By Carl Muir
Sitting on the deck of his restaurant Tairua Beach Club, Graeme Riki is captivated with the view, and who wouldn’t be! The blue tidal water is lapping over the flats of Paku Bay, and the layers of hills in the ranges shimmer many different shades of green.
“The Coromandel was calling me” says Graeme “I was drawn here. It reminds me of my childhood on the Hokianga, the mountains, the lush bush, the estuary and rivers. This is paradise and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else!”
Graeme or “G” as he is known locally. is taking a couple of hours out as we share a coffee, coming to the end of a very busy season at Tairua Beach Club, and setting up for his last weekend before he closes his doors for four months over winter. His restaurant has become the flavour of the town this season, packed out most nights. Finally, he says, his dream restaurant has fallen into place, the culmination of many years hard work.
“I think some people have this romantic notion of what hospitality is all about. The reality is it takes a lot of hard work, I’m just lucky I get to do what I am passionate about. I think the best food you will find around the world, comes when the owner is in the kitchen, and that is where Tairua Beach Club starts and finishes, with the food I create and put on the plate.”
The restaurant wouldn’t be out of place in the Mediterranean, with a sleek aesthetically pleasing design and lots of plants, giving it a soothing, holiday feel. something Graeme says has been a labour of love for him and recently wedded wife, Megan Douglas.
“We’re all about creating a casual but pleasurable hospitality experience, with impeccable service and banging food. I am passionate about food, and I get bored quickly, so at Tairua Beach Club you will always find new flavours, new combos and a menu which changes regularly.”
Having dined at Tairua Beach Club many times this year, I can vouch for the common thread being fresh local produce.
“I like to take people back to the origins of their food. I like to use as much local produce from our amazing boutique producers on the Coromandel where possible, and also from wider New Zealand produce. The difference is, I know the grower and supplier. It is not always easy, and it is time consuming, I’m putting in multiple orders, dealing with multiple suppliers and paying multiple invoices, but…... the results speak for themselves when it hits the mouth.”
“So many restaurants order the majority of their protein and supplies from one or two suppliers, because it is easy and saves time. But the results are not the same. Convenience does not produce real flavour.”
Tairua Beach Club is part of the slow food movement. Slow Food says Graeme is not just about taking your time cooking and savouring the food with others, but sourcing produce that is not force fed, not factory farmed and and grown at a natural rate.
“We only source sustainable produce, treated with care and respect. All our meat is free range and grass fed. We try to source our veges as organically as possible and that is not always easy. But the result is flavour. A good example is the pumpkins we source. They are small and look puny, but they’re totally organic, they are not watery and they are packed with flavour. THAT is what people taste. So many people ask me, how do you produce tastes like this, a lot of the time it is how we source our produce.”
“THAT is what makes me happy, when people are aware of the quality of the product they are eating!”
Graeme puts some sound advice out there for anyone aspiring to own their own restaurant one day. “First of all, work in some good restaurants and learn as much as you can from the best chefs there are, and work hard, nothing comes easy without hard work.” Going through Graeme’s resume it is apparent that it is a recipe that has worked well for him.
“Cooking has always touched my life, I used to help my grandmother do the baking, and make the bread while the other kids were out playing…...I knew I’d get first dibs on the baking” Graeme laughs. “But I never expected or dreamt it would be a career.”
Having first studied architecture, Graeme says he got into food by accident. “I was working as a barman while I studied, and was working the bar at a restaurant called Prego in Auckland, when the pizza chef walked out. The head chef, who was your typical fiery type ordered me to get in there and start making pizzas for the night, that was it, I ended up staying in the kitchen!”
Graeme took up cooking school at Auckland Polytech, and within 3 years he was sous chef at Prego. When the head chef of Prego left to go to iconic Auckland restaurant Vinnies, Graeme followed with him. Graeme says this is where his love of cooking began. “Vinnies was an Auckland institution, and won Auckland BYO restaurant of the year, we were cooking classic French style dishes, and this is where I really learnt the trade.” That led on to jobs at Habourside on the waterfront, VBG and then Head Chef at the Exchange in Parnell.
Graeme then got approached to run MOA bar in Queenstown, he ran the kitchen, but also had shares in the business, it is a model he would recommend for any restaurant. “If your chef is an active part of the business, it speaks on the plate.”
He then moved on to Haast and the World Heritage Hotel, before moving back north to start a family in Mount Maunganui. “I opened the Back Porch, we did breakfast, lunch and then pizzas at night for eight years.” A marriage split saw Graeme moving to Tairua. His first job was at Manaia Bar and Restaurant. “I was grateful for the opportunity, but knew I needed to open my own place again.”
It was then that the lease of an old relocated building came up. The building had previously been home to iconic Tairua restaurants like Ika Mata and The Cyprus Tree.
“I had a vision for what I wanted the restaurant to be, but had to start somewhere. I started as a coffee shop, then slowly evolved it bit by bit. Over time I’ve built it up, every year I’ve been adding to the business eventually getting it licenced. We’ve landscaped the property, gone to town on the interior decorating, and finally made it home.”
“We get a really broad mix of clientele. Locals and holiday makers, young and old couples, families and big groups. The common thread is good food and great atmosphere. We’ve got a great team here from the kitchen to front of house, and people pick up on that.”
Graeme says while he is classically trained in French cooking his style is “Global cuisine” with an Asia Pacific feel to it, with influences from Asia and the Pacific Islands. His favourite food is Mediterranean, and that style comes through on the plate.
MOST POPULAR DISH
Asked what is Tairua Beach Club’s most popular dish…”I change the menu so often, there’s no one dish people order, but if I had to name one it would be our slow cooked lamb shoulder. It is a sticky lamb dish cooked with local honey and rosemary. I deal with Coastal Spring Lamb in Wanganui, my wife and I are friends with the farmers. The land is swept by the sea, you can actually smell the difference when you are cooking it. And the taste is amazing.
CHEF G’s FAVOURITE FOOD
“I like the Mediterranean style. The most memorable dish I have ever eaten was a parsley gnocchi with creamy gorgonzola blue cheese sauce at an Italian restaurant in Wellington, I think it was Il Casino. I travelled through Italy last year and just love that style of food.”
“Years ago I travelled to Melbourne, and the whole experience there inspired me, the food was amazing, the service was impeccable, and I thought, “that is what I want people to experience here in New Zealand”, that is what we are trying to create. Hospitality has come a long way in New Zealand since then.”
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD FOR CHEF G?
“I’m really pumped for next season at Tairua Beach Club. We finally nailed it this year, and I can’t wait to come back refreshed next season with lots of new ideas.”
Tairua Beach Club is set to take a few months off over winter and you’d think Graeme might be taking a well earned break, but he is busy starting a new venture he will run each winter, taking his flavours into people’s homes on the Coromandel and in Auckland, “Chef Graeme Riki” his new catering service.
“Lots of people like to entertain in their homes over winter, and so I am going to be taking some of the flavours of Tairua Beach Club into people’s homes. “I’ll do all the hard work“ laughs G “and you get to have a great night with your mates and enjoy some great food.”
So it you’ve enjoyed some of Graeme’s food this summer, rest assured you can still get a dose of Tairua Beach Club while the rest of the team takes a break for winter.
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