Relaxing out of his chef whites in a hoodie emblazoned with a Kiwi map, Pierre-Alain Fenoux is embracing New Zealand with aplomb. He may have a French name, and hail from France where he has done much of his cooking, but Fenoux is an adventurous chef who describes his cooking as modern, international cuisine celebrating local flavours.
His debut restaurant, Jano Bistro, has just won a top award in the prestigious Cuisine Good Food Awards, a well-respected runner-up to New Zealand's best new restaurant. Judges described Fenoux's food as "seriously exciting".
Says Fenoux: "It has been my dream to run a restaurant. It's a chance to express myself. When a customer comes out and says thank you, it justifies the 18 hours I may have worked that day."
On Wellington's Clyde Quay wharf, Paul Hoather's reincarnated White House restaurant, Whitebait, was named Best New Restaurant in New Zealand's only nationwide restaurant accolades, with judges raving: "We love that Wellington has a smart, chic restaurant with a seafood focus.". Both Jano Bistro and Whitebait were also recognised with one hat, while Hoather's other eatery, Charley Noble, was awarded a hat. The Larder also retained its hat. Of 76 restaurants reviewed in the Cuisine Good Food Guide, 37 received coveted chef's hats.
Hoather has won awards before and his White House restaurant was a notable eatery on Wellington's fine dining map. But Fenoux is a newbie on the Wellington dining scene, and it's impressive that just six months after cooking his first dish in the celebrated 1880s settlers cottage, his restaurant has won national recognition.
Fenoux had been looking to run his own place for some time, after being second in command at the former Le Canard restaurant in Thorndon, which has now shut down. At Le Canard, he cooked traditional French fare, with lots of butter and cream. He previously shifted to this part of the world to cook in Australia, in Cairns and Melbourne, where he fell in love with Asian food. At Jano, Fenoux moves away from heavy, fussy, French food, serving dishes that are gluten and dairy free.
"I like cooking international cuisine. I missed using ginger and lemongrass. I want a menu that showcases produce. I like to share my fun with my customer," he smiles.
The bistro menu changes regularly. It's refreshingly simple and easy to read. Nothing is described and there's an element of deliberate surprise. So the "Lamb" comes with potatoes, spinach, organic feta and black garlic. The Jano Tasting Plate is dotted with quail, mussels and jerusalem artichoke.
Already, Jano's lemon curd dessert is becoming a signature dish. Served with rosemary, olive oil, orange blossom and poppyseed, he says: "Some people are quite curious about it."
"I respect my produce and I use every bit of it. I use the cauliflower roots, leaves, and all the cob."
Gone is the anguish and fuss from his time working in Michelin star restaurants, where he sweated over a hot stove, often with a dozen other chefs. "In my first job, the head chef was really good but really tough. I was 19, and I was supposed to be the junior chef but after a month he had me in charge of the kitchen. I went home crying every night, there was so much pressure."
Rather than spending six months developing one dish as he has been forced to in the past, he prefers a free style approach. "I like to use what is in season, and you have an epiphany about something and then you create that. Here I can design a dish without the worry."
Fenoux has a gift for flavours and putting them together, according to his partner and bistro co-owner, Diana Goh, a former vintage store owner. "Once he made this dish using Flight Coffee oil powder. He mixed that with duck and it's really hard to imagine how it would look and taste, but it was amazing."
The Willis Street bistro pays homage to its previous descendents - Petit Lyon, The White House and Citron - with many diners booking tables for nostalgic reasons. It's also a nod to Fenoux's late paternal grandfather, Jeannot, who the restaurant is named after. A market gardener in the hills of Savoie, south- eastern France, Jeannot helped raise the chef, and he was known affectionately by his friends as Jano.
Always keen on food and forever found in the kitchen, Fenoux began cooking at the age of 14, when he spent three days cooking in a Michelin-star restaurant in the region of Chaminox, in the French alps overlooking Lake Geneva. "It was exactly where I wanted to be. I felt like I had come home."
And despite the stress of working for two tough chefs in Michelin star restaurants over the years, they have been his greatest mentors. "They taught me the philosophy of cooking which I now share. To forget about pride, and that you have to be humble, and respect and satisfy the customer."
After being largely overlooked in last year's Cuisine Good Food Awards over Auckland eateries, Wellington is back with a vengeance this year. Logan Brown got two hats, while WBC, owned by chef Tom Hutchison and Clay Toomer, won a hat for the first time.
On Majoribanks St, Ortega Fish Shack's Davey McDonald was named Restaurant Personality of the Year, and the establishment he co-owns was also awarded a hat. With a shaggy mop of hair and an infectious grin, McDonald has greeted customers at restaurants on this stretch of the street since the eatery opened its doors more than five years ago. Judges commented on the warmth, knowledge and commitment that McDonald brings to the restaurant.
Also the sommelier, he co-owns the fish shack with his wife, Anna, and chef Mark Limacher, his father-in-law. Just as Limacher has ruled this part of town with his previous restaurants for many years, it's McDonald's patch too.
McDonald began his hospo career on Majoribanks St 14 years ago, starting on the floor at Roxburgh Bistro next door straight out of high school.
The secret to top service is knowing your customers, says McDonald, as about 75 per cent are regulars. "There is a guy who has been dining here since I started. He came in on my birthday with a card and flowers."
"Some of our customers have been coming since we opened, and you get to know them and their lives. Then you'll have the customers who are here on their first or second date and they don't even know we are here."
The Ortega Fish Shack team is proud of its food cooked by head chef Regnar Christensen, who has worked for Limacher's restaurants for 13 years. "We're trying to deliver everything to a high standard, without a stiff, boring, over formalised style," says McDonald.
It's a magic formula and the next plan is to open a bar and eatery next door, in Roxburgh Bistro's former site. Hopefully opening within six months, the 31-year-old says: "We enjoy looking after people here and having fun with them. We're just doing what we love."
For full results, see cuisinegoodfoodawards.co.nz or get a free copy of the Good Food Guide with Cuisine's July issue (on sale 15 June).
Cuisine Good Food Awards in Wellington:
Logan Brown - also 2014
Charley Noble - also 2014
Ortega - also 2014
Jano Bistro - new
The Larder - also 2014
WBC - new
Whitebait - new
Best New Restaurant: Whitebait
Runner-up: Jano Bistro
Restaurant Personality of the Year: Davey McDonald, Ortega Fish Shack
Cuisine New Zealand Restaurant of the Year: Roots, of Lyttelton.