The magic of The French Cafe's Simon Wright

The French Cafe’s Simon Wright has quietly achieved world recognition without leaving home.


Spring: Spring rabbit; Summer: Watermelon iceblocks, from Saison. Pictures / Charlie Smith.

Near the beginning of Saison - A Year at The French Cafe you'll find this quote:

"I read once that if you find a job you love, you will never work another day in your life - and although sometimes I feel that I went to work at sixteen and someone forgot to tell me I could go home, I do think that's very true. I love my work. Perhaps I'm on the borderline of being a bit obsessive, but I do consider myself very fortunate to have found a profession that manages to let me live my life in balance with my craft."

Simon Wright's second cookbook reads like a beautiful, painful confession of unconditional love. For food. Through Saison - A Year at The French Cafe we're invited in, through heartfelt words, immaculately conceived recipes, stark and stunning photography and soft and peaceful watercolours, to a world where the bounty of New Zealand's seasons reign supreme at the hands of surely our country's most celebrated chef.

Compared with his first cookbook, The French Cafe Cookbook (2007), this latest offering is a much more intimate reflection of the progression that he and wife Creghan Molloy-Wright are taking in realising their shared vision for the restaurant and their lives.

Throughout the two years the book took to write I'd run into Simon intermittently and inquire as to its progress. He always looked pained and would tell of his challenge to settle on the exact design, look and feel of this, his bible of sorts. Indeed, Simon and photographer Charlie Smith spent an entire year taking photographs, that were never to be used, before he found the look he was after.

"It has to reflect my cooking, what it's like to dine in the restaurant, mostly it has to tell our truth," he told me once.

Blessedly, it does all that and more. There's an honesty and confessional tone.

"There can be no lies between our outside lives and the restaurant. We are trying to be a complete restaurant, where everything matters, from the produce and wine suppliers to the objects in the restaurant, absolutely everything is in line with how we like to live our life.

"All our proteins are organic, our fish is line-caught, our eggs direct from the farm. The kitchen garden was a long-held dream of ours, as was getting the beehives. And the development of The French Kitchen meant we could begin to share our space in a different way, cooking and sharing occasions with our customers in a more relaxed way.

Chef Simon Wright from The French Cafe, photographed at home. Picture / Babiche Martens.

We always want to keep our restaurant approachable for absolutely anyone to feel comfortable enough to dine with us. We don't aspire to 'eliteness' at all. Each guest is welcome for who they are."

It's obviously not just marketing speak. The French Cafe has just added to its numerous accolades and awards yet again, recently being voted by users of Trip Advisor as the best restaurant in New Zealand and the South Pacific and fourth in the world.

If you've ever dined there, you'll know it to be true. How, from the moment of arrival at the discreet doorway on Symonds St, to departure, diners are so effortlessly transported to a place where one is somehow connected to everything that is both pleasant and exhilarating in life.

The French Cafe is so effortlessly enchanting for diners; the first morsel is deliberately delivered with the menu because, says Simon, reading a menu without food is tantamount to torture; the bread is kept off the table while the menus are on it to give you a sense of space and clarity.

Bread with hand-churned butter is served and 14 minutes after those plates have been cleared, the second course will arrive, served on handmade plates, each one different from the next, not stamped out by a machine. Generosity abounds with complimentary pre-desserts allowing the palate to revive somewhat.

If it's summer, this gift from the kitchen might be small watermelon iceblocks. In winter it may be a small glass of granny smith granita and gentle compote of apple with a cloud of butterscotch and tiny crumbs of cinnamon bread on top.

Winter: Caramelised onion broth, aged comte and truffle french toast from Saison. Picture / Charlie Smith.

"Of course I am a little obsessive but you have to be," admits Simon in a classic understatement.

Writing Saison took a toll of sorts on the balance that he and Creghan work so hard to achieve. "It's so consuming putting something like this together. I put on 4.5kgs writing it because the daily exercising, the family time, the time out that I try to fit in was nudged aside to make room for getting the book finished."

The couple have always strived to factor in downtime and even more so since having their son Miller (now 6). I put it to them that juggling a young child with owning a top restaurant can't be a breeze. Creghan: "When people suggest we must have no family or social life I'm always confused because the opposite is true. I'm home with Miller every day and so is Simon, mostly.

We didn't become parents to Miller to not be parents. Before he reached school age we'd hang out all day together as a family. Miller commented to me that his friends' parents "go to work during the day Mum," and that seemed strange to him. I think this is a great job to have with a family."

They have stuck to their decision to keep The French Cafe closed two nights a week and to rest the kitchen and restaurant staff for a decent amount of time over Christmas. Whenever they can they retreat to their tiny Kiwi bach in Coromandel.

Simon confesses he sometimes feels like he's one of a line of chefs from a fading era, where chefs did their training in kitchens when "sauces were made with flour, food was cooked in the oven instead of a water bath, and nobody had a food allergy.

Autumn: Pumpkin soup, duck liver, chestnut and onion pastry from Saison. Picture / Charlie Smith.

Cooking and kitchens have changed so much since I started out; for one there's no waste now and that feels good in my heart. I remember when we'd be getting 10 small balls out of a carrot and the rest was mostly discarded.

"That's what I love so much about what I do, it's always shifting, changing, progressing. I will always be the pupil when it comes to cooking."

The recipes shared in Saison are a collection of personal and restaurant favourites. Sweetcorn fritters are made using fresh corn cobs, of course, and only in the height of summer - and the addition of sweet chunks of crayfish meat takes them from the ordinary to the dazzlingly brilliant.

Potato puree is made by first baking the potatoes, because in Wright's mind the baked potato produces the purest, most powerful flavour. He scoops out the fluffy centres and uses the baked skins to infuse the warm milk - it produces the most heavenly potato taste there is.

It's these little touches that will enthral readers and encourage the cooks into the kitchen; with other recipes, it may only be professionals who will be game to tinker away at them. The spring rabbit recipe for example, has an entire page dedicated to just the garnish and finishing. But don't worry, come spring, I know where you can get one already cooked.

Saison is an extraordinary cookbook; as you brush your hands over the linen cover you'll feel its warmth; there's surprise at the cut-out lattice pages that delineate each section.

Saison: A Year at The French Cafe. Picture / Supplied.

Simon's broken a golden rule of writing recipes by putting the method ahead of the ingredient list because he claims it's more important for people to come to grips with how a dish is created before they get distracted by its component parts. Hear hear.

Watercolours by artist Kirsten Roberts are scattered through the pages and Charlie Smith's photographs are simply exquisite. You travel through the seasons with each new page and it's really rather wonderful.

There's a dedication from Simon in the front of Saison that goes like this: "For Creghan and Miller, thank you for opening my eyes to a life outside the kitchen."

Simon Wright, thank you, for opening your soul to us inside Saison - A Year at The French Cafe.


• Today marks the launch of Saison - A Year at The French Cafe by Simon Wright (Random House NZ, $95). Available from good bookstores, or get a signed copy from thefrenchcafe.co.nz.


 

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