I’d arranged to meet Peter Gordon, chef and co-owner of Providores, on the eve of Her Majesty the Queen’s 90th birthday. Fittingly, towards the end of the interview, I ask Gordon what one of his fondest career highlights has been. He recalls when he cooked a private dinner for the Queen. Her Majesty, the Duke of Edinburgh and Sir Don McKinnon, the former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, along with his wife dined together in a private residence and Gordon was the chef.
Born in New Zealand in 1963, Gordon’s been residing in London since 1989. Often credited as the ‘godfather’ of fusion cuisine, it was thanks to his Antipodean upbringing and extensive travels in Asia that made him the chef he is today. Just as rush hour was commencing around us in the West End, we settled in to a cosy corner in Gordon’s Marylebone restaurant that he co-owns with his business partner Michael McGrath, for a glass of Riesling from Central Otago. A few weeks earlier, I’d been in the same restaurant for the launch of Gordon’s latest cookbook, Savour: salads for all seasons. Nigella Lawson, Russell Norman and Richard Bacon were all there to celebrate their friend’s eighth publication.
“Despite having written my first cookbook at four years of age, my actual cookbook career all started thanks to literary agent, Felicity Rubenstein who looks after the likes of Yotam Ottolenghi and Fergus Henderson”, says Gordon. “She was a regular at the Sugar Club in Notting Hill and one day came in and said I should do a book. After going out to buy a computer and learn how to use it, I wrote my first cookbook – The Sugar Club Cookbook - which was published in 1997.”
In 1981 Gordon moved from the New Zealand coastal town of Whanganui to Melbourne, where he completed a four year cooking apprenticeship. “I really wanted to travel, so when I was 15 years old I applied to work as an apprentice at Air New Zealand”, notes Gordon. “Luckily they never actually gave me the apprenticeship, so I thought what else I could do and after dabbling in a bit of wine making for a while in Australia, I ended up working as a waiter at an Italian restaurant in Melbourne called Mietta’s. After being there for a week or so, I’d decided I really wanted to be a chef.” After Gordon approached the owner one night about working in the kitchen, she told him to leave and never come back.
“Luckily, through a cousin, I got an apprenticeship in a restaurant and I ended up working alongside MasterChef presenter, John Torode”, says Gordon. “It was at a really interesting time when Australian food was starting to evolve.”
Upon finishing his apprenticeship, Gordon planned to go to Bali for a couple of kitchen free weeks before heading to London via India He ended up staying in Indonesia for two months before travelling over to India via Nepal. Over these twelve months, he ended up doing contra-deals with locals who wanted to know how to cook such things as spaghetti Bolognese and pancakes, as this is what tourists wanted to eat. Gordon-being-a-chef asked them to teach him to cook local dishes in return.
Looking across the table to Gordon, it strikes me with his surfer-like hair and earring that he could be quite at home in Bali. “It was one of the best twelve months of my life”, he says. Soon after Gordon set foot on UK soil in 1986, he received a call from back home saying his father was ill and he had to return back to New Zealand. “My flight was paid for by people I’d never met before but they owned a restaurant called Sugar Club in New Zealand and wanted me to be their head chef ”, says Gordon.
As the buzz in Providores picks ups around us with Marylebone folk enjoying a chilled glass of white and some snacks, we fast forward a few years and return to London when Gordon touched back down from New Zealand in 1989. However, it wasn’t until 1995 when he opened Sugar Club in Notting Hill. The year before, his sister Tracey – who was living in Australia – was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia and Gordon was a donor match so he went back to Melbourne to carry out the bone marrow transplant. After her full recovery, Gordon – along with Chris Corbin who was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia at the age of 38 – came up with ‘Who’s Cooking Dinner?’ as a way to raise money for the charity, Leuka.
After four years at the helm of the Sugar Club in London, Gordon left in 1999 to work on some other projects before opening The Providores and Tapa Room in 2001. We discuss how Providores was almost ahead of its time when it came to its food and drink offering, with a number of restaurants now emulating it. Gordon explains that, “we always wanted it to be female friendly. We started serving breakfast from day one. The breakfast scene was nothing like it is in London today but we did it because that’s what we’d have done in Australia and New Zealand. However, our weekend brunches proved popular from when we first opened.”
We’re all familiar with the flat white now but Providores was believed to be the first place to serve it in London. While we enjoy the New Zealand Riesling, our topic of conversation turns to the now all New Zealand wine list at the restaurant. “We were advised when we first opened to not have a wine list that served only Kiwi wines, so the list was about 60% European with the remainder from New Zealand. Then Melanie Brown, who now owns The New Zealand Cellar in Brixton and is married to Hamish Brown of ROKA, who was working at Providores decided about seven years ago to pour only New Zealand wines. Not a single customer batted an eyelid. Customers are far more knowledgeable about food and wine, and New Zealand wine is now far more than just Sauvignon Blanc”, says Gordon.
Discussing the current restaurant scene in London, Gordon reminisces how much things have changed over the past 20 years including the Marylebone area with the likes of Chiltern Firehouse, Fischer’s and The Ivy Café now all in the local vicinity. “Vanity Fair did an article called Cool Britannia back in the 90s. The feature article had a big focus on food and suddenly it was cool to be from England. I remember it was the first time when London was being really positively spoken about when it came to food”, says Gordon.
I ask Gordon where he likes to eat when he’s in London. “I live over by Broadway Market, so I generally eat at Hill & Szrok. It's one of my favourite places”, enthuses Gordon. “I really like to try new places too and recently dined at the Culpeper, the Palomar and som saa. And Leo Carreira’s food at Climpson’s Arch blew me away – fantastic.”
Some of London’s most recognised chefs have come from Gordon’s kitchens over the years. Alumni include Anna Hansen of the Modern Pantry, Miles Kirby of Caravan, Selin Kiazim of Oklava and Brad Farmerie who runs Avroko Hospitality in New York with his brother, Adam.
Both Gordon and I spend considerable time at 35,000ft shuttling around the globe for work and although we both enjoy this perk, it takes its toll not least when it comes to how you eat and drink when you’re on the road. Gordon flies back to New Zealand at least half a dozen times a year for work, where he also has a restaurant, and where his partner, Al is currently based.
His consultancy for Air New Zealand came about in a funny incident when Gordon wrote a letter to the head of marketing at the airline and that same day, he received a letter in the post that was sent to the Sugar Club from the head of marketing saying they’d like to work with him. Gordon now creates the menus for both premium economy and business class for the airline’s global network.
Gordon says his food works well on flights as it’s aromatic and textural. “If I’m on a plane to Asia, I’ll always have the Asian option as it’s usually the better option".
The humidity on a plane is appalling so it really affects the food and you as a person”, notes Gordon. “We introduced hamburgers to the in-flight menu and they proved really popular in business class. It was quite a surprise how popular it was. These people travelling in business eat at great restaurants all the time so sometimes they just fancy a burger and glass of Syrah. Champagne is perfect on the plane as it’s fruity and doesn’t lose its taste”, he adds.
As we finish up our second glass of white and draw the conversation to a close, we touch upon the topic of recruitment in the industry. “A lot of my staff are from Australia and New Zealand but the retention is tricky as their visas are still only valid for two years. We used to struggle getting British chefs into the kitchen, as they didn’t really believe in fusion food”, says Gordon. “I really think cooking has been made more accessible by the likes of Jamie Oliver. People at home saw this young guy enjoying himself and making a good career from it.”
Gordon clocks the time and knows we each both have to be on our way. He finishes up by talking very passionately about pay. “The industry still needs to sort out the issue over proper pay. We like to think we look after our staff – the chefs only work 50 hours a week, they get share of the tronc and we give them two days off a week. If we want to keep people in the industry we have to pay people properly. Bosses are making a lot of money but the people making the money for the boss are not looked after. The cycle needs to change. There are a lot of restaurants where the chefs get no tronc – this needs to change. Owners of restaurants need to treat their staff much better. No other industry would ever put up with it.”
And as I step out onto Marylebone High Street, Gordon’s last comment resonates with me. It seems to sum up everything about him: a caring person who is passionate about this industry. He’s been a discreetly influential person in the London restaurant scene for over 20 years and you can see that he loves every minute of it.
This article was first published in Issue 7 of CODE Quarterly.