Chef Reon Hobson
Words: Annie Studholme
Images: Annie Atudholme & NZ Beef & Lamb
It’s chef Reon Hobson’s light-hearted approach to food, while maintaining a fervent respect for ingredients that has propelled this Christchurch-born chef to his place amongst New Zealand’s culinary elite. Yet, in a challenging world where only the tough survive, it is his unequivocal passion for cooking that continues to underpin his success.
CHEF DE CUISINE AT The George’s award-winning restaurant Pescatore, Reon Hobson’s reputation rests on his ability to create masterful, playful, delicious dishes with a modern twist. “I wouldn’t say I have a signature dish, more of a signature style so when you see a simple sounding dish on the menu, it’s probably not what you would have been expecting,” says Reon.
Not bad for someone who fell into a life of cooking. Now 38, Reon never set out to become a chef; his passion for food was ignited during his final year of school when he picked up home economics at the girls’ school across the road. “It was really just an opportunity to meet the girls, but I enjoyed the cooking component of it and it all started from there,” he recalls.
After finishing school he went on to qualify as a chef through the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT) before landing a position as a junior chef at the renowned Christchurch restaurant, Saggio Di Vino. Reon started at the bottom, making salads and washing dishes, moving up through the ranks over the next four-and-a-half years to the position of sous chef. “I was very fortunate to get a job at Saggio Di Vino. Most of the chefs were European, so I was exposed to a lot of European techniques straight off the bat.”
From Saggio Di Vino he moved to executive chef at the boutique hotel, The Charlotte Jane, learning to run and control a kitchen. But at just 22, Reon was quick to realise that he didn’t know quite as much as he thought. Keen to further his experience, he first headed to Sydney relishing the opportunity to work for celebrated Swiss chef Dietmar Sawyere at his prize restaurant Level 41.
“I took a step back to work overseas but back then, there weren’t that many top-end restaurants to work at in Christchurch. It was a huge change though. Suddenly I went from being one of only two chefs doing around 20-30 covers a night, to being one of 18 churning out 120 covers for lunch and 140 during dinner service, working 12- to 14-hour days.”
For three years he worked under the expert tutelage of chef Sawyere, alongside some of the world’s leading chefs, including renowned gastronomic innovator Thierry Marx, who now helms the kitchen at the Michelin two star restaurant Château Cordeillan-Bages in Pauillac, France.
Reon then left Sydney bound for London, teeming with a wealth of knowledge and skill, and flush with a new found zeal for his craft. Through chef Sawyere, he landed a position at celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s flagship restaurant, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, known for producing elegant and unsurpassed modern French cuisine. Undoubtedly one of the highlights during his tenure was catering for a New Year’s Eve dinner at Ramsay’s Wandsworth home for a host of celebrities, such as David and Victoria Beckham.
While in London, Reon also worked as sous chef at L’Escargot’s Picasso Room in Soho under Ramsay’s mentor Marco Pierre White and spent time at Jason Atherton’s Michelin star restaurant, Maze.
Reon returned home to Christchurch in 2008 taking on the position of the chef de cuisine at Pescatore, where he has remained ever since. Heading a dedicated small team, Reon’s creativity and leadership skills have taken the already successful restaurant to a whole new level. It is now widely considered one of the country’s best contemporary restaurants, offering diners classical cuisine married with the latest food techniques.
Last year it joined an elite circle of restaurants in Canterbury to be awarded 1 Hat in the Cuisine NZ Good Food Awards 2014 for the first time, an accolade it has retained in the latest round of awards.
Earlier this year Reon was also honoured as one of six New Zealand chefs to be named Beef + Lamb New Zealand Ambassador chefs, chosen for being leaders in their field and showing outstanding gastronomic talent. His fellow ambassador chefs include Brad King from Bistro at The Falls Retreat, Bay of Plenty; Ken O’Connell from Bracken Restaurant, Dunedin; Marc Soper from Wharekauhau Estate, Wairarapa; and Ryan Tattersall from Cobar Restaurant, Wellington.
At Pescatore, Reon is free to push the boundaries of the culinary ecosphere using seasonal (and mostly local) ingredients to create inspired menus matched with a truly world class wine list and knowledgeable staff, all wrapped in a unique formal dining experience overlooking the serenity of Hagley Park.
Despite being attached to The George Hotel, Pescatore’s clientele extends well beyond hotel guests. Traditionally thought of as a place to go for that special one-off occasion, Reon is hell-bent on trying to change people’s perceptions of the restaurant, encouraging food lovers to embark on an emotional gastronomic journey with him regularly by frequently adding new dishes to the menu while retaining timeless favourites.
Reon’s enviable rise to the top may sound sublime, but in reality, there’s no disguising the truths of life as a chef. Beyond the polite hum of rattling silver and dining room prattle, the rough-and-tumble nature of the restaurant world comes with hard work, high stress, long hours, low pay and broken relationships, not to mention working at a time of the day when the rest of the world is going to sleep.
While working at Gordon Ramsay’s, Reon was pulling 96-hour weeks, in addition to spending more than two hours getting to and from the restaurant each day. “You certainly learn how to work with no sleep,” he quips. “It weeds out the ones that aren’t quite as dedicated or don’t have the same drive. It goes one of two ways – there are the ones who last and go on to bigger and better things or the ones who burn out.”
Infamous for his fierce kitchen outbursts played out of TV reality shows, Reon says Ramsay is no different to any head chef one poor dish away from a PR disaster. “When you get to that level, all chefs are quite highly strung. There is a lot of money hinging on your reputation. One bad review can cost you a hat or a star, which can cost you your livelihood. Only the tough survive.”
But working hard from the bottom up is an essential part of the learning experience, explains Reon. “There are two career paths as a chef. You either work hard at good restaurants for less money, doing the hard yards or you can work for good pay but go no further.” In his mind there are no shortcuts. These days too many young wannabe chefs enter the workforce straight from polytechnic or cooking school thinking they should be head chefs. But in truth, it’s the exposure to different equipment, diverse techniques, and a true understanding of the operation of a kitchen that will set them apart. “You can never stop learning,” he says.
Above all though, it’s the constant impetus to create innovative dishes to surprise and delight diners that gives Reon the most pleasure. “It gets very stale if you are doing the same thing all the time. I try to change it (the menu) as much as possible, but it’s not all about feeding your own ego,” he cautions, despite the huge rise in people’s appreciation and knowledge of food over the past decade in the wake of reality competitive cooking shows. “There is no point doing stuff you think is awesome, if people come in and won’t eat it.” While many ideas sound awesome in your head, it doesn’t always transpire on the plate. “It’s always about flavour first, then presentation. It can be a bit hit and miss or trial and error. Some dishes can take me five minutes while some can take me a month or two to work out.”
However, logistically, there is considerably more to take into account when designing a dish for a restaurant setting than there is when cooking at home, he says. “You have to look at the set-up structure-wise for the kitchen, and the timing. Because we are a small team, for us to deliver a product at its absolute best, the menu can’t be all hot or all cold. It’s like a collective; everything has to work well together. There is a big difference between putting a dish together and replicating it for service.”
Reon still enjoys taking part in service with his team, professing it keeps him young at heart, and equally relishes passing his knowledge on to the chefs of tomorrow.
Despite the endless hours and hard work it’s taken to get him where he is today, not to mention a very understanding family, Reon still emphatically loves what he does. “I think any chef who has been cooking for as long as I have would tell you the same; otherwise why would you do it? The day I stop enjoying it, is the day it’s time to stop.”