Interview: Jamie Bennett on resilience, snowboarding and keeping it simple
To Christchurch restaurateur, Jamie Bennett, food is about “love and the community” – listening to him speak, you get a real sense of passion, dedication to his craft, and above all else, unwavering resilience.
Bennett grew up on pumpkin soup. It was all his parents – students at Dunedin University – could afford back then. Now a successful chef, with a passion for heroing vegetables in his cooking, you can’t help but wonder if the humble pumpkin played its part in his journey.
Although he says it wasn’t this childhood memory that sparked his passion for hospitality, it was moving to Queenstown at age 15. Living on his own, Bennett needed a job for survival and an evening kitchen hand role did the trick – allowing him to hit the slopes and “kind of” attend school by day.
“As a teen, growing up in New Zealand is all you really know, and then suddenly you’re hearing all these stories from overseas and that’s where it all started.”
“Really when I think back, I go, sh*t I was such a bad cook back then. I’d cook for myself, and the flashest stuff would be cheese on toast,” he says.
Since then his cheffing career, and love of snowboarding, have taken him from the slopes of Ruapehu in 96’, where he lost his job in his first week (the volcano had other plans), to the French Alps as an 18-year-old with 50 quid in his back pocket.
After five seasons living the European-alpine dream, boarding by day, cheffing by night – sometimes seven nights a week – Bennett met his wife, and after a final stint of travel, they headed for home turf.
“Arriving in New Zealand we had nothing, we were expecting a baby four weeks later, but we didn’t have a house, or even any cutlery. I’d been living out of a backpack for five years and that’s literally all we had”.
But it’s apparent he did have something else: the dedication and drive to succeed.
You name it, he’s probably done it. From owning a catering company, winning the tender for Riccarton House and starting the Christchurch Farmers’ Market, to opening four successful restaurants (one in a marquee following the Christchurch earthquakes), developing food festivals that attracted thousands and even founding a food magazine.
Bennett says the best piece of advice he’s been given is “to believe in yourself and back yourself, and when you do decide to go for something, give it 100%.”
But it hasn’t always been an easy road, overcoming the two Christchurch earthquakes, the Al Noor Mosque terror attack and Covid-19, not to mention coming to terms with the lesser spoken about side of the hospitality industry – a side where loneliness, addiction and mental health issues are rife. All of which have been some pretty big challenges to face.
“After the second earthquake we had no premises and it gave me more and more drive. It probably came from living on my own from around the age of 15. I always felt like I wasn’t good enough, and I always wanted to try and prove a point.”
Bennett says the terror attack of March 15, 2019, which personally affected his business partner Shafeeq Ismail, was the hardest thing he’s had to deal with.
“It just shows how life is so precious, and whatever you’re going through there's a lot of adversity out there. That really threw me.”
Opening up about his own adversity, Bennett says:
“I’ve been through my own issues and it’s tough. In hospitality, you’re taught to do day in and day out and I was very driven, but looking back on it now, it pretty much was always going to come to a crash in the end.
“I believe snowboarding saved my life, as it gave me something else to focus on. And, I’ve learnt that it’s so important to talk to people and open up, let people know what’s going on – you’re not invincible,” he says.
Just like the perfect balance of flavours, Bennett too is working to get the balance right. And, as an industry stalwart with 20 years under his belt, he’s got plenty more to give, but he’ll be the one in control.
“I’ve come through a lot in the last three years and I’m trying to balance things out. Really, when I step back I go, I just love cooking from my heart and nothing else. I want to get back into what I believe in but it has to be on my terms.”
Bennett and Ismail are behind Christchurch restaurant Story, a modern European eatery with Indian flavours that prides itself on sustainable cuisine, something so intrinsically weaved throughout. From their plant-based set menu to their low wastage cooking techniques – you won’t see a sous vide in this kitchen – to their use of all cuts of meat.
Everything that goes on to each plate is there for a reason. The produce comes from local growers, of which some relationships were forged at the Farmers’ Markets 18 years ago and the wine list is 100% local – a testament to Bennett’s history in and dedication to the Christchurch hospitality scene, one he says is still emerging.
“I love Christchurch and that’s the thing. There’s a lot of underground stuff coming back, some good restaurants, young guys – chefs that have worked for me and they’re doing their own thing now, and I take a lot of pride in that,” he says.
Looking to the future, he’s keeping things simple – with a focus on family, his love of adventure sports and the mountains, and stripping things right back in hospitality. Bennett plans to continue to “create memorable experiences for people to enjoy” – and we can’t wait to see what’s next.
This interview was proudly brought to you by First Table. Hungry to try Story? Discover Benett and Ismail’s menu for half the price when early bird dining on First Table.
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