The pursuit of excellence

Tony Stewart at the Clooney pass
Restrauteur Tony Stewart, owner of triple-hatted Clooney, gets frank about almost walking away, the state of hospitality, the San Pellegrino restaurant awards, and telling a New Zealand story.

First of all, it’s Clooney, not Clooneys, nor is it Clooney’s. It is singular, and non-possessive. And no, it has nothing to do with George Clooney. Telling you this is more for my benefit, than for Tony Stewart, the owner of Clooney, who reckons “small things don’t worry me much these days”.

“Not as many [people], thankfully, ask about the name,” he observes.

But for those who’re curious: the name was chosen because it resembles the space well — Clooney is a cavern of a restaurant, being built in an old warehouse, with booths embracing the tables. “It has a lot of Os,” Tony explains, noting how round the tables and seats are; the dining floor is divided into four oval sections, with booths rotated like pinball cushions so no diners directly face each other — Tony moves the hefty banquettes himself.

It’s been a lot of hard work keeping it open for 12 years, with the restaurant very nearly closing after Jacob Kear’s term as head chef, in January.

Introspection at 48

When Jacob left, it was time for Tony to really take stock. He’d poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into bringing Jacob over, including immigration costs for his family, renting a house for them, not to mention the various kitchen improvements like a giant stone slab to replace the stainless steel pass (the bench where food is passes from back to front of house, which is often a literal hole in the wall) — the curtains that used to block it from view have been parted, giving diners a look at the workings of the kitchen, and an incentive for chefs to behave themselves.

The financials weren’t looking good: the restaurant was getting lots of good buzz and saccharine reviews, but only 20 of the 50 seats were being filled on any given night. They had alienated themselves from the market.

Tony thinks New Zealand just wasn’t into the Japanese-Nordic food style brought by Jacob (Noma, the former number one on San Pellegrino’s World’s Best 50 Restaurants, is one of his major influences, especially since he staged there). With every other chef, Tony has had input with the menu, but he gave Jacob free rein and relinquished control.

Jacob was fired last October, after an altercation during service. Several ex-staff members made public posts on their personal Facebook accounts about their negative experiences regarding working with him; it was hinted some had left because of the way they were treated by Jacob. There were, as legal professionals would say, mitigating circumstances involved, though, according to accounts told to me from other sources. As a lot of it is out there already, I won’t elaborate further.

On the subject of the departed chef, Tony orates, “it wasn’t a relationship that was conducive to longevity […] we wanted something different”.

“One thing I learned over that time: relationships and the environment you create is more important to get right than anything else.”

When he was thinking of closing Clooney down, he wasn’t sure about the future. Maybe he could sell it, or go more back towards the casual nightclub genre of his past (and partly Clooney’s too; guests still come in telling tales of the parties that used to go on in the basement, which is now the private dining room). But giving it all up at 48 would be “a kick in the guts”.

Like Chuck and The Mindy Project, the outpouring of support, especially through Clooney’s Facebook page, made him realise there definitely is a place for it.

Clooney needed appeal for people to return, and to get those seats filled.

The first canapé, “a dish called toroi“. A preserved mussel sits on a “shell” made from dough and squid ink.
The first canapé, “a dish called toroi“. A preserved mussel sits on a “shell” made from dough and squid ink.

In mid-January, current head chef Nobu Lee called Tony and they talked constantly, for weeks, about a vision and new charter for the restaurant. Nobu had actually been offered the position before Jacob; he had the support of then executive chef Des Harris to be Des’ successor. Nobu ultimately chose to take the head chef role at Melbourne heavyweight Vue de Monde (fun fact: many of Clooney’s alumni are also Vue de Monde alumni).

The difficulty of being a non-chef owner is that it puts Tony “in a very unbearable position”. Clooney is his baby and giving away control makes no sense to him; Tony now works on the front-of-house side of the pass, four to five nights of the week, and giving him more face time with diners. The difference with Nobu is they have an understanding food-wise.

Rebirth

Clooney’s approach has reverted to being diner-centric. In Jacob’s reign, people with dietary requirements were eliminated, but these days, the kitchen will try to accommodate all dietaries, even vegans (there was a period in 2016 when there was an explicit ban on them, although a few “surprise vegans” did turn up, and were served). The reasoning being, “if someone gives us the respect of time, we will do anything”.

Finding ways to cater to all aspects of the target market is working well for Clooney: a juice and a tea match (Anna Kydd, a certified tea master, was brought in to consult) are now on offer in addition to the traditional wine match (sadly, the “anything but wine” match is no longer around), resulting in almost everyone doing a beverage match now.

It’s not just improving the customer’s experience — the point of a beverage match is to elevate the food — but also helps increase per-customer spend, something that’s more important now Tony’s cut down on seating capacity. Back in Des’ time (to the end of 2016), around 80 customers would be sat down on the brown loungers on a busy night. These days, there is a cap of 50: the number of seats available. He tells me how he rejected bookings totalling 16 people one night because he didn’t have the appropriate staffing available.

The seating times have also become more rigid — they are now more regular and well-spaced, giving each waiter ample time to adequately deal with a table. Double drops, when two tables are sat at the same time, are non-existent — compare this to busy smart dining restaurants, when five tables can fill up within a 20 minute period, meaning someone will be neglected.

Waiters have to have personality at Clooney, too. Clooney was always the black to The French Café’s white: you didn’t feel like you were being martialled, or that every point of service was timed to the second, and you could talk about anything with the waiters (and by anything, I really do mean anything). The new canapé section of the menu, comprising four dishes inspired by Kiwi food history, is also the most extensive section of the night with regards to explanations. During the staff briefing before my dinner, Tony spoke of shortening the spiel for diners who were not interested. My waiter continued this during my dinner, remarking it’s the easiest way to lose a customer, and their tip, if he drones on about how much fish and chips New Zealanders ate if they don’t want to hear it. As Tony directed, the waiters should follow “the sequence of service best suited to the customer”.

Lights on the Clooney ceiling.
Lights on the Clooney ceiling.

Finding good wait staff in New Zealand is a common lament from top restrauteurs: you need people with a very solid handle on English, a decent knowledge of wine and ingredients, and the ability to memorise pages of notes, then deliver them without sounding like you’re reciting a poem in Latin. In fact, there is only one born and bred Kiwi left on the front of house team currently (though having an international team means there is a far better ability to help customers who speak little English).

Usually, there is an influx of staff just before the start of winter, as international hospitality professionals come over to work for nine months, and then travel for the three of summer. This year, Tony notes he hasn’t seen it happen; there’re just more people applying without work permits and who are not in New Zealand already.

The staffing problem

The same issue of getting Kiwis into the kitchen plagues Clooney too. It can’t realistically take chefs straight out of culinary school and put them on the line; Tony reckons a chef needs at least five years’ experience before they would be able to qualify for an entry-level position in the Clooney kitchen (by entry-level, Tony means someone who’s not the head, sous or pastry chef; Clooney’s kitchen is also small, with usually only one chef on a station, compared with teams at fine dining restaurants overseas, allowing relatively inexperienced cooks to train).

Tony believes there needs to be a more hands-on component to the culinary training here. It should be something along the lines of an apprentice system so potential chefs can see what the reality is — “people don’t realise how hard it is”. He still sees the education as crucial, as restaurants can’t teach everything, and he thinks people should learn before going into the trade, provided the tutors know their stuff.

The other prong of the dilemma is many New Zealand chefs at the required skill level go overseas to train and learn. The biggest incentive to get and retain good chefs would be money, but it’s hard to justify it when there are “no margins in fine dining”.

The way a lot of top restaurants overseas deal with it is by having armies of stagiers — chefs who are working for free. Noma is known to have a large number of them, making up a large proportion of the kitchen contingent, which annoys Tony when René Redzepi talks about working conditions and four-day working weeks, as their wage costs are half of what most other restaurants’ are.

Considered as a total, wage costs are high in New Zealand. It’s worse for fine dining; even on a quiet night, Clooney needs at least four chefs working. Tony would love it to be the restaurant that has a full house every night, half the team made of stagiers, and that he knew reliably how much gross profit he’d get every week. There were a few stagiers at Clooney during the Jacob era, but it “very much depends on the cuisine you’re doing”. It helped when they were doing the Nordic-inspired style, as “stagiers really much want to see this new kind of influence”.

Bread and butter at Clooney
Bread is made in-house from fermented Kamahi honey, Moa Southern Alps White IPA, and white and rye grain from North Canterbury (which is milled at Clooney). Accompanying it is cultured butter.

‘Flying the flag for New Zealand’

Jacob’s food had “wow” through difference, but it wasn’t necessarily a food style that made them want to come back, Tony states. The new Clooney needed the food to be interesting, but not at the sacrifice of “yumminess”.

This has resulted in Clooney going local — all foodstuffs are grown in New Zealand.

The chocolate is now from Hogarth, in Nelson, instead of Valrhona, and the San Pellegrino and Aqua Panna bottled water is replaced with Antipodes. Water was the penultimate ingredient to be switched out; capers were the last — salted preserved blueberries are the current replacement, but capers are being grown for the restaurant.

They’ve even found a supplier of bananas. Tony’s friends set up PermaDynamics, a farm community of seven families in Matapouri, who run their lives on the ideologies of permaculture and biodynamics. They suggested he should look into using their ingredients, and that’s how he found the lady finger banana, used in the langoustine dish. “I live off bananas, but I had never come across a banana with the perfect Brix level [a measure of fruit sweetness] with acidity and the perfect texture.” When the last shipment was dropped off, the whole top of the banana tree was brought in, bearing hands of green fruit.

Clooney has eight to 12 direct relationships with producers, depending on the season, but Tony thinks “we need to get better in New Zealand” at those relationships and supply chains. Part of that entails bringing export market goods back — some of them go offshore without ever being seen here.

Tony cites his father’s fruit and vegetable business as the influence. “I want to be true to what restrauteuring is and that’s to find the best ingredients and put them on the plate.” Producers and restaurants’ links have been broken, and it’s a matter of changing that mentality so these direct relationships with small producers can flourish.

Table 12 at Clooney
The view from table 12, which has a direct view of the pass.

Tony has planted Clooney’s point of difference on this localised cuisine, and he makes sure diners know this. There are staff trainings every Saturday, going in-depth on each producer and their ethos, to help the waiters tell the stories to the customers. When asked about whether he worries if it turns the degustation into a history lesson — something a fine dining restaurants going down this road are regularly accused of — he replies, “we have a pretty educated client base that appreciates knowledge. Information’s important, especially when you go to New Zealand ingredients: we need to be proud and talk about our suppliers. We wouldn’t be doing [the food] justice if we didn’t share some of that knowledge.”

Working to find these niche producers isn’t easy, a lot of it requires a lot of searching and serendipity. Tony thinks they should maybe be a bit more proactive in showing their ingredients and think a little more commercially minded by approaching restaurants before season, so the restaurants have more time to plan ahead. It fosters the relationship too: talking pre-season gives the restaurant ability to be more loyal and quality-focused.

The understanding of timings and production schedules is crucial for a concept of a dish. For instance, the Te Mana lamb used by Clooney is from Otago, so the other ingredients on the plate would ideally be from the same area — the same chicory the lamb eats in its last days is used in several components in the dish. It’s a matter of being able to find and get combinations within a season.

The point of all this? To give exposure and showcase these niche producers. I point out the irony of Clooney showing these producers off when regular members of the public don’t have any chance of getting the ingredients — beyond the restaurant, is there any benefit to the average Joe? Tony agrees it’s possible, but thinks the mission is still sound as the exclusivity lifts Clooney’s credibility as they have ingredients no one else will be able to have. PermaDynamics, the banana suppliers, are currently exclusively supplying Clooney, and there is a petit fours project underway (that’s all the detail Tony was willing to disclose to me).

Chasing the World’s Top 50

It’s no secret Tony’s always wanted to have Clooney included in the San Pellegrino World’s Best 50 Restaurants. The San Pellegrinos are in some ways more prestigious than Michelin’s triple-star rating, as they take into account the whole world (Michelin has not ventured to Australia, let alone New Zealand) and arguably embraces a wider variety of food styles (Michelin has been accused in the past of favouring French and Japanese styles of food over, say, Indian). They’re also judged differently: Michelin employs its own inspectors, who are supposedly anonymous (waiters and chefs working at potentially starred restaurants claim they know what the inspectors look like, especially smaller countries with fewer inspectors, like The Netherlands), and are not allowed to take bribes or kickbacks; San Pellegrino’s judges span from top industry folk (restrauteurs, chefs, sommeliers) through to food writers and people who have a lot of money and appreciation for food.

As opposed to Michelin’s grading system, San Pellegrino judges nominate restaurants, with a certain number of how many they can put up from their home country or region, and another number of places outside — due to the international nature of the judging, judges need to be people who are constantly travelling. They’re also allowed to have their meals comped and receive other kickbacks; the Peruvian government decided it wanted its restaurants on the list so it instigated a programme of flying judges into the country to eat, resulting in several restaurants making the list the next year.

The pre-dinner staff briefing at Clooney
Benjamin, the sommelier, talks to Tony during the staff briefing before service.

I ask Tony what New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE), the governmental agency tasked with growing New Zealand businesses’ international presence, should be doing, given he adamantly believes it should be helping. He thinks there needs to be more of a focus on culinary tourism: make this country attractive to, dare I say, foodies, and advertise all its incredible restaurants and ingredients.

When I mention how Peru flew judges in, he gets worked up, “we missed the boat with Melbourne”. In April last year, the awards were presented in Melbourne, and it was possibly going to be the only time a lot of those chefs and restrauteurs (who not only are on the list, but also judge) would be within striking distance — not to mention the sheer number of them. Melbourne’s only a three-and-a-half-hour flight away, something that would have been completely manageable.

Australia missed the boat too, according to Tony, as it didn’t get itself included in the Asia Top 50 and turning it into the Asia-Pacific Top 50 — in addition to the global list, there are regional San Pellegrino lists too. Australia definitely has the power to have several restaurants on an Asia-Pacific Top 50, with Attica sitting at number 32 (its head chef, Ben Shewry, is actually a Kiwi).

NZ suffers from isolation. Tony sighs, “I don’t know if anyone in New Zealand will get in the Top 50 in my lifetime,” but he’s not going to lose sleep over it. The government needs to sort out other things before actively trying for the list: Tony cites cleaning the waterways and helping the local producers, to bolster the “100% Pure” image, as higher priorities. “Whatever you do for an industry, you’ve got to do with foresight.”

On the restaurant side, “New Zealand has to come together to get reach.” An idea of his is for five other restaurants to join Clooney to form a brand package. When pressed on who he would include, he lists: Amisfield (Queenstown), Orphans Kitchen (Ponsonby, Auckland), Pasture (Parnell, Auckland), Roots (Lyttelton) and Sidart (Ponsonby, Auckland). They’re all restaurants developing personality, are growing and capture a broad appeal for overseas customers; Tony personally respects and frequents these establishments.

If restaurants here continue to focus on local ingredients, and the overarching Kiwi story, getting onto the Top 50 is still achievable: the food style needs to be conducive to progress. Getting in is an honour, of course, but the flow-on effects is what he’s focused on — Attica got consistency in numbers when it was highlighted by the list. Tony continues, “you only really get better with revenue,” which comes with that regularity. Bringing more diners into New Zealand restaurants would increase structure in businesses and increase investment; the credibility from getting onto the San Pellegrino creates a snowball effect.

Langoustine, leek and banana dish
The langoustine (scampi from the Auckland Islands), leek and banana (from Matapouri) dish, with notes written on the menu.

Loving the slog

Clooney’s still building up; its three main kitchen staff positions (head, sous and pastry) are not fully filled yet: a new pastry chef was confirmed two nights ago, and negotiations with a sous are in progress. And like I said earlier, Tony is markedly less intense than he used to be with aspects of service. “I’ve realised so much of it the customer doesn’t realise; you can be over-pedantic. It’s important the customer sees a happy workplace. You can have and attain excellence, but you don’t have to be too stuffy or regimented.”

But he admits “everything [to do with Clooney]’s about me”.

Since starting his first restaurant in Invercargill at 21, and moving through Queenstown, Christchurch, Wellington and now the “big city” of Auckland, you can be sure Tony’s made his sacrifices. At the end of my dinner, and second interview with him (which he shifted a day later because he was having a defibrillator put in), he waxes lyrical, “you do what you do, and the industry is ever-consuming […] I guess we all love it”.

At the heart of it, he sees the hospitality industry in a positive light, orating, “I think if we talked a little more, we could have a little more insight into diversity and direction”. What he wants other restaurants to do is have a point of a difference, because “there’s definitely room for all of us”. With the revamp of Clooney, maybe this is a new dawn for the whole industry.

 

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