Lunch at Downing Street, pottery retreats with Nigella Lawson and Yotam Ottolenghi… New Zealand’s best-known chef has built quite a life for himself in London, but, now more than ever, he yearns for Aotearoa.
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He’s been a top chef in London for three decades, with a string of accolades – and highly acclaimed restaurants – to his name, but this year Peter Gordon achieved something that had never been done before: he got hokey pokey ice cream into the UK government headquarters.
“I know that’s the first time it’s ever been in 10 Downing Street,” says Gordon of the act of culinary patriotism. “They put everything through the x-ray machine – tamarillos and hokey pokey ice cream and duck breast…”
The 56-year-old “godfather of fusion cuisine” was cooking lunch for UK prime minister Theresa May and her New Zealand counterpart in January. Jacinda Ardern was on her way to Davos for the World Economic Forum and had stopped in London for a New Zealand food and drink showcase held by NZ Trade and Enterprise, which Gordon was catering.
Months of planning had gone into the NZTE event. Lunch at Downing Street the following day? Not so much. “I was at work on the Thursday going, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got such a busy week – I’ve got this big event and I’m going to New Zealand on Tuesday… there’s a whole heap going on and I can’t squeeze any more in,” he recalls.
“Then an email came in from Downing Street saying ‘Dear Mr Gordon, our prime minister is meeting your prime minister and we’d love you to do lunch.’”
The NZTE event was on the Sunday night, January 20, with lunch the next day. The day after that, Gordon was due to fly to New Zealand for one of the four or five trips he makes annually to check in with The Sugar Club, his restaurant at the top of the Sky Tower, see his parents in Whanganui and do anything else that needs attending to in his homeland.
It wasn’t his first time through the door at number 10, having catered for a charity event for leukaemia during David Cameron’s tenure, but things were a little different this time. Just a few days before, Theresa May’s Brexit deal was overwhelmingly rejected in parliament. She’d managed to hang on to power, narrowly surviving a vote of no confidence, but the scene wasn’t exactly set for a relaxing lunch.
“I was saying to Jacinda, ‘do you think this could be cancelled?’” he recalls.
Ardern is a friend; they were introduced by Gordon’s partner, Alastair Carruthers, a former chair of Creative New Zealand’s art council. “I first met Jacinda on Jervois Road probably eight years ago,” recalls Gordon. “Al said, ‘This is Jacinda, she’s going to be our prime minister one day.’ And that happened.”
Back to the lunch, which wasn’t cancelled, thankfully – and no doubt delicious. “The first course was a miso roast pumpkin, feta, date and pomegranate salad, the main course was a duck dish with grilled leeks, swede puree and ginger cabbage, and pudding was boiled orange polenta cake with hokey pokey ice cream and poached tamarillos,” he says.
Afterwards, he joined the PMs and high commissioner Jerry Mateparae in the “terracotta room”, one of Downing Street’s three state drawing rooms. “It was lovely,” he recalls. “We were just, like, having a chat, and I thought that’s really the first time I can remember seeing Theresa May smiling. There are the smiles she has to give in some of the terrible meetings she has to go to… but it must have been the most relaxing hour that Theresa May has had in the last year.”
Gordon is a self-described “staunch remainer”, and says the spectre of Brexit has cast a pall over the city he calls home.
“I just can’t see a single good thing about it. [David, former UK prime minister] Cameron was such an idiot to have a referendum on such a massive thing. There was such arrogance.
“We’re trying to be optimistic, but I think you’re just battered down on a daily basis.”
Like any New Zealander overseas, he has always had days when he feels like throwing it all in and jumping on the next flight home, says the chef. “That’s been my internal battle for the 30 years I’ve lived in London.”
But this time the feeling is different; it can’t so easily be pushed to the back of his mind.
“This is the first time that I’ve looked at London and gone ‘oh, really?’ I’ve always said to people that London is this really inclusive, multiracial, accepting, tolerant place to live. I’ve seen living in London for 30 years as a huge privilege.”
“And it still is, really,” he muses. “But you look around at the greater nation and all the shit that goes on…”
It’s not just the wave of anti-immigration sentiment that has become so visible since the Brexit vote. Gordon references the views of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the ultra-conservative Northern Irish party May’s government was forced to form a confidence-and-supply agreement with after 2017’s snap election, and on whom she relied to survive the recent no-confidence motion.
“The DUP, if they had their way, homosexuality would be a crime,” says Gordon. “And the DUP is the balance of power… and that’s because Theresa May was so foolish that when she called the snap election she just thought she’d waltz through.”
The effects of Brexit are already being felt in the restaurant business, he says. “The cost of goods has gone up, and the mood in the hospitality industry is a bit sad. Restaurants are going under all the time; other restaurants are struggling to find staff.”
Gordon owns The Providores and its more casual downstairs sibling Tapa Room in Marylebone High Street, and essentially introduced Londoners to brunch when he opened the doors in 2001. He employs many New Zealanders, but also, fittingly for the man behind the fusion food movement, people from all over Europe and the world.
“We’ve had some staff with us for 15 years. The discussion is always, ‘Once Brexit happens, do we have to leave the country?’ There are no clear directives going out to people.”
But of course he’s not seriously considering calling it quits in London; he has his restaurants, his doughnut business Crosstown and his home in Hackney, which he shares with Carruthers. There’s a feijoa tree in the garden. “In seven years, it’s produced four tiny feijoas. Pathetic!”
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He’s such a big fan of the Kiwi favourite, little known in Britain, that he often features them on the menu at The Providores. Imported from South America, they’re not quite as pathetic as his homegrown ones, but “nothing like the feijoas we have here – they’re only 75 per cent what they should be”.
Feijoa features in a New Zealand yoghurt Gordon has recently put his name to, a collaboration with The Collective. The feijoa, ginger and vanilla yoghurt is raising funds for The LAM Trust, which raises awareness of a rare lung condition, lymphangioleiomyomatosis, that affects women between the ages of 25 and 45. The trust was set up by Gordon’s good friend Bronwyn Gray, whose daughter suffers from the condition.
In addition to his work and home, London is where his friends are. He’s forged strong bonds over the years, including with British food royalty like Yotam Ottolenghi and Nigella Lawson. The three of them are shortly heading off on a weekend pottery retreat with a few other “mates who hang out together in London” for the second year in a row. “It’s lots of fun.”
Lawson was recently on our shores for the third time in a year, touring her stage show. “She truly loves New Zealand,” says Gordon. “Like a lot of famous people who maybe get a bit harassed in their home countries, Nigella says when she comes to New Zealand she’s able to let her barriers down and just relax. She’s got friends out here, she likes the New Zealand psyche.”
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.