Tracy Whitmey meets a British chef sharing the love in Christchurch
Of the current buzzwords, ‘passion’ is tossed around with abandon these days, but when Simon Levy describes his dish of clams as food that “hugs you, just embraces you” it shows that his heart and soul are poured into INATI, the Christchurch restaurant he owns along with his wife, Lisa.
“Hugely special things are happening in Christchurch,” he says. “Canterbury is the most amazing region. The food movement down here is taking off and we’re proud of what we do, we’re proud to be able to promote people around us. The city is coming alive again.”
Simon and Lisa’s ethos for INATI is all about making connections. The very name – INATI means to share or to be exceptional and exciting – encompasses everything they want for the restaurant. While share plates are nothing new, INATI embraces sharing at a whole new level with most guests dining at the chef’s table overlooking the kitchen. Settling into one of the deep upholstered chairs at the sinuous brass-topped bar, guests become immersed in the drama of the kitchen with everything unfolding right before them.
“The chef’s table idea opens us all up to a new experience. We get to touch each guest who comes here, to give them an extra experience. People want to know more now, they don’t want to just sit down in a quiet and stiff environment. They leave having explored something new.”
This style of dining breaks down barriers and encourages guests to connect not only with wait staff and with chefs, but also with each other. Simon tells of one service where three different parties were seated, a single diner between two couples. As dinner progressed they melded into a single group who ended up sharing desserts, tasting each other’s wine. For Simon and Lisa that was the biggest compliment.
“At INATI there’s no formula to the way to eat, no structure that says you must eat in a certain way. For example, the boeuf-nuts could be sweet, could be savoury. They’re a play on coffee and doughnuts, with coffee-braised beef cheeks, sugar glass, hazelnut praline vanilla sea salt and puffed beef tendon.”
The couple want guests to relax and have fun, a vibe that shines through the menu with items such as crispy chicken cereal, donkey carrots and those boeuf-nuts. Simon says, “I try to write menus in an intriguing way so that guests ask questions and interact.” For example, a dish named duck trumpets casts a cheeky glance back at those childhood ice-cream treats; a waffle cone, a dab of blackberry jam, duck-liver parfait, bird-feed mix for crunch, finished with duck prosciutto.
“It’s very nostalgic, gives you a little smile. Food should make you smile. You have to cook with love, otherwise it’s just a job.”
As guests interact much more with the chefs, learn about the dish and see how it’s prepared, Simon believes they’re willing to become more adventurous.
“Talking to the chefs, guests start to embrace the concept. Once they trust you they’re more open to trying something new as they trust you to give them something good. Also if guests have a dietary requirement we make it work. We have to think a bit more and it makes us work.” Simon explains that all but one dish on the menu are gluten free and in fact they don’t serve bread at all, preferring to give people real food rather than having them fill up on bread.
The attention to detail extends far beyond just the food. “At INATI everything has a personal connection to my wife and me.” Together with architect Ian Hopkins, Simon and Lisa designed every part of the restaurant from the ceiling down to the plates. Designed by Simon and made by Renate Galetzka, a potter from New Brighton, the plates pay homage to the experiences of Christchurch; pearl-white plates represent a clean slate, but look closer to see tiny black flecks of liquefaction, a nod back to the earthquake, “to show that we remember what’s happened, but we are moving on.”
Having a kitchen that’s open to the guests does provide its own challenges not least for the chefs. Simon says, “They’re not just under regular pressure in a regular kitchen, they also have to look happy, they’ve got to be composed – there’s nowhere to hide.” Of the staff Simon says, “I’m super-proud of everyone. We’re only as strong as everyone who chooses to support us. All hold an extremely important role – especially the kitchen hand – with the kitchen on view everything has to be clean!”
Simon and Lisa’s two children Harry, 7, and Ivy, 3, are also part of the team.
“They’re hospo children, they come into the restaurant with Mummy and Daddy and they know the restaurant as well as us, for instance they’ll ask, ‘How many guests are coming tonight?’ If I’m cooking at home Ivy will jump onto the kitchen table and mimic me. Harry is more interested in the tasting.”
Simon himself started young. Helping his dad and grandad at their stall in Old Covent Garden in London, he grew up around food and fresh produce, and by the age of 13 he was working in a professional kitchen in school breaks. He credits that early start for pushing along his stellar career, “That was key, those first five years between 13 and 18; it pushed me forward that bit further.” Study at Westminster Catering College ran alongside cooking at eminent London hotel, Claridges, then straight out of college Simon found himself at the prestigious restaurant, The Ivy.
“I was cooking for A-list celebrities, but more important to me was learning to cook for 200-300 people a night and keeping the element of quality. This laid the foundation for my career so far.” That career has included being head chef at Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant, The Warrington, and cooking with Pierre Koffmann at The Berkeley Hotel, a six- week gig that ended up lasting sixteen months. He’s lavish with his praise of Koffmann, “the grandad of cooking, an amazing person to bounce off.” From him he learned the mantra of simple things done well, to let the food do the talking. “That was most important for me.”
“At INATI everything has a personal connection to my wife and me.”
Making the big, bold move to New Zealand four years ago, Simon cooked at Pegasus Bay and teamed up with Jonny Schwass for 14 months at the Harlequin Public House, before opening INATI in 2017.
Simon is sharing his squid bolognese recipe with us, a dish that demonstrates INATI’S creed of fun dining in a refined way. He says, “I want food to cuddle me and this dish is so powerful, as it’s not what you expect it to taste like. It’s something to make at home but a little bit special. The flavour is super-enjoyable, simple, easy but full of flavour, and it’s a happy dish.”