In Profile: Peter Gordon
Described as ‘Europe’s father of fusion cuisine’, we talk to New Zealand born and London based chef and owner of Marylebone’s much loved The Providores & Tapa Room, Peter Gordon.
What was your inspiration behind becoming a Chef?
I think I am similar to most chefs in a way – as a child I had a sense that eating properly was something muchmore complex than something you do three times a day because you need to, to stay alive. When my family stayed at my Gran’s house, we all had to put on clean clothes before we sat at the dinner table, then we’d sit down and actually take time to eat. Whereas at home with my parents and siblings it used to be ‘eat as quickly as you can’ and then get down from the table and run screaming around the house. Which I also loved to do.
My Mum says I used to sit on the floor cutting photos of recipes out of Women’s Weekly magazine. The images I’d cut out were of things our family never cooked, like soufflés and crown roasts with paper hats on the bones (very 1960’s), it just wasn’t something we did in New Zealand. I was just drawn to it by the visuals. From about five I was in the kitchen helping with baking – but aged 7 ½ I’d had a terrible kitchen accident, tipping a deep fryer on my head. This meant I missed nearly a year of school while I had skin grafts and complications arising from the operation.
So was the aim always to own your own restaurant?
I wouldn’t say that was my aim straight away. We didn’t have what we would now call restaurants in the town where I grew up, Whanganui, and so we never really ate out. There were 40,000 people living there, so it wasn’t small, but it just wasn’t the done thing. I remember thinking I would get a job as a chef in a big posh hotel in London like The Savoy, I never dreamed I’d one day own my own restaurant.
Where did the journey to being a chef begin?
It all began when I left school – I applied to Air New Zealand for a chefs apprenticeship, thinking a bit of travel and food would be fun. That didn’t work out so I pursued my next idea of becoming a wine maker – enrolling for a Horticultural Science degree at Massey University in 1981 aged 17. A lecturer suggested that trying to be a winemaker in New Zealand (in 1981) wasn’t the best of ideas and that I’d be better doing a more focussed degree in South Australia. So I dropped out, moved to Australia, and got a job as a waiter in Melbourne at a very famous restaurant called Mietta’s. As I’ve said, we didn’t really go to restaurants when I was young and suddenly I was working with all these chefs in tall white hats and jackets and I knew ‘this is what I want to do’. I asked my then boss if I could move to the kitchen, she sacked me and told me to stop wasting her time. So I went home crying, really upset, to the flat where I was staying, knowing almost no-one in the city. A few weeks later I managed to find a job through a cousin and started a three-year cooking apprenticeship and it went from there.
When did you first become associated with the Marylebone area?
I suppose it was in 2000, we were looking for a location and the Howard De Walden Estate told us about a place called the Black Horse Pub on Marylebone High Street that had finished their lease. It was one of those classic English Pubs, a bar downstairs, and a Thai dining room on the second floor – I have never really got that myself, these hybrid pubs! I like it, but I don’t get it.
If I am honest, when we first came to look at it, we said it wasn’t what we were after, it was too small and pokey. We were looking here, Clerkenwell and in St John’s Wood, but my dentist is down on James Street and I visit a Japanese herbalist on New Cavendish Street, so we knew the area well and gave it a go.
What was it like back then?
It was a bit shabby. Waitrose was here, along with Agnes B and The Conran Shop. It was only twelve or thirteen years ago that people thought this was a useless area. It seems crazy considering you were only a stones throw away from Selfridges.
Now it is quite French, a lot of things have popped up. The De Walden Estate have done a great job keeping it independent, it’s not full of those high street chains that you see everywhere, which I must admit I do use myself, but appreciate they’re not here. They have kept it independent and if there are chains, they tend to be of a particular quality.
Being a restaurateur and a chef, do you find it difficult to strike a balance between the two?
All chefs that become restaurateurs battle with the fact that they are not cooking enough, and so many of them pretend that they still cook a lot. It’s practically impossible, you have to keep your eye on everything so naturally your time in the kitchen shortens. For me having restaurants in New Zealand and here, and advising on a few others, it is almost impossible to be in the kitchen enough.
However, when I am I try and really focus my time, so I am mainly involved in menu changes and the implementation of new ideas. I delegate the day-to-day stuff to a fantastic team as well as my wonderful business partner Michael McGrath; I have been really lucky to have him and the team. The key is to allow our team to get on with it and make sure you are there to support them.
If you are not cooking at The Providores and Tapa Room, where else do you eat in the area?
I am looking forward to checking out Canvas on Marylebone Lane, I am really excited to see Michael Riemenschneider coming in to the area.
I like the Nordic Bakery, particularly the salmon and dill on rye bread. For cheese La Fromargerie and meat from The Ginger Pig. For tea I go to Kusmi Tea – I have been drinking it for years!
Where did the inspiration The Providores and Tapa Room come from?
We wanted to do something they hadn’t yet done in London. We wanted to create a place where you had good coffees, flat whites and a good breakfast. There was nothing really in between – you could go to The Ritz and have an expensive, formal ‘brekkie’, or the alternative would be the other extreme – a greasy spoon. People in London simply didn’t go out for brekkie, whereas in New Zealand and Australia for years people have been eating and meeting over breakfast. So when we opened here breakfast took off very slowly, whereas brunch became incredibly popular from the start. In some ways I truly feel we brought breakfast to London.
We always wanted to do small plates downstairs. There were Spnaish tapas and Chinese dim sum, but the concept of small plates is something we also brought to the capital. This is the food I still really love to cook. It has been great to see that many of the flavours and ideas we have been using here are now making it onto mainstream menus.
We told De Walden we wanted to create a place where women especially would be happy to eat by themselves. We wanted to create a space, open 7 days a week, with lots of wines by the glass, a good variety of teas and barista made coffees. We wanted to be open all day from breakfast through to dinner which simply wasn’t done by ‘named chefs’ in those days. We also wanted to be able to offer a glass of wine or a coffee at any time of day. They told us we had ticked all of their boxes. It is interesting to think that back then no one was doing that, only hotels or café chains were open all day, every day.
Beyond food, what are your other great passions?
My partner lives in New Zealand and through him I find myself going to the opera a lot. We’re off to Vienna at Easter to see Parsifal by Wagner. Last year we saw The Ring Cycle at Covent Garden – marvellous. I find ‘art’ fascinating, and have been to the last two Venice Art Bienales. When in Marylebone I love going to Wigmore Hall.
16 years ago I created a charity event called ‘Who’s Cooking Dinner?’ raising money for leukaemia as I was a bone marrow donor for my sister – she survived. It’s held each year and we have now raised £5 million. We ask twenty chefs to create and cook a four course meal for a table of ten. Then we sell twenty tables of ten and each chef draws a table from a hat at the beginning of the night and cooks for that table. The excitement is that no-one knows who’s cooking their dinner until the draw. It’s a great cause, with all money going to Leuka, and a really fun evening.
What shall we be expecting from The Providores and Tapa Room in the future?
Obviously there is going to be more competition, with Fischer’s opening up near The Conran Shop in late Spring, and the Chiltern Firehouse has recently opened. They are both great and I know the chefs / owners well so that’s always good. So because there is more competition, we need to make sure we’re on top of our game. We have recently had a bit of a cosmetic overhaul, and a few changes in the kitchen. Also having completed the opening of The Sugar Club, I am looking forward to swapping ideas from my various restaurants and focussing on the best dishes.
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