Sean Connolly was just a few days away from  opening Esther, his latest Mediterranean-influenced Auckland venture in upmarket  QT Auckland hotel. The hotel’s publicity material promised a ‘luxuriously quirky’ experience, but when I asked how this translates to the menu, Sean was characteristically forthright. “I’m a simple bloke and I don’t think I can offer ‘quirk’. I’d be lying if I said I could. But everyone knows I’m mad for theatrics, so come the night, the curtains will go up, the lights will go down and it’s showtime and life changes forever.”

Many chefs tell of learning to cook at their grandmother’s knee, with traditional techniques and authentic flavours being baked into their upbringing. Though Esther is indeed named after Sean’s Yorkshire grandma, don’t expect Yorkshire pudding and treacle sponge. It’s more about capturing her spirit, he explains. “She was a massive influence in my life growing up, and she loved the sun, loved it. This is a nod to her love of life, of entertaining, telling stories and her wanderlust. Here I’ve visualised her as a young girl, sailing through the Mediterranean, exploring all the islands from Sicily to Sardinia and through to Lebanon and Morocco.”

After amicably ending his involvement in Cuisine hat- winning Auckland restaurants Gusto at The Grand and The Grill in late 2019, he describes Esther as a new journey of expression. As Creative Director of Food & Beverage at QT Auckland, the food is clearly his focus (working with executive chef James Laird, formerly of The Grill), but it’s so much more than that, such as personally curating a playlist of drum and bass, trip hop and indie beats to set a mellow vibe. “My job,” he says, “is to deliver the complete concept that will blow you away. It’s all about the funk.”

To realise this concept he has worked closely with interior designer Nic Graham, enjoying what he describes as a fabulous collaboration – “We’re cut from the same cloth and he’s really responsive to what I want.”

And one of the things he wants to do with Esther is to break down the stigma of hotel restaurants. “I’m the guy to demystify those corporate environments, to make things more fun. Esther has quite a feminine feel and it has its own entry separate from the hotel. It makes it more approachable, more real.”

With six other restaurants currently in his stable in Australia and a CV spanning big names for several decades, Sean is no newbie to the razzle dazzle, and the attendant responsibility, of a high-profile opening. Does he still get nervous as the first service approaches? “I’m not nervous about the food. I’m really confident about what we are doing. What does get me going is the big welcome. The food is about number five on the list of importance, just one small cog in the wheel. It’s about the way that you are greeted, given a drink, creating an atmosphere that makes you feel that you have arrived. The food is just about fitting into a seamless story.”

Lemon, sea salt and good olive oil – those are the quintessential elements of Esther’s riff on the Med theme; Sean describes the saffron and lemon pasta as a big bowl of sunshine, saying, “When we cook we show where we’ve been in our lives and what we’ve done. No-one’s journey is the same and everyone has their own story. This is my story right now and also the story of my future and where I want to go.” TRACY WHITMEY



25 mins plus 2 hrs marinating time