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Chef Peter Gordon - interview

The father of fusion cuisine says he sometimes wishes the expression had never been coined.

LS1516_34_shelf_DSC_3707 Peter Gordon at Auckland’s Sugar Club restaurant. Photo/Simon Young

Peter Gordon – chef, food consultant, restaurant proprietor and author – divides his time between New Zealand and his main home in London. He has been in the ­business for about 35 years and came to the attention of food lovers and critics when he combined unlikely and sometimes exotic ingredients to produce so-called “fusion” food.

Gordon’s businesses include Auckland’s Sugar Club and, in London, the Providores and Tapa Room, Kopapa and Crosstown Doughnuts. He designs menus for Air New Zealand, teaches at Leith’s cooking school and donates time and energy to charitable fundraising dinners.

Gordon is about to launch his eighth cookbook, Savour: Salads for All Seasons, and is also clearing space in his London home for his partner, Al Carruthers, who is moving from Auckland to the UK.

Why another book about salads?

It is nice to have a book every two years or so to keep you in people’s minds and in their libraries. I went to the publishers with three ideas and this was the one that they were most interested in. It’s a lot simpler than any other book I’ve done. We’ve pulled back on styling and propping – I thought I didn’t need to see another photograph of a dish with napkins and salt and pepper shakers. Even with salads, it’s textures, flavours and combinations. I have loved doing it.

Aged about 12 in 1975. Aged about 12 in 1975. Photo/Peter Gordon collection

When will we reach peak cookbook?

I’m surprised people haven’t peaked already. I guess there is always a new audience, a new generation coming up, or people with more time on their hands who can concentrate on cooking. Much as I have a Kindle, which I pick up and carry around hoping to read the various books I have downloaded, there is nothing like a book. People keep stocking up on them, thankfully for people like me selling them.

How many people just buy to look at the photos of food and how many actually try out the recipes?

Someone told me the statistic is that for the average cookbook someone will make three recipes from it and there may be one recipe that they make more than once. This week, one of the head folk at Sainsbury’s said the scallops in sweet chilli sauce from The Sugar Club Cookbook is a dish she still makes. I often meet people who say, “That chickpea salad from The Sugar Club Cookbook is the thing I always make, it’s why I bought the book.” I find myself thinking, “Really, a chickpea salad, in amongst all the other recipes is the highlight?” But it’s what is achievable.

Gordon in the kitchen of Auckland’s Sugar Club restaurant with head chef Neil Brazier. Photo/Simon Young Gordon in the kitchen of Auckland’s Sugar Club restaurant with head chef Neil Brazier. Photo/Simon Young

You’re credited with creating fusion cuisine. That’s quite an accolade, isn’t it?

The fusion thing has been a good and a bad thing, because when we were first doing fusion at the Sugar Club, it was seen as quite a nice word. Then [English celebrity chef] Antony Worrall Thompson said, “It’s not fusion, it’s confusion, this food is ridiculous.” Suddenly, it was “let’s attack the fusion guy”. Some people said, “Why don’t you stop using the word fusion”, but it was too late and what is the alternative term? The Sugar Club got an award once for Best Modern British Restaurant from Time Out and we also got the Evening’s Standard’s Best Pacific Rim Restaurant the same week. Fusion was a dirty word for some time, but there is a great intellectual Scandinavian foodie magazine called Fool. It’s a gorgeous, slightly hipster, funky intelligent publication and last year it dedicated the whole magazine to fusion – there were five pages of me and suddenly it is okay again to be fusion. As a food word, fusion’s not so nice, though – it sounds a bit like a laboratory-based thing. It would be nice if there was a softer, more foodie word, but I’ve not come across one. It’s fine now, but there was a period where I regretted ever aligning myself with it.

LS1516_34_shelf_Fusion His 2009 fusion cookbook.

How many cookbooks do you have?

Loads, even though I recently got rid of about 200. I went through them knowing Al was coming over to live, thank God, and we needed space. Many of the books were pretty much along the same theme, and there are only so many things you can do with risotto or fish stew. I didn’t need 14 Italian cookbooks. I sent some books to a local school and some to a prison charity that runs restaurants in prisons. I have kept about 150.

Which cookbooks did you keep?

Any book that a good personal friend writes stays. I have Yotam’s NOPI [by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully], Nigella’s newest one [Simply Nigella: Feel Good Food] and others by Al Brown, and Nic [Watt] from Masu in Auckland. I’ve kept some Robert Carrier first editions. I have The Silver Palate Cookbook [by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso], others by Claudia Roden, Sri Owen – a Sumatran food writer – and Maria José Sevilla. Also Jill Norman, who was Elizabeth David’s editor and curates her estate. Jill brought a lot of us together to do a book called The Cook’s Book for Dorling Kindersley. I have a few of Charlie Trotter’s, who gave a quote for my second book, published in America, which was a really nice thing to do.

Remember that old Time Life series of books? How to preserve, how to make a terrine, a few of those. I love them. Sometimes you think – if you’re making a pork terrine, for example – “What’s the ratio of fat or the right temperature?”, so I might look at Leith’s Cooking Bible. There’s a great French book called Pork & Sons [by Stéphane Reynaud]. It’s a butch book but with a lovely padded pink cover, so it is quite appealing. Christine Manfield is a great food writer – I love the way she weaves stories into her recipes.

Kopapa restaurant in Covent Garden. Kopapa restaurant in Covent Garden. Photo/Cindy Cau

What else do you read?

I often have a few books on the go – right now Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. It is a good thing to read as you get older. I am a firm believer in euthanasia – I think it’s wonderful thing. I have a friend whose sister and friend have died in the ­Netherlands and it was a blessing for both of them. I’m halfway through Wolf Hall on my Kindle and I keep meaning to finish it. I fell in love with it, I want to read it on the Tube, but it’s too crowded to pull it out.

Do you covet a Michelin star?

For some people, having a Michelin star is really good. I think everyone agrees one star is really good because people’s expectations aren’t really enormous, but for those with two or three stars, there are enormous benefits but there’s also much more pressure. If you have three, and there are very few who do, and you lose one, it is seen as a very bad thing, better probably not to have had it to start with. The French chap who recently blew his brains out – you think to yourself, “Oh God, it’s only food.” That’s tragic, but he is not the first chef to shoot himself.

Gordon in the kitchen of Auckland’s Sugar Club restaurant with Tejas Nikam. Photo/Simon Young Gordon in the kitchen of Auckland’s Sugar Club restaurant with Tejas Nikam. Photo/Simon Young

Doughnuts seem a departure from your healthy salads. Why doughnuts?

We’re in the current Men’s Health magazine and there’s a whole page about our doughnuts. The doughnut featured has machu tea and a sourdough starter that’s 15 years old and part of the Crosstown story. That seems to outweigh the fact that it is deep-fried and has butter and eggs and loads of flour and sugar. Hilarious.

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