Simon Gault - Masterchef
Hobnobbing with the rich and famous is just one of the perks of being a famous television chef, but Masterchef's Simon Gault's most treasured memory has nothing to do with hanging out on luxury yachts in the Pacific or meeting rock-royalty while working in a Tudor castle in Thornbury.
The day Simon Gault was given an impromptu singing lesson by a classroom of under privileged children in Sri Lanka is the memory he cherishes most in a life that is packed with interesting recollections. Along with a group of international chefs, the Auckland chef was invited to Sri Lanka to meet the famous Dilmah Tea family. The group was taken to a school where they were entertained by children who sang and danced for their audience. “There were fourteen staunch chefs and there wasn't a dry eye in the room,” he says.
It turned out that the founder of Dilmah Tea, Merill J Fernando, owned the school, which taught 8000 deaf and blind children a year. Along with this, Dilmah also helps children who have been affected by the land mines. “These children have missing limbs, and Dilmah helps them get kitted out with a new prosthetic limb.”
By the time he arrived home, Gault was hooked. “It was the most amazing three weeks of my life. I have seen what happens behind the scenes; the Dilmah family does so much for their community. I only drink Dilmah tea, I know it is helping those amazing children and, of course, it’s the best tea in the world.”
Since his first visit to Sri Lanka in 2010, Gault has maintained a strong relationship with the Dilmah family and plans to go back with a team of chefs next year after he holds a fund raising meal at his Auckland restaurant, Euro. “We have already raised $53,000 to set up a culinary school in Sri Lanka.”
Gault is no stranger to philanthropic activities and he believes in helping young people who, like him, have had to fight to get to the top. “I get a lot of 'fan-mail' from young people who want to become top chefs and I try to reply to as many as I can.” In fact, during the most recent filming of his hit TV show, Gault invited a young aspiring chef to visit the studio. “He really enjoyed it and I was glad to give him the opportunity,” he says.
The road to fame has not been easy to come by for Gault. He has suffered plenty of set-backs including his biggest learning curve at the tender age of 19. Already a chef in a top London restaurant, Gault was not ready to settle on his laurels. In fact he had heard about a top job in a beautiful castle which had a waiting list that could probably circumnavigate the castle walls.
Five hundred year old Thornbury Castle has been home to centuries of royalty including King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Hundreds of famous feet had walked through the rooms of this ancient castle and as Gault laid eyes on its walls, he knew he wanted to follow in their footsteps. “There were two helicopters parked on the lawn, a vineyard and spacious gardens. We are talking about a real castle - I couldn't wait to get started!”
He was given an interview with the manager and although he was a Kiwi bloke at heart, he knew that it was time for a wardrobe makeover, so he bought a new jacket and tie (“it looked like the sort of place that would expect that kind of thing.”)
Sadly his efforts were in vain and he was not successful. “I thought, 'bugger this,' and I went back to talk to the head chef.” When he walked into the kitchen he realised the food was boiling over and there was no one in the room. “I sorted it all out and thought smugly, ‘I will definitely get this job.'”
A few days later, a letter arrived at his house. “It was a Dear John letter from Thornbury Castle. They told me there was a waiting list for chefs and I should start looking elsewhere.” The moment he put the letter down, he noticed a magazine sitting on the table and saw a picture of Thornbury Castle on the front page. “Standing in front of the castle was the owner. It dawned on me that I had been talking to all of the wrong people.”
The man on the front of the magazine turned out to be Kenneth Bell, the first chef to ever be awarded a Michelin star in the United Kingdom and an MBE for cooking. Gault went straight back and organised a meeting - with the boss, this time. “When I walked in the door the receptionist said 'oh no, not you again'”, but Gault was a man on a mission.
He sat out in the sun and noticed a girl walking out of the kitchen holding a bucket and some scissors. “I suddenly realised I was sitting in front of the biggest herb garden I had ever seen.” The realisation gave him even more of an incentive to get the coveted job.
He was soon escorted into the impressive library where he began talking to the owner. “I told him I would do anything. 'I don't care if you don't pay me or if I have to make beds', I just really wanted to work there.” The hard work and perseverance paid off because after a short interview, Gault was hired on the spot.
“I was to start in two weeks. It was quite life changing really, there were famous people staying at the hotel all the time, and I even got to cook with truffles, which is something that most young chefs could only dream about.”
With this experience under his belt, the confident 23-year-old chef flew back to New Zealand and promptly put a deposit on a new restaurant, The Bell House Kitchen, in partnership with his parents, which led to the opening of another restaurant, Gault's on Quay. Over twenty years later, Gault now owns seven restaurants, with four in Auckland, two in Wellington and one in Taupo.
Always up for a challenge, his next goal is to open a steakhouse in Queenstown. “This city is a bit different to the rest in that it holds a transient group of people and I think our Jervois Steakhouse brand will suit the clients.”
He is also in the middle of perfecting a recipe for chicken and beef stock that is “real, as opposed to salt and liquid rubbish.” The new stock will be released in February next year.
And, if you thought Gault was already busy enough, you might be surprised to hear that he has recently built a new home. Due to his frenetic lifestyle, the house would never have got off the ground if it wasn’t for the builders at Frame Homes who made the whole process painless. “Deciding who’s going to build your home is always a challenging decision. With Frame Homes, the process was completely painless and the follow up after the build has been completely amazing,” smiles Gault as he surveys the new home that he shares with his wife Katrina.
Not many people can say they star in a hit TV show, have built their own home, own seven restaurants and get paid to do something they love every day, but Gault is a good example of how a dash of hard work and a cup full of tenacity can cook up a pretty interesting life indeed.
Simon’s Top Tip
If you are in Auckland, go down to the Hilton Hotel's Fish Restaurant. The food is amazing and you can expect to pay only $39 for a three course lunch and a Bento box for $29 including a cocktail. It is great value for money and you can get all of this with the best view of Auckland on Princes Wharf.