A restaurant that began life as a pop-up bartering for crockery has become the latest Kiwi concept to shake up the Australian food scene.
Chef Peter Gunn grew up in a typical New Zealand home eating no-frills sausages, steak and mash. His Melbourne restaurant, Ides, is far from typical, and Gunn joins a select and celebrated class of Kiwi chefs in Australia (most notably Ben Shewry of Attica) bringing the cool, creative flair for which New Zealanders are known.
As his restaurant continues to evolve, Gunn says he’s determined to stay grounded and true to the laidback values of his home country. “I don’t want people to say ‘you’re a dick, you’ve changed’. I still am who I am.”
Gunn describes Ides’ food as modern Australian with a style that’s formal yet simple. He says it was important for him to create a place his mother would feel comfortable in, despite not having those “fancy restaurant” experiences growing up in Porirua.
But he still wants the seasoned Melbourne diner to be excited by his food. “At the heart of it, it’s elegantly plated, simple and tasty. It’s creative and a work in progress,” he says.
“There are expectations to be met when people spend more than $100 on a meal. What we offer is an experience. We could charge a lot more and you could be full, but you could also be full for $18. We need to make it work another way.”
The Ides concept started to form during Gunn’s years working alongside Ben Shewry at Attica. During that time his creativity was amplified and “burst out of the gates”, as he puts it. After an early start with hospitality in New Zealand Gunn decided to travel and immerse himself in diverse food cultures. His plan was to go to Melbourne, Singapore, Japan and the United States for one year each.
He’d heard about Shewry while still in New Zealand. “Ben was achieving things from a kitchen that wasn’t physically spectacular,” he says. “That’s such a Kiwi trait, that adaptability. To be so level-headed in a cramped, open space with high pressure. I was drawn to someone heading in that direction.”
Rather than continuing with his international journey Gunn stayed another year at Attica. The year after that met his wife and, he says, became locked into Melbourne from that point on.
When Attica shifted its focus native Australian cuisine, Gunn started thinking more about the kind of food he wanted to cook. After two and a half years at the restaurant, he started looking for ways to fund his own venture.
Ides was born as a pop-up in the city-fringe suburb of Kensington after Gunn and a few friends found a “trashy” location that could host a pop-up at little cost. In those early days, Ides wasn’t turning much of a profit – and Gunn would pay staff what little money they made – but he loved it, continuing to run the monthly pop-up while still working at Attica.
Each month the Ides concept got an upgrade. Gunn leveraged catering jobs, bartering for things like new plates and napkins which would go back into the pop-up. More motivation and determination came with the birth of his first son.
As the food was elevating, Ides outgrew the Kensington space and moved to its current Collingwood home, becoming a simple 38-seat capacity restaurant.
“In my early days, I never had a lot to do with fancy food,” Gunn says. “I was drawn to it, but was intimidated to even go into those restaurants, and I didn’t know how to order. You know us Kiwis though, we always give it a crack. So, I thought I’d see what happens, threw caution to the wind, and followed a long trail of successful Kiwis who just got on with it and dealt with the consequences later.”
Six years later (three of them in the permanent location), Gunn keeps adding layers to Ides. The grey room with cheap black and white photos is now an elegant dining room with refined art on the walls and $250 brass candle holders on the tables. In those early days the entire art collection cost the same as just one brass candle, he says.
Gunn says he’s thankful that his success was gradual, earned via a lot of hard work and a lot of great food. He’s proud that half the original team are still with him; he says the others left before he’d learned the managerial skills to properly motivate them.
Earlier this year Gunn ran a pop-up in Auckland and Christchurch, and he is currently in discussions with New Zealand chefs regarding an upcoming collaboration.
Bella Katz is a commercial business advisor with New Zealand Trade & Enterprise in Australia.