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Giulio Sturla has a big claim to make — he has New Zealand’s smallest restaurant.
At just 22sq m, he could be right.
It is hidden out the back of his former award-winning restaurant, Roots, in Lyttelton; there is no signage or lighting.
"It’s a very secretive place to come and visit — the experience starts as soon as you arrive in Lyttelton and try and find my place."
Mapu, as he has named his new endeavour, has a staff of one — Sturla — and serves just six people at a time in a 100% trust the chef menu.
"It’s more about the experience than just feeding people; it makes it more memorable."
So Sturla not only cooks, gardens and forages, he is also the host of the night, the waiter and sommelier.
It is a concept he decided to trial after Covid put paid to his plans to open a new 50-seat restaurant, which was to be his first venture following the closure of Roots. It was named Best Restaurant at the 2015 Cuisine Good Food Awards, as well as regularly receiving the maximum three-hat rating from the food magazine.
That business went into liquidation in 2019 after his relationship with his wife and business partner Christy Martin ended.
While reluctant to talk about that time, Sturla admits he has learned from the experience, such as knowing what is going on throughout his business and ensuring his suppliers are paid.
"It’s made me a better person."
Mapu allows him to do these things, his only help from an events manager.
Part of the change in approach with Mapu has been to move to his sittings being ticketed events rather than bookings. This means he does not lose out if someone cancels a booking. Instead it is transferred to another night.
"It’s a win-win for guests and the business. It creates a project that is sustainable, where I can pay myself, my suppliers and my overheads."
"I’m happy if I get 20 people a week. Last week I had 33, but it balances out."
The project has been running for a year and he is happy with the results — thankful he did not go ahead with plans for a bigger restaurant.
"With Covid this is not such a risk. I can enjoy the journey."
He has also found it to be a boon for his creativity, as he is able to work alone without interruptions or explanations.
"It’s very straightforward. I’m constantly changing menus so it’s a lot easier."
As he has taken over the garden himself and is growing what he needs for the restaurant, he is able to provide a garden-to-plate experience, keeping his dishes simple and focused on just two or three ingredients.
"It’s about how I can make it even more delicious. The concept has always been food with less and now its more with less."
"It’s the best fun ever. I get to make other people happy."
He sees it as rediscovering the meaning of what it is to be hospitable in all aspects, from serving great food to having a clean bathroom.
"In hospitality you should learn to do everything."
When he needs a boost or some kitchen company, Sturla collaborates with chefs for special events around the country.
His event with Prohibition Steakhouse chef Chris Wills this month will be his first this year, but he is looking forward to working with him.
In the future he sees himself looking for some permanent kitchen company, but says he is happy to wait for the right person to come along, especially given the challenges the hospitality industry is facing at the moment.
Sturla believes there are some flaws in how the industry works in New Zealand; that it is set up for failure both in business and in relationships.
"In the winter it is quieter. So why do we have a business that you know is going to be quiet for three months of the year and still do it anyway?"
While he admits his model is not for everyone, it is working for him, and enabling him to have a work-life balance.
WORK-LIFE balance has also been a challenge for Logan Brown executive chef Shaun Clouston over the years.
Since Covid hit, he has returned to a more hands-on role at Logan Brown and the two other restaurants he looks after, Grill Meats Beer and Bellamy's by Logan Brown.
"It keeps me out of mischief. There is always plenty to do," he says, talking as he prepares a lime pickle for a lamb ribs entree in Logan Brown’s "dungeon" prep area.
Prior to Covid he had taken on more of a restaurant development role and travelled, doing more events such as the one bringing him to Dunedin — a collaboration with Emerson’s executive chef Andy Aitken to showcase the winning products from the Outstanding New Zealand Food Producers Awards.
While things went "pear shaped" in the hospitality industry during Covid, he knows how lucky Kiwi businesses are compared to his colleagues in the United States.
"We’re quite fortunate. Yes staffing is an issue, but you just have to work the business around it."
For Logan Brown that meant Clouston, a father of two, becoming more hands-on and making the decision to close that restaurant on Mondays and Tuesdays.
"I’m enjoying it."
That meant he still got a few days without the regular phone calls for help or queries.
"It’s working out way better. We get the same number of people, just condensed into five nights.
"Yes we could do with a couple more team members, but it could be worse— you just make do."
There is a lesson in that, he says.
Before the Covid lockdown he had not really stopped since he started cooking, something he always wanted to do right back to when he was a "nipper".
"I love cooking, everything to do with it."
When he left school in the mid-1980s becoming a chef was not the done thing and everyone tried to talk him out of it, so he went in another direction, but after being made redundant started chef training.
"I’m still cooking all these years later, I still enjoy it."
There is still the challenge in coming up with three-weekly menu changes and being involved with different events and collaborating with other chefs.
These days he does not work nights all the time, instead working during the day preparing the evening’s food and testing new recipes.
"We have a young team here which are progressing through, which I really enjoy."
Another challenge was being invited to take on Bellamy’s at Parliament a few years ago and making the changes there to bring it up to Logan Brown standard.
He was proud when at a recent auction of a lunch with an MP at Bellamy’s, it went for $12,000.
"It’s making Bellamy’s what it used to be in the 80s. It’s been a cool project."
They have a particular focus on putting local producers’ products at the forefront of the menu there. It is something producers and members of Parliament enjoy.
About to turn 25 years old later this year, Logan Brown has seen a few restaurants come and go, he says.
He believes their passion for what they do and having a sustainable business model that not only puts customers as number one, but also their suppliers, has been key to their longevity.
‘‘They are part of the business. Suppliers past and present are close friends. You have to build relationships and look after your team.’’
Over the years Clouston has worked with small producers in an effort to link them with chefs.
‘‘It’s gaining momentum now.
‘‘I just love using their stuff, it has a great story that we can share with customers.’’
It is something owner Steve Logan and former owner Al Brown started with their Hunger for the Wild television programme back in the mid-2000s.
‘‘We’ve just continued that on. I love meeting these people. They are usually characters, really kindred spirits.’’
That passion made him a perfect candidate to be one of the judges of the Outstanding New Zealand Food Producers Awards.
‘‘There are some phenomenally good things out there. People seemed to have come out of lockdown with a new-found zest.’’
He could not believe the quality of the honey or the meat, especially the Supreme Champion winner, Homegrown Farm Fresh Meats, a small lamb and beef producer from Masterton.
It is targeted at the home delivery market, but Clouston would love to be able to use it in his restaurant.
‘‘I made contact with them even before the results were in. It’s definitely cool to be able to contact those small producers who might find it hard going straight to market.’’
The icing on the cake was being able to use all these ‘‘goodies’’ in the dinner he is creating with Aitken in Dunedin. It will include Logan Brown’s signature dish paua ravioli, as one of the Outstanding winners was Tora Collective — a sustainable paua and crayfish fishery.
‘‘When I came back in the late ’90s I took it off the menu and there was an outcry.’’
Clouston enjoyed being able to promote New Zealand flavours in his cooking as well as the influences he has picked up over the years, from his early days in an Italian restaurant to working in a Japanese restaurant in Australia.
‘‘Different people have worked with us over the years. Here in Wellington you find all different walks of life and you are invited into their homes and learn about their cuisines.’’
For him a taste of New Zealand comes from many cultures.
‘‘What we do now is a nod to these. We pay homage to all of those influences.’’