Dinner at Antoine’s

By Karl du Fresne In Food

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Tony Astle, photo David White

You could walk past Antoine’s of Parnell and not know it was there. An unprepossessing grey villa partly hidden by a big pohutukawa, it’s identified by a tiny sign that could easily be missed. But that’s the point about Antoine’s. By not making a statement, it makes a statement. After nearly 40 years at the same address in Auckland’s Parnell Rd, it doesn’t need to announce itself. Its location is known to the people who need to know. The cab driver who deposited me there had never heard of the place. He was from South Auckland. But to Auckland’s old money, the blue bloods of Remuera and Epsom, Antoine’s has something of the character of a private club – a quality reinforced by the requirement to ring the doorbell to gain admission.

You wouldn’t call it grand, still less flashy. Entry is via an uneven brick courtyard and up wooden steps. Diners have been known to complain that it feels poky, even claustrophobic, inside. Yet Antoine’s has outlived all its competitors. Only Tony’s steakhouse in Wellesley St (founded in 1963) has been going longer, but it caters to a different market and has been through changes of ownership. Tony Astle was only 22 and brimming with confidence (“I was up myself; I was bulletproof”) when he opened Antoine’s in 1973. Norman Kirk was prime minister and John Hanlon was topping the charts with Damn the Dam.

If he has a rival for the title of elder statesman of haute cuisine in New Zealand, it would be his former mentor Sir Des Britten, but there’s a crucial difference: Britten long ago hung up his chef’s hat after being ordained as an Anglican priest. But at 62, Astle is still cooking: lunches Wednesday to Friday, dinners Monday to Saturday. He jokes that the reason his marriage has survived is that his wife, Beth, sees him only on Sundays. Astle’s customers expect to see him in the kitchen and feel flattered when he comes out to say hello. “I’ve made a rod for my own back,” he laments, only half seriously. “If I’m not here, my customers complain. I almost need a cardboard cutout of myself.” When he and Beth go on holiday, the restaurant closes.

Astle is old-school. He learnt from two of the pioneers of fine dining in New Zealand, Britten and the formidable Frenchwoman Madame Louise Charlton. It was a baptism of fire, since both were volatile personalities. Volcanic upheavals in the kitchen were commonplace. “I reckon Des sacked me seven times; he says it was only three.” Perhaps not surprisingly, given that background, Astle has a reputation as a martinet in the kitchen himself. He says – again, only half jokingly – that it was Madame Louise who taught him to hit staff who didn’t perform to his exacting standards.

He’s been known to deal to difficult customers, too, if only verbally. Legend has it he once threw out Winston Peters – possibly an exaggeration, although it’s clear that Peters, once a valued customer, is no longer welcome. But it wasn’t just disciplinary rigour that Astle acquired from his early days with Britten and Madame Louise. He also absorbed the principles of classical French cooking and came to appreciate the trappings of fine dining, such as silver service and top-quality crystal. Over the succeeding decades Astle has cannily applied those lessons, adhering to an essentially French-inspired menu while adapting to trends in contemporary cuisine.

Never a rigid traditionalist, he went along with the nouvelle cuisine fad in the 1980s – although never to excess – and more recently has applied some of the techniques of molecular gastronomy, such as sous-vide cooking (in which food is slowly cooked in air-tight plastic bags in a water bath). The menu at Antoine’s reflects that dichotomy. Diners can choose between the “table” menu (example: an entrée of smoked lamb’s tongue on nut lentil mushroom quinoa with wilted greens and truffle jus, $30) or the “nostalgia” menu (examples: Antoine’s tripe served in cream, sherry, onion and green peppercorn sauce – $28 as an entrée; and traditional roast duck with Grand Marnier sauce, $48).

Tony Astle

Photo David White

Lovers of tripe swear Astle’s version is the food served in heaven. Offal dishes are a house speciality, although he laments that animal organs that butchers once couldn’t give away now command high prices. “Offal has suddenly become fashionable. Younger chefs are playing with it but they’re not very good at cooking it, I must say. They don’t know what to do with it.” Sir James Fletcher (“such a neat man”) was a tripe enthusiast. “They almost carried him in for his last meal here.” More recently Antoine’s has attracted a growing Chinese clientele who show a similar enthusiasm for offal. Astle has grown fond of these new customers. “You know the good thing about them? They dress well, they’re polite and they drink very good wine, but not a lot of it. They don’t get drunk.”

All this would have been beyond the wildest imaginings of the spotty-faced boy from a working class Christchurch family who wrote to Graham Kerr, New Zealand’s first celebrity chef, asking how he could get into cooking. The second of five children, Astle was at Shirley Boys’ High School when he saw Entertaining with Kerr on television and decided “I want to be him”. As a boy, he enjoyed baking and would cook the family roast on Sundays – “anything to get out of mowing the lawns” – but it was Kerr’s film-star aura, rather than food, that inspired him. “He was an entertainer. He was good looking, he had that voice and the women loved him.”

A letter came back inviting him to Wellington, where Kerr was setting up an international cooking school. This called for subterfuge, since Astle’s father – a truck driver for New Zealand Railways – would never have approved. “I had to leave home without him knowing. It was awful – he didn’t talk to me for a long time. Out of five children there were suddenly only four. It was something he just couldn’t get his head around. He was a very hardworking man; a man’s man.”

Kerr not only enrolled Astle in his cooking school but found him an evening job as a trainee waiter at Madame Louise’s Le Normandie. For a teenager whose only experience of restaurants was “Chung-Wah-type places that served dreadful chop suey”, Le Normandie – all plush red velvet drapes, flock wallpaper, gilt-framed mirrors and polished silverware – was a revelation. “Everything was served at the table from a trolley; it wasn’t plated in the kitchen. It was full-on silver service. You had to learn to carve at the table, to flambé and to serve with a fork and spoon. It was all totally foreign to me.” Virtually all the wine was French. Drappier sparkling burgundy, served in coupe-style glasses, was consumed by the gallon. “‘Nothing crappier than Drappier,’ we used to say. “Madame was tough – I mean, she would hit people. She had a peephole in the wall and would watch the waiters.”

A waiter named Jose Hernandez – still a good friend – took Astle under his wing and would warn him: “Do it properly, little one; she’s watching.” All the waiters were immigrants because New Zealand men considered such work unmanly – a view shared by his father. “He would have thought, why not put on
a skirt and be done with it?” Astle’s waiting career came to a premature end when, in an excess of enthusiasm, he splashed too much brandy into the pan while flambéing poulet chasseur and set fire to the extravagant bouffant-style hair of a female diner. He was punished by being transferred to the kitchen.

Photo David White

In hindsight, Astle is appalled at some of Madame Louise’s practices. “Roast” chicken was actually deep-fried. Crayfish would be cooked on Monday and kept in the fridge all week, and any meat returned to the kitchen uneaten would be put through a mincer and turned into meatloaf to be served at a coffee bar that Madame Louise also owned. Astle carries a permanent reminder of that mincer. Feeding meat into it on a Saturday night, he tried to clear a blockage and got his left hand caught. The ambulance crew had to carry him out through the busy restaurant, his friend Jose walking alongside holding the mincer because Astle’s hand was still trapped. When it was eventually freed at the hospital, he had lost the index and middle fingers. To this day, he walks around with the hand closed. “It was an embarrassment.”

Britten worked at Le Normandie too, and after being sacked by Madame Louise (“he was thrilled to go,” Astle recalls), opened his own restaurant, the Coachman. Astle went to work for him but was too frightened to tell Madame he was leaving her for a rival, so made up a story about going home to Christchurch. His treachery was exposed when, taking the Coachman’s rubbish out one night, he was seen by Madame Louise and her husband as they drove past in their Hillman Hunter. “We never spoke again.” Like Kerr, Britten struck the younger Astle as a glamorous figure. He had been a popular radio DJ before turning to cooking, and was a fastidious chef. The two remain friends, although there’s an element of professional rivalry in the relationship. Astle confesses that Britten accuses him of stealing some of his recipes – the chocolate soufflé, for example, and the French onion soup. He describes Britten as an inspirational mentor – “a bit of a god, really”. When Astle decided at 40 to be received into the Church of England, it was Britten who officiated. “It was very High Church. Des was in his element. And of course we came back here afterwards for a huge party.”

Astle is an engaging and gloriously indiscreet raconteur with an almost theatrical manner. Small and dapper, with a neat goatee beard and sharp pale blue eyes behind fashionable dark-rimmed glasses, he wears impeccably tailored chef’s uniforms (even to parties, according to Listener food writer Lauraine Jacobs, who describes him as Auckland’s godfather of food). By his own description, he was a “pretentious little prick” when he opened Antoine’s in partnership with a former colleague from the Coachman. Astle was the chef and his partner was the maître d’. Their accountant said they couldn’t get away with charging more than $4 for a main course. Astle charged $6.95.

The restaurant thrived. Parnell was becoming trendy and Astle’s only real competition at the fine-dining end of the market was Michael’s Caprice on the North Shore. Members of the Auckland Racing Club soon discovered Antoine’s and it became their unofficial house restaurant. The business partnership didn’t last, however. A sudden parting of the ways in 1974 left Astle with no waiting staff, resulting in Beth and several friends being called in to help. Regular customers who were unsettled by the change of personnel were told that if they didn’t like it, they could go elsewhere. “That was when I started telling people to get lost,” Astle recalls with a look of undisguised satisfaction.

Beth, who had no waiting experience, ended up running the front of house for 30 years. She still does the books and comes in at six every morning to set up and vacuum, but works nights only if she has to. The couple have no children. The departure of Astle’s business partner brought the restaurant perilously close to failure. He owes its survival to stalwart customer Gordon Pollock, a member of the racing fraternity whose wealth came from the Barker & Pollock chain of fabric stores. Pollock bailed him out with a $70,000 loan – “a huge amount of money then” – at 2% interest. “We paid him back in two years.”

Photo David White

A new Antoine’s was born and Astle was free to run things his way. “It became entirely my show and we just kept getting busier.” It would be fair to say, though, that Astle’s style – which remains formal and traditional by comparison with other top-end restaurants – isn’t universally endorsed. He readily admits food critics don’t like him, but suspects that has as much to do with his politics as his cooking: Astle makes no bones about his right-of-centre leanings and is an enthusiastic supporter of John Key, a frequent customer. He accuses restaurant critics of being attracted by whatever’s trendy, which Antoine’s is not. One negative review, by Metro founding editor Warwick Roger, triggered a vendetta that raged for years. “What he really hated was our customers, because they were wealthy,” Astle says of Roger. “He was such a leftie then.”

Having been mentored by others, he has in turn become a mentor himself. A special tribute dinner honouring the 40th anniversary of Antoine’s is part of the Taste Auckland food festival this month, and it will have two courses prepared by Simon Gault and Michael Meredith – both former protégés who have become culinary luminaries in their own right. Astle says he’s been lucky with his staff, whom he refers to as his “boys”. Most stay for a long time and become like family, but he laments that it’s still hard to find men who regard waiting as a professional career. His current waiters are all French.

He accepts the hours are unsociable, which is why drugs are a problem in the restaurant business. Methamphetamine use isn’t as serious as it was, but he describes ecstasy as a monster. “My boys get offered stuff all the time when they go out.” And that’s not the worst problem facing the restaurant trade. Antoine’s has weathered economic crises before, but Astle says none has been this bad. “The last recession [in the early 1990s] came and went, but this one has gone on for five years and it’s not going anywhere. It’s not a glamorous business anymore; it’s a struggle.” On a brighter note, he adds: “I’m lucky. Our regular customers still look after us. We’re now serving the grandchildren of our original customers. “A lot of people don’t understand us, but for the people who do … we’re their restaurant. And when I finally get out of here, it will be because I want to get out of here.”

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