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Restaurant of the Year chef no flash in the pan

The Press Your Weekend. Article by Ewan Sergent
20.06.2015

From the front bay window table of Roots restaurant you can just see the worn patch of footpath outside the next-door shop that Giulio Sturla and partner Christy Martin are talking about.

Roots, if you don't already know, was this month named "restaurant of the year" by Cuisine magazine. The award was for having an impact and having a story to tell. But Roots also won two hats, which puts it in the country's top 12 restaurants. It's a restaurant people will now come a long way to visit, which is good because they kind of have to.

But back to that footpath patch. The couple tell the story with slightly embarrassed smiles and there's a moment when they both fall silent as they reflect on how life can change.

On that spot in the grim post-earthquake days of 2011 they set up a small table on Saturdays. The Lyttelton Farmers Market down the road drew the crowds but they couldn't afford a stall at the market. So they sold gourmet cookies, grissini, puff pastry treats, preserves, vegetable chips to passersby who had drifted beyond the market.

Now, just three metres and a bay window away, if you want to push the boat out, you can pay Sturla and Martin $275 for a 12-course degustation meal with matching wines. Same couple, same vision for the food, but something's happened.

That something is Canterbury and the rest of the country is increasingly attracted to their philosophy. This is that dishes should be made from scratch and from ingredients that are as fresh, local and seasonal as possible. They are also produced ethically and sustainably. The couple also believe in strong, mutually supportive relationships between a restaurant and its suppliers. When you buy a meal at Roots, that payment supports this whole network.

It's an uncompromising stance. It doesn't make them rich. But they are happy and at peace.

Sturla was born in Chile and raised in Ecuador. Martin is an American. They met in Chile but neither could work legally in the other's country – unless they married, and Martin says they didn't want to marry just for that reason. The journey to find a home and make real their dream of opening a restaurant covered much ground.

It included a year apart while Sturla worked for free at Spanish restaurant Mugaritz. This ranks in the world's top 10 and is as uncompromising as he is now. He tells a tale of being stripped back to nothing then rebuilt with a new appreciation of nature and its link with food.

He arrived as a nine-year cooking veteran who had run restaurants, cooked on cruise ships, taught cooking but "they told me I know nothing". He challenged it for three months.

"Why chop parsley every service when you can chop a lot for a week? Why drive to a farm to get your beef when you can pick up the phone and order it and it arrives chopped up? Why work 16 to 18 hours a day when it could be so much easier," he argued. He was miserable. Then he gave up, said yes to everything, and discovered the beauty of cooking at one with the environment around him.

The couple chose New Zealand to live and make the dream come true. "It's a beautiful country. We both love nature and it's so fresh," Martin says.

They arrived on working visas and Giulio worked at the Old Church in Napier, then Kermadec in Auckland, before the move to Christchurch at high-profile Jonny Schwass' eponymous restaurant on Ferry Rd. Four months later that restaurant was gone thanks to the February 2011 earthquake.

Schwass moved on to new projects but they didn't fit Sturla's vision. So the couple settled in Lyttelton and faced the uncertain future.

Sturla says they had to make it work in Lyttelton. somehow. "We were so focused on Lyttelton because we didn't have money. We didn't even have money to drive to Christchurch."

The little pavement table wasn't the answer. But it was a start. Next came running a cafe during the day, then hosting supper-club dining events in the evenings at the back of the cafe with dishes that highlighted their local-fresh-food philosophy.

Many in Lyttelton were unimpressed.

"People say why are you serving me a thing like this [he makes a small circle with his fingers] when I usually get something like this – a big plateful. What are you trying to achieve with these little things," Sturla says.

But others got it.

"The ones that did support us gave us that hope and inspiration in ourselves that people really like this and we could make this happen. We could see that we could do a restaurant and this was our future and we really wanted to go forward," Martin says.

That restaurant was Roots, which opened at the end of 2012 in the popular old cafe-bar Satchmos site (more angst from bewildered diners who came for a Satchmos pizza or gumbo shrimp and instead found no menu and multiple mystery courses of tiny dishes.)

Giulio did much of the painting and refurbishing, but they also used the Timebank for the fitout. Timebank is where people barter hours. Roots offered cooking to trade for work on the property. The man who did the garden out the back cost them 200 meals.

The first years were hard and Martin says they often talked about whether they should change, especially when they looked at their empty restaurant or an empty reservation book.

But slowly the word spread of the wildly different dining experience. Last year they won a Cuisine hat, and suddenly less explanation was needed.

This year the rush forward has accelerated with Roots' further Cuisine success and Sturla organising ConversatioNZ - the country's first food symposium along the lines of huge events overseas that are transforming the food industry.

The biggest plan on the back of all this publicity is to put in another table at the pass – a chef's table – during the busy months. Another four customers boosting the limit to nearly 30 will help a lot. Maybe even one day, he says, "I might be able to pay myself a salary."

For more about the winners of the  Cuisine Good Food Awards, see the latest issue of Cuisine, on sale now, or cuisinegoodfoodguide.co.nz