A taste of the Wild

fleursullivan2The release of a new book about renowned Moeraki restaurateur Fleur Sullivan provided Jo Bailey with the perfect excuse for a road trip.

Dusk is wrapping its dark cloak around the craggy North Otago peninsula as we turn off State Highway One and head past the famous boulders towards the tiny fishing village of Moeraki, home to one of the South Island’s most exceptional foodies. I check the brief from publishers Penguin for the final time. “Interview with Fleur Sullivan, 6.30pm, 45 minutes to one hour, confirmed.”

Lights blink invitingly as we pull into the carpark of her internationally renowned restaurant, Fleurs Place. Inside we are greeted by the inimitable Fleur, who as Peta Mathias says in the forward to a new book, Fleurs Place, is “well ahead in the hospitality, likeability and personality department”.
Within seconds of meeting her, the interview has been put off till some time later that evening and we are deciding which bottle of red wine to open. “Take a bottle with you up to the motel so you can have a glass while you’re settling in. Do you need something to nibble on after that long drive?” she asks.

We decide to have a glass of wine and a chat with Fleur and a couple of local identities, Joe and Len first. Before long a glass has turned into a bottle and we have consumed a fabulous platter of pate, pickles and rustic bread. We’ve even met Joe’s half dingo, half kelpie dog Waka who is as much of a character as his owner.

We flick through Fleurs Place, a new book by Graham Warman and Paul Sorrell that has just been released by publisher, Penguin. The beautifully presented book features some of the restaurant’s prized recipes and introduces many of Fleur’s team, her suppliers and several Moeraki locals. Joe and Len are keen to show us a photo in the back of the book – of them enjoying a smoke and a beer in the sunshine with other local fishermen. “Make sure you put that one in the magazine,” they say before breaking into gales of laughter. Fleur says she “truly loves the book” and is even more thrilled when other people say how much they love it too.

Over dinner Fleur tells us how it was Dunedin freelance photographer Graham Warman who came up with the idea for the book. “Graham had a holiday house in Moeraki and had already taken a few photos for me. After Rick Stein came I think Graham realised the restaurant might be a bit special.”

The visit by British media chef Rick Stein is already the stuff of legend. When a British newspaper gave him the choice of any place in the world to write an article about, he chose Fleurs Place.
He eventually came for dinner in 2006. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow and her soon-to-be husband Chris Martin (of band Coldplay) were other famous visitors. The upstairs table where they sat is now referred to as ‘Gwen’s table’ and people often request it when they book, says Fleur.

As a licensed fish receiver, Fleur buys fish fresh each day from the local fishermen. Her typical menu might include blue cod, tarakihi, groper, gurnard, moki, ling or whole flatfish. Fleur is a forager who gathers everything from wild herbs, fungi and even seaweed to accompany the food. Head chef Simon Peacock and his team share Fleur’s philosophy for simple, fresh, honest food.

This year she became the Restaurant Association of New Zealand’s Hall of Fame recipient. She took some local friends to the awards dinner including Mary, who made her a fabulous cloak to wear for the presentation and Koa who called a karanga when Fleur’s name was read out by Peta Mathias. “It was fantastic.”

The next morning we share breakfast with Fleur and pick up our conversation from the night before. The story behind the establishment of her restaurant has been told many times and today Fleur is keen to reflect a little more on her past in the hope it may help young women who might be feeling “stuck”.

She tells us about her first job after leaving home – looking after a pub on the West Coast where the local bush-men taught her how to forage for food in the wild and cook in a camp oven. She married at 22, and admits to being “depressed” when she found herself living in Westport in the 1970s with her husband and their three small children. They had little money and times were tough. “I think secretly inside we all believe we’re special and I knew I wanted to achieve something more. But I had forgotten where I was going and felt like I was locked in a picture and couldn’t get out. It was pretty scary and there was no one to discuss these things with in Westport at the time.” She says that it was reading a book called The Women’s Room that finally gave her some hope.

Fleur and her family eventually moved from Westport to Clyde after buying Dunstan House, a rundown historic hotel from the gold mining days. The hills behind the hotel were covered in wild thyme and it had an overgrown herb garden. The herbs would provide the solace and purpose that she was seeking. “I started to learn everything I could about herbs and before long I was selling wild thyme to an old man who ran a little herb factory in Clyde.” It was a small entrepreneurial venture, but it got Fleur back on track. She gradually turned Dunstan House into a renowned bed and breakfast where she perfected her cooking skills while preparing dinner and breakfast for her guests.

But a “nightmare” period was still to come. Her marriage broke down and she had to sell Dunstan House. She moved to Queenstown with her children where she worked for four years. Then she returned to Clyde and bought the buildings that would become the lodgings and restaurant of Olivers, her multi-award winning and hugely successful restaurant that she ran in the 1980s and 90s. Fleur sold up after being diagnosed with cancer in 1997 and shifted to Moeraki to recuperate. She is upset that Olivers, once sought out by serious foodies, has been “bled dry” by subsequent owners.

Fleur regales us with the sometimes frustrating, sometimes hilarious tales of her countless battles with bureaucracy over the years. “The restaurant here at Moeraki nearly didn’t happen and at one stage I was set to quietly leave and go back to my big block of land at Clyde to plant heritage apple trees. But one day when I was driving back from Oamaru I heard my late father’s voice in my head say, ‘don’t let those bastards beat you’, so I decided to give it another crack.”

The hour I was allotted for the interview has now been surpassed many times over. As we get up to leave I ask Fleur, who is approaching her seventies, if she has any plans to retire or step back from the business. “I’m here every day unless I’m not here,” she laughs. “I might get tired but I always want to be here. I’m living in a cookbook. It’s exciting every day. How could I stop?”

Fleur’s Place, by Graham Warman and Paul Sorrell. Published by Penguin. RRP $45. Available from good bookstores and directly from Fleurs Place, Moeraki.

By Jo Bailey