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Flame Bar & Grill: Co-owner Jonathan Bisley on the restaurant’s bright future

Credit: Paul Green

Flame Bar & Grill: Co-owner Jonathan Bisley on the restaurant’s bright future

Flame Bar & Grill has been a local favourite in Queenstown for more than a decade, and now the renowned steak restaurant is bigger and better than ever thanks to its new premises.

Flame Bar & Grill: Co-owner Jonathan Bisley on the restaurant’s bright future

Flame has reopened at a prime location on Steamer Wharf with a purpose-built space that features a bespoke bar area, a large open kitchen and views of the stunning scenery that Queenstown is famous for.

Originally founded by South African chef Grant Sneddon, Flame brought the tradition of Braai to Queenstown. Since purchasing the restaurant in 2016, Queenstown residents Jonathan Bisley and Lou McDowell have continued to honour Flame’s South African roots through its award-winning ribs and steaks, emulating the Braai with searing hot specialised grills.

Originally from Auckland, husband-and-wife team Bisley and McDowell moved to Queenstown to realise their dream of living amongst the mountains. Bisley has a long history with food and food production. He trained and worked as a chef in London before returning to New Zealand where he set up a catering business in Auckland. He went on to found ready meals business The Good Taste Company, before working working with international supermarket chains building food and meat manufacturing solutions.

Lou McDowell and Jonathan Bisley. Credit: Paul Green

Bisley talks to MiNDFOOD about why he returned to the restaurant business, how Flame adapted over lockdown and what we can expect from the new and improved venue.

Why did you decide to move to Queenstown?

I was commuting to Australia to work for Coles in their meat business. Direct flights from Queenstown to Melbourne/Sydney had just started so there was great appeal to escape the pressure of the big cities to the beauty of Queenstown. We put the kids into the local primary school for an initial three months and never left.

What made you want to move back into the restaurant business?

After seven years commuting to Australia it was time to spend more time with the family and have a more regular life. 

My passion is food. A great friend of mine thought Flame would be the perfect business for us and took us to dinner. Every culinary aspect that I have worked on over the last 35 years lead me to Flame – restaurants, catering, prepared meals, branded consumer products and meat processing. I felt I could apply all these skills to create an amazing customer experience. Flame wasn’t for sale but after 18 months of negotiations we owned it. It’s a very stimulating dynamic environment and I am truly in my element here. 

Credit: Paul Green

Why was it important to you to continue to honour Flame’s South African roots?

Flame has a great and authentic history and provenance. The original basting sauce and other menu items were family recipes from the happy times around the Braai for the original owners Grant and Dawn Sneddon. South African food has a diverse range of culinary influences including British, Dutch, French, Indian, Malaysian and Indonesian. South African food is robust and the grill is central to it all. What a fantastic platform to evolve from. Our large neon at the front door says, ‘It began in Africa’. 

Credit: Paul Green

What new products and offerings did you develop during lockdown?

I worked on new breads, vegan ribs, desserts and different meat cuts. I bought a pressure cooker for slow cooked meat ideas. The textures can be amazing. Tender lamb shoulder but still pink and holding together – everyone should try one. It is one of those forgotten pieces of equipment that with a little care and trial can produce something unique. Of course we tested lots of new cocktail recipes too!

How have you had to adapt to overcome the challenges presented by the pandemic?

Queenstown had a lot of publicity for being ground zero. The community has clearly been heavily impacted but as a small community the care and support for each other has been empowering. There is a strong sense that the challenges are not our own doing, so there is no point in spending too much time looking back at how it was. The challenges made us rethink every detail and think of ways to be better and we have the put every aspect of the business under a microscope – it has been quite a cathartic process. Our very clear goal is that when we come out the other side of this, we will have a stronger business and an even better customer experience.

What was the motivation behind moving into the new space?

Flame had outgrown the previous site. We were called Flame Bar & Grill but never had room in the bar as people used the space to dine. Embarrassingly, if you arrived for your table and it wasn’t ready we would have to ask you to wait in the cold entrance or go to our neighbouring bar and wait for us to call you. This was a nightly occurrence and we were always humbled by people’s tolerance. Now we have a great bar where people can enjoy a drink pre or post diner.

Credit: Paul Green

What are your favourite things to do in Queenstown?

We are surrounded by beauty. Trail walking, bike riding, golf, fly fishing, boating and of course becoming an expert sampler of Central Otago wines.

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