The French Café has been on the Auckland dining scene longer than just about any other eatery in the city, and with Englishman Simon Wright at the helm, its reputation as one of the top restaurants (if not the top) in the city hasn’t faltered with each passing year. We recently sat down to talk to the humble chef over coffee, discussing his recipe for success, the Auckland food scene and how he crafts his restaurant’s menus.
When did you land in New Zealand?
I first came to New Zealand when I was 23, from London. I came here with a friend who was seeing a New Zealand girl — so I sort of followed. I really enjoyed myself. I went to Australia for a year, and traveled around Southeast Asia but eventually came back.
The French Café is an Auckland institute. How did you and your wife end up at the helm?
We bought The French Café in 1999. We had some business partners then and that was really cool. Their role was to be in the business with us — to guide us, help us and see where it went. Three years later we bought them out. Obviously, we’ve been going from strength to strength since then. We worked very, very hard.
When you first bought The French Café 14 years ago, how did you pick it up and give it new life?
We originally thought, shall I change the name and reinvent it a little bit, or keep the old name — because people know it — and try and restore it back to its former glory? We tried the second approach, which I think is a longer approach, but in the long-run, I think it works in your favor.
We tried to build the restaurant up for a long time. We started getting a few good reviews, and I think it took us about four years before we became really, really busy and then we just hit boom time. You couldn’t get a booking for two or three months — that was back from about 2003 to 2008. It was amazing.
When we first started, we had visions of The French Café being an upmarket bistro where hopefully you’d come twice a week and you’d just come for a glass of wine and a main meal. Well, unfortunately it was never going to be that because it already had a reputation for being a fine dining establishment. They [the patrons] wanted it to be fine dining.
I think we might have been the first restaurant to do degustation in New Zealand. We did two degustation menus; we offered more expensive bottles of wine, more variety of wine and really started to allow the customers — if they wanted to — to spend money. They could spend money, and I think that really helped.
Finding your own definition in the market is really, really important. Costumers don’t want to be confused. If they want to go and have a steak, then they’ll go somewhere else.
Why do you think people love The French Café?
We’ve always tried to make The French Café into something we’re really proud of. Every spare bit of money we ever get always gets reinvested back into the business. It’s always been a long-term plan for us. We’ve just completed the fifth major upgrade of the premises [the addition of a chic, minimalist private room in the back of the restaurant called The French Kitchen]. It’s starting to become a complete vision for us.
What’s the philosophy behind the menu at The French Café?
Over the years, I’ve sort of restructured my menu style. What I do now is I change the menu seasonally. In each three-month season the menu will evolve, so some dishes might be able to stay on for the whole three months, but some dishes won’t. I do one tasting menu and I do a four-course à la carte menu, too. So I do slightly smaller portions to some degree, but I want people to come and have four tastes. And they get bread and they get an amuse-bouche, and they get a little pre-dessert. So by default, they have six tastes and a bit more of a French café experience. It’s not about showing off, it’s about trying to give you the best experience I can at anybody’s budget. I really want to give as much as I possibly can to make sure we give a unique experience to our patrons. It’s all about being generous; it’s all about being hospitable.
How did you convince Kiwis [native New Zealanders] to embrace fine dining?
It was very difficult for me to come to Auckland and recreate fine dining food because there was no fine dining market at the level I had been working at previously. New Zealand, without me criticizing it too much, was about 10 or 15 years behind. But that’s what’s so amazing about it. New Zealand is no doubt one of the most progressive countries you can be in right now. It’s turning into an amazing [place]. I think the food here is as good as anywhere in the world, across the board.
Can you share more of your thoughts on the Auckland food scene?
I think one thing we’ve done extremely well here is the café scene. I travel a lot and when you go to a café, you just never seem to get the same experience as you get at a café in New Zealand. It’s down to our relaxed approach, and the way we do things. I know we’re influenced by the rest of the world, and to some degree we’re lucky because you do bring some of the best of what the world has to offer, and then you put your own spin on it.
Photos Courtesy of The French Kitchen