The restaurant at Homeland has generated plenty of buzz, but for chef Peter Gordon, it’s the cooking school that’s the real heart of the enterprise.
Here’s a lovely thing: a Saturday afternoon cooking with friends, old and just-met. Delicious smells filling a warm, airy space, while outside the autumn sun sets over the harbour. My friend and I are doing a cooking class at Homeland, the newest venture for Peter Gordon, maybe best known for his Sugar Club restaurants here and in London.
We’re at one of the six fully kitted kitchen stations at the cooking school end of the huge space overlooking Westhaven Marina. In the centre of the room Gordon himself, ONZM, Ngāti Kahungunu, is whizzing up a blender full of herby green goodness. Soon he will slather this over a whole snapper and a dish of lamb neck fillets and set them aside to marinate. We can watch his every move on the high-definition screens mounted above the demo space, but he’s close enough that we can see – and smell – what he’s doing first-hand.
A Homeland cooking class offers all the joy of cooking with none of the drudgery: ingredients beautifully laid out on a central island for you to choose from, all the knives perfectly sharp, everything you need just where you need it. A tidy-up fairy whisks away your used dishes and a waiter keeps you plied with drinks from the bar. Whatever your level of cooking expertise, there’s plenty to love and to learn, with Gordon sharing tips and tricks that might be new even to experienced cooks. We chop and stir and sprinkle and the room fills with happy chatter.
Our bench-mates are a personable 10-year-old called Jack, who’s doing the experience as a belated Christmas present, and his mum, Ang. One bench over is a group of visitors from the Hawke’s Bay who are visibly star-struck, sneaking selfies and snapping pictures with Gordon when he comes over to check on progress.
Homeland opened in November to justified excitement. New Zealand’s most famous foodie had returned home in the Covid reverse-diaspora and was doing something brand new at the unfashionable end of Auckland’s waterfront. Reviews of the restaurant have filled many column inches, admiring the generous space, the harbour views, the stunning food. But the dining room, as one staff member put it, is a Trojan horse for the real purpose of Homeland.
Peter Gordon features in episode three of our five-part series exploring the “brain gain” that has seen an influx of high-achieving New Zealanders returning to our shores due to Covid-19.
In March 2020, when it was clear that something very big and disruptive was on the horizon, Gordon packed up and left London to join his partner Alastair Carruthers, who had recently headed back to Auckland. Gordon emerged from self-isolation straight into level four which gave him and Carruthers plenty of time to think about what to do next.
“We knew we shouldn’t expect to ever be employed again, so instead we wanted to do something to help employment,” says Gordon.
With international supply chains broken and the hospitality industry frozen indefinitely, many of the local food producers they knew were struggling. Gordon and Carruthers – CNZM, career CEO, former chair of the Allpress Espresso group – wanted to devise a way to support them.
“We thought it would be really good for the producers if we focused on cooking – teaching people how to cook things and showcasing New Zealand and Pacific produce,” says Gordon. “And we thought a cooking school would be great.”
Searching for a venue, they were smitten by the site at Pier 21 previously occupied by Mantells on the Water. They loved the light, the sunny waterfront terrace, the astonishing close-up view of the Harbour Bridge. But the sheer size of the space meant reframing their plans.
“I’d said to Al, the one thing I know I don’t want to do is another restaurant, because they’re so complicated,” says Gordon. “And then we realised we’d have to do a restaurant if we were to go for the site.”
While many restaurants have struggled with reduced capacity and closed borders, Homeland’s dining room was conceived and planned at the height of the pandemic. The physical space was designed with Covid in mind, with tables spaced at level two-friendly distance and plenty of room indoors and out to reconfigure seating. “When the tourists come it will be a bonus, it will be lovely, but that’s not what we were set up for.”
Now thriving, the restaurant is the engine that powers the rest of the operation. Starting in January, the early cooking classes have allowed them to get a feel for what people want to learn. Recently they’ve offered a kaimoana class and a class called “Best Baking”, which – though it did feature a scone made with Southland paneer – was more a lesson in exquisite desserts. Participants made a gluten-free chocolate mousse with star anise and Niuean honey, and a blueberry custard tart with Tongan vanilla.
My friend and I are doing the “Modern Roast” class, a title that also sells the offering a little short. Alongside the marinade – which contains kawakawa leaves, saffron from Te Anau and herbs grown on the dining room terrace – we’re walked through a series of inventive vegetable sides. We fill peppers with basil, pine nuts, baby tomatoes and grapes, roast cauliflower in spiced yogurt and twice-cook kūmara with sesame seeds and butter. Dispense with the meat altogether and it’d still be an elegant dinner menu.
Homeland’s principal raison d’être is to drive awareness and consumer sales of local products. Who knew that we had homegrown pine nuts – produced by Pinoli in Marlborough? Or that there’s a perfect light crystal salt from Taipa in Northland, for those of us who have always guiltily bought Maldon? (Imported sea salt in a country that’s all coastline? Shame!) Diners in the restaurant are presented with a list of producers and back stories about where their food has come from.
Gordon’s vision is more classes built around specific ingredients and regions. “I think the next stage for Homeland is to evolve into more producer-focused cooking classes, for example by region.”
Ideas he’s playing with include a Hawke’s Bay event that curates regional cheese, vegetables, venison or fish, or a Chatham Islands workshop with pāua, blue cod, kina and crayfish. Other events might celebrate an abundant ingredient, such as seasonal feijoas, with a class featuring a pickle, a chutney and a compote.
“You realise there’s just hundreds and hundreds of amazing food producers and we’ve got to find a way to tap into that,” says Gordon. “In an ideal world I’d focus, say, 20% of my time on the restaurant menu, and then put all the energy I’ve got left into the producers. That then feeds through into the menu and that feeds through into the cook school.”
The focus on ingredients primarily from Aotearoa and the Pacific is a departure from the world-is-my-pantry fusion approach that Gordon made famous. These days his culinary creativity is being channelled into modifying dishes and recipes to incorporate more local produce. When I speak to him he’s just re-engineered a den miso sauce, which in Japanese tradition would include mirin, sake, miso and sugar.
“I’ve used sauvignon blanc, dropped the mirin and sake, and created a den miso that’s really good, actually.” The wine is from Marlborough, and the miso from Nelson. “So I’m working on it slowly… I just need to be able to put more energy into that.”
Homeland’s motto is “For everyone from everywhere”. At $145 for adults and $100 for kids, classes at the cooking school are beyond the means of many, but the paid classes are only part of Homeland’s mission. From the beginning, they’ve run “Community Tuesdays”, where community groups from all over Auckland are invited to come in on a koha basis and use the space. They might host an event, run a cooking activity day or do a class with Gordon.
“We thought, ‘We’ve got this space and this amazing venue, there are a lot of communities who need support and connection, let’s find ways to bring them in’.”
Recently they’ve hosted groups from New Zealand Aged Care Association, Breakfast Club Kids, which feeds and supports kids from low-decile schools, and Genesis Youth Trust, which helps young offenders get back on the rails. The very first group to come through was from Papatūānuku Kōkiri Marae, who supply Homeland with fresh produce from their Māngere gardens. The group came in and blessed the space for opening day, and stayed for a lesson on making fish head soup and meatloaf with veges.
“It was really quite emotional for all of us,” says Alexia Santamaria, who coordinates much of Homeland’s community outreach work. “We stood and watched the waiata and Peter said to Al, ‘This is what we want to do, this is what all this means.’”
Each group has its own needs, and the team design an experience to address their specific issues. It might be learning to cook on a tight budget, make eating enjoyable again for undernourished elderly, or helping non-profits that receive bulk donations find ways to use the food.
“Breakfast Club they said they get a lot of bok choy and a lot of silverbeet and a lot of pasta,” said Peter. “If I could come up with recipes that use things they often get access to, that would be really useful.” So he taught a roomful of 10- and 11-year-olds to make meatballs with chickpeas and tomatoes, and yes, pasta with lots of greens. The space is set up to be child-friendly, with benches that lower hydraulically to kid height.
In February Gordon led a refugee and asylum seekers group, which included participants from Kurdish Iran, Fiji, Argentina, Palestine, Pakistan and the Congo, through a “Kiwi Classics” menu of shepherd’s pie with halal meat and kūmara, followed by Gordon’s mum’s legendary pavlova.
“It was very Kiwi, comforting food – stuff they’d never cooked before,” says Hannah Ryder, who volunteers with the Asylum Seekers Support Trust. “It was also just a nice day out, meeting people they’d never met before, making new connections.” Afterwards they all sat around a long table on the leafy terrace and ate together, a vivid expression of Homeland’s core value of manaakitanga.
At present Gordon is running most of the classes himself, but hopes to host other chefs soon. He loves the idea of getting skilled home cooks from different traditions to come and demonstrate their recipes. He mentions Banu Sidharth, who runs an Indian cooking school from her home in Te Atatū. His vision is for Banu and others to come and host classes at Homeland, for people from different traditions but also for their own communities, as a way of building support networks.
“With communities like that I say, you do the cooking, I’m going to learn some things from you, and your koha to Homeland is some wisdom and handy tips,” says Gordon.
He’s always curious and keen to learn. “There are over 100 migrant communities in Tāmaki Makaurau. Wouldn’t it be good to understand their food philosophy? People come from the Middle East with an incredibly healthy diet, which they’re able to sustain with very little money. And we then look at some of the bad diets that are being eaten by our own people here. Is there a way we can try and look at health? The bigger picture is reducing diabetes, showing people how to cook on a budget, how to stop buying lots of takeaways.”
All of this has been made possible through partnerships with Beef & Lamb New Zealand, which supports the community days, and Fisher & Paykel, which fitted out the teaching kitchens.
Gordon’s long-term vision for Homeland is as a “food embassy”, a hub and a resource for the producer and cooking communities, where people share stories, knowledge, contacts and recipes. As the whole enterprise finds its feet he’s looking forward to being able to bring more staff on board and explore the huge potential he knows is there.
So how’s it going so far? “Really well, really really well,” he says, when I ask. “The feedback we get from customers… people feel like they’re coming into an experience that’s so much more than just meat and three veg on a plate.”
There’s no better way to be immersed in that experience than with one of Homeland’s cooking classes.
“Truly, we absolutely loved it,” said Ang, our cooking school bench-mate, after the class. “The quality of the experience was amazing. I love their story and reason for being. I felt really privileged to be part of it and to be able to support what they do.”
Ten-year-old Jack enjoyed it too. “It was really great that I got to do lots of cooking and make a delicious fun dinner,” he said. He was especially impressed with the cauliflower and capsicum sides. “I do not like roast veges and I don’t like cauliflower, but I liked these!”
All afternoon people had wandered past to and from the marina, watching curiously through the big windows as we cooked. A few came in to make enquiries or book. We smiled and waved at those lingering at the windows, and they waved back. There’s something about the generosity of the place that makes you want to welcome everybody in.
Classes at Homeland Cooking School can be booked here. A new block of classes is due to start early June.