months of the year and visit New Zealand about five times. It’s not the journey that’s bad – it’s nice being away from texts and emails for a bit – but rather the jet lag.
The success of The Sugar Club was that we were cooking in a way people hadn’t done before. And the food was considered as being healthy. We were a breath of fresh air.
One of my greatest achievements has been raising £4m for a leukaemia charity with my ‘Who’s Cooking Dinner?’ events. Another one is sticking to what I do despite all the flak that fusion food has received.
The River Café is one of the best examples of how a restaurant should be run. And Terence Conran is an unsung hero. People of my age know about him but there are a lot of young chefs who don’t know how much he contributed to the industry.
I think fusion is a terrible label but I can’t think of anything else. And you’ve now got Gillette Fusion razor blades, which doesn’t help. But I’ll keep doing what I do.
The critics of fusion are the people who don’t get it. They think you shouldn’t change food heritage, but why not? I heard a talk once from an Italian chef who spoke about how he put ginger with ravioli and people said it was no longer Italian. Italian car makers such as Lamborghini and Ferrari are always innovating – if there’s better brake technology in Japan they’ll use that – but if chefs innovate they get abuse. I
don’t know what all the fuss is about.
I enjoy working. I could do with a day off now and then and I do whinge, but I could always say no to things. I’m currently helping a friend [Kurt Zdesar] open a restaurant, Chotto Matte, in Soho, in September/October.
When I first moved to London, Antony Worrall Thompson was the first person I wrote a thank-you letter to. I went to his restaurant, dell’Ugo, on Frith Street, Soho, and had a squid dish with Puy lentils and crispy potatoes – it was delicious.
I doubt this will be my last restaurant. I have links to three cities, London, Auckland and Istanbul [where Gordon consults on two restaurants] and it makes a lot of sense to focus on these places.
Why should food have rules? Either it works or it doesn’t. The only rule is: bad taste shouldn’t be allowed.