Eat and Run

When celebrity chef Richard Till returned to his restaurant roots for just three weeks, the punters flocked from far and wide to sample the delights from his Kiwi kitchen.

It was a brief fling that left the Christchurch public wanting more.

For a while Richard Till had been tossing around the idea of opening a restaurant just long enough to capture the initial passion and enthusiasm that accompanies its start-up. But it wasn’t until he, his daughter Elsie and friend Wayne Alexander found the perfect venue and had a coinciding three-week gap in their schedules that they decided to go for it. “Otherwise we’d talk about it for the rest of our lives,” he says.

Anderson Dining was in its second week of operation when Her visited and Till was up to his ears in preparation for that night’s dinner in his state-of-the-art containerised kitchen, parked up to the side of the rather nondescript brick building in which he’s set up shop. Sandwiched between the Port Hills and the railway line running through the industrial area of Woolston, Anderson Dining is housed in an old pattern making shop that hasn’t been used for 25 years. It was once part of Anderson’s Foundry, a big player in the engineering scene in early Christchurch. “It’s the very flip side of ‘location, location, location’ and I can’t work out whether we’re on the right or wrong side of the tracks, but it adds to the charm,” he jokes. And yes, the odd coal train will thunder past during dinner.

With the years of foundry dust and grime cleared away, the interior is far from flashy and but has a quirky charm that you might expect from a venture run by Till. Carpet samples lay on the polished parquet wooden floor near a huge mixer. The obligatory pile of teatowels is perched on the end of one of the tables which are covered with brown paper tablecloths. With a day job as Technical Director and Designer of Theatre at the University of Canterbury, Till had no trouble enlisting the help of friends in film, theatre and stage to create the restaurant’s complex lighting. “It doesn’t matter how great the food is if the lighting is horrible. You’ve got to make people feel and look great. If their eyes ache and they feel ugly then what’s the point?”

If people expected something a little different from their restaurant experience at Anderson’s they weren’t disappointed. All the diners were treated to a view of Till doing his thing in the containerised kitchen, which he says “looks a bit like a hotdog stand at the fair.”

When Till finishes his chopping he takes a quick break to chat about the venture. Despite the pressure he is under, he is as relaxed, unpretentious and chatty as he appears on his popular TV1 show Kiwi Kitchen where he champions this country’s culinary traditions. He says that getting back in a restaurant kitchen has been “truly truly exhausting”, but that he has enjoyed it immensely. “I think there is a tendency in all of us to seek out things where other people do the work, but this is a great opportunity to prove to ourselves that we can bloody well work hard and come up with our own solutions.”

Dinner at Anderson Dining featured a fixed price, three course menu, and Till also put on a traditional roast Sunday lunch. He laments the fact that the smell of a joint of meat slowly cooking no longer wafts down most suburban streets on Sunday afternoons. “The roast was usually cooked by one of the family matriarchs and big groups would gather for it. At the time I don’t think we valued it as a tradition, we probably only value it now when we realise what we had.”

Tickets for each 80 seat sitting were sold through Ticketek with the entire three weeks worth snapped up after the restaurant had been open just one night. At the time, Till was grateful that the venture had a definite end. “We’re all moving on to other things, so I can’t be tempted to extend it which is really good. All restaurants have their lifetime, so we decided to seize that by the scruff of the neck and pull the plug before our customers had time to fall out of love and drift their attention to another.”

Richard Till grew up in Christchurch and was first inspired to cook by his mother. His father is renowned concert pianist Maurice Till, who at 82 is still performing. “When I was a child my mother managed the family kitchen and filled the tins, but she also played the hostess and cooked fancy meals for the European cellists and singers who came to visit. I was interested in the way that she had these two styles of cookery depending on the occasion.” Sadly his mother passed away not long before the first series of Kiwi Kitchen went to air.

Early in his career Till worked as a set builder and painter for several years in Wellington and Christchurch which he supplemented by working nights in restaurants, first as a waiter, then as a cook. He has had no formal chef training – he taught himself to cook after years of reading Julia Childs cookbooks and American Gourmet reviews. In 1988 he opened his first restaurant, Espresso 124, the first on what was to become ‘The Strip’ now host to some of Christchurch’s most popular bars and restaurants. He then set up a second restaurant, The Worcester Street Dining Room.

Since 2002 Till has performed comic cooking shows Just Dick it and Dick Does Dinner at festivals. He writes regular food columns for the Sunday Star Times and Zest, and appears on the Sounds Delicious show on National Radio.

Till now has two successful series of Kiwi Kitchen under his belt with sales of the associated DVD and book selling “really well – the book’s into its third printing.” As yet, he hasn’t been commissioned to make a third series of the show. “There is no shortage of stories and I’d very much enjoy making another series, but I’m very happy to have made what we have. I won’t go into a funk and lie in the corner and cry if it doesn’t happen.”

It’s fair to say that Till’s “first go at the restaurant business this century” has been a mighty success. If the rumours are true, he might be back for another fling with Christchurch diners over the summer.

By Jo Bailey