Former French Café owner Simon Wright joins Tauranga’s Clarence Hotel.

The route from Auckland to Tauranga doesn’t necessarily go through Whangamatā but for Simon Wright that’s just the way his path has taken.

Simon and his wife Creghan surprised the hospitality world when they sold the award-winning fine diner The French Café in 2018 and moved to Whangamatā to focus on family life, opening a casual beachside food truck/café business.

But now fresh opportunities have tempted the family a little further south as Simon takes a new step as executive chef at Clarence Hotel in Tauranga’s historic Old Post Office, where he’ll be steering the team at Bistro X Simon Wright and the soon-to-be-refurbished Bar Centrale.

Not that he was looking for a job; in fact he was scrolling through the Clarence website looking to buy a special birthday treat for a staff member when he noticed the ad for an executive chef. “Personally I think I’m unemployable. I haven’t worked for someone else for 27 years!”

The revamped Bistro reopened on 17 January and Simon barely had time to sharpen his knives before the torrential rain hit the North Island, followed just weeks later by Cyclone Gabrielle. Though the restaurant escaped unscathed, it has been a less-than-ideal start. “I’ve no staff, no produce, no fish… it’s been a very rushed beginning and I’m still finding my feet,” Simon says. Rest assured though, he snatched the last 28kg of whitebait then available, so the famous whitebait sandwich is still on the menu to add a little bit of Kiwiana to the Mediterranean/North African/Middle Eastern-influenced dishes.

He promises a fresh approach to fine dining, one dispensing with stuffiness and offering food that is not pretentious but has bags of flair. “The Bistro is a stunning and romantic spot, quite a grown-up place to come for a big night out,” Simon promises. “We’re looking to bring the romance back into Tauranga.” TRACY WHITMEY