The Sugar Club has a long history with you. Can you describe this history in brief?
The first Sugar Club was opened in Wellington in 1986 by Ashley Sumner and Vivian Hayman, who hired me as their head chef. It was located in a Chinese takeaway – quite different from the current one on level 53 of the Sky Tower. Ashley and Vivian went on to open two further Sugar Clubs in London – one on All Saints Road in Notting Hill and another in Soho. As with the initial one I was the Head Chef, designing the menus and setting the kitchens up from scratch. All three have closed now. When I was wondering what to call my new restaurant, my partner Al suggested I name it The Sugar Club. I hesitated for all of 3 seconds realising it was a brilliant idea as I’m intimately linked with the brand, which hadn’t existed in New Zealand since the very early ’90s. It comes with a great heritage and people are telling me their favourite dishes from the various three locations.
The Sugar Club in London had some famous guests including Madonna. What was it like cooking for these celebrities back then? Any recollections you can share?
I think part of the Sugar Club’s popularity amongst the celebrity set in London can be attributed to Madonna not attending the restaurant, but in fact being declined a table! The director of In Bed With Madonna was a regular diner with us and he had booked a table for 4. He called a few hours before his booking to extend it to 6 or 8, and because we were full we said we couldn’t do it. He told the receptionist it was Madonna wanting to come along, but we again said we really couldn’t fit her in. As soon as it hit the press that we had turned her away the phones ran even more red hot. Hilarious, really. Likewise, both Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren said we were their favourite restaurant in one of those ‘celeb tips’ columns but neither ever dined with us. George Michael, Nick Cave, The Pet Shop Boys and many more were regulars, but then London is so full of celebs that they have to eat somewhere, and they liked what we were doing.
Where did the name the Sugar Club originally come from?
The original owner Ashley loved Motown and created the name from the film The Cotton Club, and the numerous songs that used the word sugar ‘ I love you sugar’ ‘brown sugar’ ‘ be my sugar babe’ etc.
Are there any dishes on the current menu that were on the Wellington and London menus?
The Beef Pesto was a favourite at the Wellington restaurant and this has remained on the menu throughout all iterations of the restaurant. We’ve also retained the creamy coconut custard and cashew nut vattalapam, a Sri Lankan dessert. I first started serving Laksa in Wellington, and have taken many liberties with this classic Malaysian chunky noodle based broth – it’s on the menu at The Providores in London as well as TSC. Nam phrik num dressing (mango, ginger, chillies, coriander and mint) is a favourite and appears on the menu, as do the various seaweed sauces and pickles I love.
Your restaurant dine was on the ground level of Sky Tower. Why did you decide to close Dine and move skyward so to speak?
When it was confirmed by Skycity that I would be taking over the Observatory restaurant, I had to look at Dine and Bellota very carefully and consider my involvement with them. Keeping my involvement in Bellota (which I adore) was relatively easy to continue, but running two restaurants like TSC and dine, seemed a madness. I spoke with the team at Skycity and we agreed to close dine, so that I could focus on TSC. It was a really hard decision, but the right one. Some of my staff have moved up the tower which of course is wonderful, as they bring with them an understanding of what it is I do.
Often restaurants located in high city towers have the general reputation of having great views but mediocre menus. What made you decide on take on this challenge and location, and what will it offer diners as a point of difference that will get them to the 53rd level of Sky Tower?
It’s a beautiful space and certainly the best view in Auckland, so when Sky City CEO, Nigel Morrison, asked me if I’d be interested in opening a restaurant up there I jumped at the chance – what chef wouldn’t. As to the old adage that a restaurant with a view is usually serving bad food, I think that’s nonsense – it’s a bad chef who serves bad food. While there are some challenges when it comes to getting your food and staff up the 53 floors with one service lift being used by several other cafes and restaurants… it’s well worth the effort and sorting out the logistics. Apart from the view, we offer small plates in the evening, which means instead of having a starter and main course, our diners are ordering three small plates, although some are ordering up to five and THEN having dessert, which is fab! What this offers the guest is a really broad range of flavours and choices – so it’s like a mini degustation, but they, not the chef, choose what they’ll eat.
What style of food will be served at The Sugar Club?
My style of cooking is called Fusion. Basically it means I think of flavour as a characteristic of an ingredient and think of what would compliment, or contrast, a particular flavour. In a regional cuisine, such as Basque or Tuscan, there are centuries old rules stating what can and cannot be mixed. I don’t come from a long line of foodie snobs and like to have fun with flavour and like mixing things around. This means the kitchen will continue to combine ingredients from different parts of the world into tasty, and often surprising dishes. We are also offering an Express Lunch – aimed at the business folk who want to be in and out relatively quickly, it’s a choice of just three dishes per course and is terrific value for money. You still get the view at no extra charge!
What excites you most about this project?
The design, executed perfectly by Jasmax, is as I’d imagined it could be, but even more so. The views are simply the best in New Zealand, in fact they are the best of any restaurant I’ve eaten in anywhere in the world. Even the kitchen has views – we face south east and the chefs just love it. My head chef Neil Brazier is terrific to work with – we are very similar in our approach even though Neil’s food is less ‘out there’ than my own. He’s been a business owner himself and understands the importance of a brigade who need to respect their environment and we have a really happy team. The Front of House are loving coming to work themselves and Richard, Ann and Mauricio are working on settling the team into a Sugar Club style – which needs to be chic, slick and sophisticated. All in all, I am the luckiest chef I know!