Top Auckland chef Nic Watt will open two new restaurants in the next few weeks, defying the notoriously cut throat hospitality industry.
That hadn’t been the plan, he said: “It’s more of a commercial reality – you can’t dictate build times.”
Delays in one venture as the other held to schedule means Inca, a Peruvian joint in Newmarket, and Okahu Bay’s Akarana Eatery will start serving customers within five weeks of each other.
The restaurants are a bounce back for Watt, 46, whose last venture – True Food Yoga – went into liquidation last year, owing creditors and staff more than $2million.
Watt is best known in Auckland as the man behind celebrity-attracting MASU, an upmarket Japanese restaurant in the CBD.
Four days before Akarana Eatery’s opening, Watt was in its kitchen discussing the merits of a placing a little dish of pickles next to a paprika-ed pair of schnapper wings. Would they compliment the fish more than mayo, was the question. Yes, he decided, though that could change before Saturday.
Akarana Eatery will be an airy and casual seafood restaurant with floor to ceiling windows showcasing the Waitematā Harbour. It seats 153 people. Watt hopes the place will become a culinary hub for the Eastern Bays community after the initial “rush of footfall” following its opening dwindles down.
That will be key to its survival, he says: “If you’ve got your formula right, you’ll start to build a base clientele. They’re your bread and butter.”
The aim is to start breaking even in between 18 and 24 months.
There are more hospo businesses than ever in New Zealand right now: 17,328. New openings have climbed over the last few years. But the latest Restaurant Association numbers also show an unprecedented number of outlets failing. In 2017, 2232 venues shut their doors – up from 1932 in 2016 and 1641 in 2015.
The Restaurant Association CEO Marisa Bidois said “a combination of forces at play” made conditions tough for the hospitality industry in 2019.
She cited minimum wage increases, lack of access to skilled workers, and competition in the form of home delivery businesses as contributors to a challenging market.
Watt said he was nervous but undeterred. He was motivated by passion couldn’t imagine getting out of the hospitality industry.
“There are absolutely pitfalls, not every restaurant succeeds. If you don’t, I guess you’ve just got to push on through it,” he said.
“But [eating’s] something you’ve gotta do three times a day, it’s a bit like breathing – you’ve just gotta do it. If you love it, and love working with ingredients and seasonality, then combine that with the pleasure of hospitality – that’s putting smiles on peoples faces and creating memories – it’s hugely rewarding.”
Sea-slanted Akarana Eatery is a passion project for Watt. He’s a third generation boatie who devoured raw scallops as a child on the shores of Hauraki Gulf islands; he’s always loved seafood. He’s also an Eastern Bays local and admires the 124 year of the Royal Akarana Yacht Club – the namesake and home of his new eatery.
Watt has chefed his way from London to Macau to the United States and claimed cooking for Kiwis is the most enjoyable, “because we don’t have any rules”.
“Kiwi diners are intrepid as far as palate goes. They travel. You can put sort of anything on a plate and out of curiosity, they’ll try it.”
Watt’s pick of Akarana Eatery’s new menu is the yellow belly flounder from the Kaipara Harbour, oven roasted with smoked paprika, tomatoes and lemon.
Akarana Eatery opens on September 7 at the Royal Akarana Yacht Club, 8-10 Tamaki Drive, Okahu Bay, Auckland.
Inca opens on October 10 at Westfield Newmarket, on Broadway.