MATTHEW PATRICK meets a well-travelled chef with Kiwi-Aussie flair.
The day he turned sixteen, Zennon Wijlens walked out of school and into a restaurant kitchen. Ready for a real-world challenge, he had no idea it would be in hospitality but leaving school that day he knew he dare not arrive home without a job. He stopped in at Titirangi’s Barossa (now closed), got himself a job on the spot, and sixteen years on has worked in some of Australasia’s most acclaimed restaurants. “Initially, cheffing was a ticket out of school but when I got into a [professional] kitchen and heard the language and the loud noises, worked the late nights and formed such strong friendships, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I still do and really can’t imagine doing anything else,” he says.
After six months at Barossa, Zennon nabbed a position at Auckland’s Euro, then helmed by Simon Gault, and three years later headed across the ditch where he honed his skills in a handful of Australia’s most esteemed kitchens. Following a stint with Tetsuya Wakuda at his eponymous Sydney restaurant, Zennon went on to hold positions at Etch by Becasse, Momofuku Seiōbo, Spice Temple and popular Melbourne stalwart, Cumulus Inc. Having spent his formative years in Australian kitchens, his food, he says, has a definite Australian flavour. “Australia has by far been the biggest influence on my style and food. Not only did I do most of my training there, but being only 20 when I moved I was exposed to a much greater variety of ingredients, styles of cooking and service than I ever was here in New Zealand,” he explains.
By 2016, Zennon was ready to come home, landing at Cibo in Auckland’s Parnell before finding love and following his now fiancé, Catherine, on a nine- month culinary tour of the world, during which the pair ate at 34 of the World’s Top 50 restaurants. With that behind them and 2019 ahead, Zennon joined the team at Paris Butter in Auckland’s Herne Bay. As sous chef he is relishing the opportunity to work alongside chef-owner Nick Honeyman and together they drive an innovative and clever menu that, despite the restaurant’s name, is distinctly Kiwi. “Initially Nick started Paris Butter as a French bistro but it has evolved, especially over the last year, to really showcase New Zealand and its diversity. The menu is home to a couple of French classics but we’ve given them a twist. I think that’s what blows people away. They come in expecting a French experience but we’re something else entirely.”
An impressive approach to health and well-being at Paris Butter has seen the entire team thrive. Together they attend a weekly Crossfit session and encourage each other to live healthier. Work-life balance is central to this and time outside of the kitchen is considered an important ingredient for the team. Zennon, who says he’s never been healthier, is using that time to give back, volunteering as often as possible at Everybody Eats as well as engineering collaborations that benefit the community or connect like minds within the industry. “I feel I’ve been very fortunate and that it’s important to give back in some way, shape or form. As a chef, it’s more personal to offer my time and skills than to simply write a cheque.” Last March one of Zennon’s events, a collab dinner with Phil Clark at Paris Butter, raised $3500 for the victims of the Christchurch mosque shooting.
Is a place of his own on the horizon? “Eventually! That’s something Catherine and I spoke about when we got back from our trip. I kind of still don’t feel like I’m ready. I’m 32 and a lot of chefs my age have already taken their first head chef jobs and are gunning it, but I feel that I still have a little more to learn. I know I’m getting that final piece of the puzzle from Nick. I couldn’t ask for a better mentor.” Sample Zennon’s work at Paris Butter, 166 Jervois Road, Herne Bay, Auckland.