Born in the small town of Wanganui, New Zealand, Peter Gordon's first exposure to cooking was his mother and grandmother's dishes. He got a glimpse of the wider world through recipes in their women magazines and TV show the Galloping Gourmet by Graham Kerr.
Peter and his siblings each had a plot in the family garden. It gave them a chance and the satisfaction of growing their own.
His real awakening to the rich palette of foods created around the world took place when he moved to Melbourne in 1981 at age 18.
Along the way, by trial and error, Peter created his own brand of fusion cuisine based on the "belief that any ingredient, from any region of the world has the potential to be cooked and eaten with any other ingredient from any other part of the world-so long as the result is lip-smackingly delicious."
Peter celebrates this culinary journey in Fusion, a culinary journey (Jacqui Small, UK) originally published in New Zealand as A Culinary Journey by Penguin.
After a few tries and technical glitches, I was finally able to talk with Peter on the long road that took him from Wanganui to London and his restaurant The Providores and Tapa Room.
He also has a hand in Bellota tapas and wine bar and Dine by Peter Gordon both in Auckland plus a role as consulting chef with Air New Zealand for the past 13 years and a number of other side gigs.
Q: Peter, What drove you to Fusion cuisine?
Call it a spirit of adventure and the realization that I would be bored to death doing the same dish over and over sticking to a strict recipe.
Q: Does it mean that you don't like classic dishes?
I enjoy some of them as a customer or a guest.
They can be enlivened with a touch of palm sugar, aromatics and other ingredients.
It's just not my type of cooking.
Q: Would you compare your style of cooking to jazz, improvised music?
In a way there are parallels, it's like creating harmony from chaos
Q: Can there be such a thing as too many ingredients in a dish?
It depends what they are, there is no magic rule.
Q: Will you share one of the dishes you are most satisfied with?
It has to be the 'Master-stock poached squab with smoked mashed potatoes, wild garlic and four-nut dukkah'.
The Squab is poached in master-stock (20 ingredients), then pan fried.
Potatoes are mashed with smoked cream (we smoke it) and butter.
Wild garlic is sauteed in butter.
Dukkah recipe comes from my book (page 42) but also has macadamia, walnut and almonds in it.
Q: Let's go back in time to 1981 and Australia, how did you wake up to the flavors of the world?
When I got to Melbourne, I was faced with an embarrassment of riches. Name any food from Italian to Vietnamese to African, it was there, things as simple and amazing as fresh silken Tofu.
Q: What was the next step?
After sampling one dish or another, I started buying some of the ingredients and spices they used.
I built a stockpile of these over time and started experimenting with my roommates as guinea pigs.
Sometimes it worked.
Q: Did you try some recipes with other audiences?
While working for Tony Rogalsky, he gave me a chance to try some of my ideas for staff meals.
Q: Would you say you were food obsessed at the time?
Yes, so much so that once, on a Saturday night, after working the dinner shift, I drove all the way to Sydney with a few friends to sample the cooking of Gay Bilson at Berowra Waters on the Hawkesbury River.
The restaurant is mainly accessible by boat so it was quite an experience even though I could barely stay awake.
Q: You left Australia, in 1985, what where your plans then?
I wanted to experience other countries and headed for Bali first. The original idea was to spend a little time there and then go to Greece looking for a job on a cruise ship with work in a posh London hotel as the ultimate goal.
The Indonesian experience led me to change my mind and after Bali I trekked through Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Burma then Bangladesh, Nepal and finally India.
All in all it took me 10 months to reach London. I then returned to New Zealand to set up the kitchen at the original Sugar Club in Wellington in 1986.
Q: When did you head to London for good?
I went back in 1989.
Q: Did you pick London because you had contacts there?
No, I had no connections in the UK
Q: Besides the adjustment to sedentary life after months of traveling, what was most challenging in these early days in London?
It might sound odd but even though Australia and England share the same language, the kitchen lingo was quite different. It was not just what things were called, it was also the way it was prepared, the type of fish that was used, the portions and I could go on and on.
The same thing would happen to a British chef moving to California.
Q: Where there any other work difficulties?
Considering the cost of living in London, the wages were appalling. Kitchens being in restaurant's basement also proved difficult at times. Cooks from Australia and New Zealand were also looked down upon at the time by British staff. Some thought there was no food culture down under. My quality of life took a dive compared to what it was in Melbourne.
Q: So it was like starting over in a sense?
You could say that. I came from running the kitchen at the Sugar Club for over 2 years and now did not have much of a say. I did not like the 'cold war' mentality chefs had towards waiters either.
Q: When did you finally find a place where you could experiment?
As I mention in the book, a string of less than satisfactory experiences led me to decide I would avoid places where one could not use ginger, fish sauce or coconut milk and also stay away from 'angry chefs, abusive managers and kitchens where the food was dull'.
Margot Clayton who I had met recently was hired as the chef for a new restaurant named First Floor on Portobello Road and offered me a job. The menu changed everyday and was as eclectic as the staff so it was a breath of fresh air.
Q: You landed another opportunity to try new things while at First Floor, what was it?
I started working as a private chef for the Govett Family on week-ends at their Fosbury Manor estate in Whiltshire. He was a wine executive, she was on the board of the Tate Museum. I had a chance to create new dishes with grouse, duck and many other ingredients. A highlight of my time there was cooking for the owners of Chateau Petrus.
Q: What was your next main gig?
I spent 2 years working at a private club, Green Street in Mayfair. It attracted the rich and famous, many artists amongst them. Food was not the main reason for their presence.
At the same time, I helped Margot Clayton who had married Fergus Henderson for the opening of The French House. While there, I had the pleasure to work with 2 talented women, Anna Hansen (Modern Pantry) and Skye Gyngell (Petersham Nurseries).
Q: It was then that the Sugar Club got its second incarnation, in London, correct?
In 1995, The Sugar Club opened on All Saints Road in Notting Hill and gave me the opportunity to unleash my creative spirit. We were people and critics favorites from the get go.
In 97-98, Ashley and Vivian, the owners, decided to move The Sugar Club to the West End. I signed up for one year with the new location.
I was also getting involved with many side projects including my first cookbook, consulting for Air New Zealand, TV shows and more. It was a busy and exciting time.
Q: From that point, how long was it before the curtain call of your first very own place?
It took 2 years before The Providores and Tapa Room opened (August 15th, 2001) with four partners - myself, Michael McGrath, Jeremy Leeming and Anna Hansen.
The Tapa Room downstairs is an all day cafe (including a breakfast menu) and wine bar. It takes its name from Rarotongan Tapa cloth (made from block printed and hand beaten paper mulberry bark) that hangs on the wall. Tapa cloth is found across the Pacific.
The more formal upstairs dining room is The Providores which stands for 'providers of food'.
We also do retail sales so we could definitely use a bigger space. It gets crowded especially for the Sunday Roast.
Q: Any other element that distinguishes The Providores from other eateries?
We have the largest selection of New Zealand wines in the UK and possibly Europe including Waitaki Braids of which I am part owner.
Q: Can the Waitaki wines be found in the US?
It's a limited production, currently 2008 Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, 2008 Rose. The Pinot Noir will soon be available at Public restaurant in New York.
Q: Has the wobbly economy brought changes in the UK?
The UK has an history of exploration but recently I can feel a bit of insularity.
Q: Any pet peeves?
I regret the stifling effect of regulations intended to protect health that end-up preventing some wonderful cheeses to reach our tables. You know the whole unpasteurized debate whether it regards pregnant women or not.
I also find it odd that for example New Zealand dessert wines were not sold in the UK until very recently.
Was there a whiff of protectionism?
Q: Name one element that puzzles you about the London food scene?
Many British born chefs offer variations on French cooking. Why don't they create a distinctive British style?
Q: Talking about authentic foods, you mentioned a Turkish delight, what was it?
It is a Turkish goat cheese, wrapped, aged in goat skin. You cut the skin and scoop the delicacy.
It's called Tulum and Travelogue of Vagabond Journey has details on this goat bag cheese (March 2009).
This colorful anecdote concludes our interview.
Many thanks to Peter for sharing his food adventures with us.
Thanks as well to his publishers in the UK and New Zealand for making it possible.
Since Peter's latest book Fusion is not available yet in the US or Canada, we will run a Contest in the coming week for readers in these 2 countries. One lucky person will win a copy of the book.
(* illustrations used for this piece are first a snapshot of Peter at Sydney's Food Festival 2009, then his Red wine & Star Anise Braised Octopus and last a Miso Risotto with Chicken Livers & Plum Compote, both recipes featured in the book)