THE PETER PRINCIPLE
After 18 years, The Providores and Tapa Room is saying a fond farewell—but its legacy will live on through the many stellar chefs who learnt their craft alongside Peter Gordon. So, what was it that made his kitchen a staging post on the way to success?
Words: Clare Finney
“They call him The Godfather... of fusion,” says Anna Hansen. But while she does so with a smile and a comic pause, her acknowledgement of Peter Gordon’s influence could not be more genuine. As the executive chef of Clerkenwell’s acclaimed fusion restaurant The Modern Pantry and a woman who, alongside Peter, was one of the founding partners of The Providores and Tapa Room, she knows better than most the role her friend and former colleague played in making their shared style of food—a considered cacophony of techniques and ingredients from across the globe—popular. “Peter reinvented the wheel with his food,” she continues, “and he believed in me. That is everything. Peter by nature wanted the people he worked with to thrive and to succeed.”
For the past 18 years, since Anna, Peter and their co-founder Michael McGrath first opened up on Marylebone High Street, that success has proved palpable both inside and outside the restaurant. Come the end of July, the restaurant’s doors will close for the last time as Peter and Michael move on to new lives and projects—but the legacy of The Providores lives on. Look around London’s food scene and it’s impossible not to see, taste and smell the impact of Peter Gordon. There’s the rising popularity of fusion generally (“though rarely in the way Peter does it,” says Anna, loyally)—but perhaps most importantly, there’s the staggering list of alumni who have passed through his kitchen: Hamish Brown of Roka, Miles Kirby of Caravan, Moondog (yes, really) of Spiritland, Selin Kiazim of modern Turkish-Cypriot joints Kyseri and Oklava.
“We’ve had some extraordinary people,” says Peter, failing, with characteristic modesty, to acknowledge either his own role in contributing towards this ‘extraordinariness’, or his knack for attracting it. Fortunately, Michael is there to compensate both for Peter’s lack of vanity, and the jet lag a recent trip to New Zealand has landed him with. “We have been a magnet for great people,” he says, “and a lot of that is to do with Peter.”
When The Providores and Tapa Room first opened in 2001, Gordon Ramsay’s Boiling Point miniseries was still a talking point, exposing as it did the extraordinary pressure and macho culture of high-end restaurant kitchens. “Hotel kitchens were such a strong force in the 20th century, and they were run like armies: huge lines of chefs saying, ‘Yes sir, no sir.’ I think a lot of chefs came from that environment,” muses Michael. “Peter never operated like that. Anna never operated like that.”
“I’ve always viewed us as egalitarian—more of a family restaurant, really,” says Peter. “You have to do the job—you can’t be a slack-arse—but we’re a family here. We all muck in together.” In 2016, Peter and Michael celebrated 15 years of The Providores with a dinner cooked by a team of alumni. “We cooked dinner with Selin, Miles, Brad, Peter—it was a huge reunion,” Anna remembers. Again, it felt like family.
One of the most powerful testaments to the strength and inclusivity of Peter’s kitchen has been his friendships: pretty much everyone who has worked at The Providores remains in touch. “I remember in the early days of Caravan, Miles, who was head chef here for eight years, ringing me up and saying, ‘I just want to thank you for the way you led your kitchen and taught your staff. I understand now,’” Peter remembers. “We treat people well, be they head chef or dish washer. I’ll help wash the floors if everyone else is busy. We work as a team.”
In an industry known for its churn, The Providores’ staff retention has been unusual: Miles, for example, worked there for eight years; their bookkeeper, JJ, has been there for 16. “We don’t see it as a constant stream of cheap staff. It’s beneficial for businesses to keep people,” says Michael. JJ joined as a dishwasher back in 2003. When asked what he wanted to do with his life, he said accountancy, “so we helped him get training, and now he’s our bookkeeper.” They aren’t the only restauranteurs to have invested in their staff—indeed, conditions have improved considerably across the industry in the past few years—but their sense of fairness and equality of opportunity was certainly ahead of the game.
In part, it’s probably a New Zealand thing—a thought I dismiss at first, wary as I am of subscribing to ideas around ‘national character’. Yet when Miles, Hamish and Anna all ascribe The Providores’ collaborative, can-do spirit to Kiwiness, I can’t help but ask Peter and Michael how their native country has influenced their philosophy. “It’s that slightly more relaxed approach, combined with the confidence of thinking, I can do that!” says Michael. “Entrepreneurial, but easy-going—with talent,” adds Peter. It’s not about where you’re from—after all, Selin is second generation Turkish-Cypriot, yet she’s one of Peter Gordon’s proudest graduates—but there’s a common consensus that New Zealand’s food scene is sociable, centred on quality and inclusivity. Their food is by geographical and historical necessity a combination of Asian and western flavours. Famously, they were brunching on avocadoes before either brunching or avos were even a thing.
The Providores has acted as what Peter calls “a staging post” for aspiring chefs from New Zealand looking to cook in London. “A lot of these young Kiwis coming to the UK wouldn’t have had the confidence to go into Michelin-starred kitchens.” Now, they’re going off into the world armed with a solid understanding of Peter’s approach to cooking. “I have given them freedom of expression—but I think what people learned when it came to our kitchen was that fusion is a discipline. You can’t just shove random things together on a plate.”
“Your combinations are instinctive,” says Michael loyally. “Ultimately, when a chef puts different flavours together, they have to know if it is good or dreadful; when it works and when it doesn’t.” Peter’s protegees owe him a great deal, but their styles and sensibilities are unique to them—as is their food, be it sushi, fusion or modern Turkish. “When you started, people were determined to put a name to what you did—to put it into a box,” Michael says, turning to Peter. “But people care less about labels now. You can call it Pacific rim. You can call it fusion. But it is your food.” Marylebone—and indeed London—is lucky to have had it for so long.
Selin Kiazim, Oklava and Kyseri
I remember the first thing I put in my mouth at The Providores: a betel leaf with tender pork trim, shrimp paste, tamarillo, crispy shallots and garlic. I thought, I want to work here immediately. It was a damascene conversion. This was the food I loved.
At the time, I’d just finished catering college. Peter asked me to come in for a trial and when I arrived, they sang out to me from downstairs in the kitchen. Peter and Michael are living proof that you don’t have to be nasty to be successful. The fact that they created a restaurant that was a wonderful place to work as well as eat still does not get the credit that it should. I wanted to work with Peter not just for his creativity, but for the support he gives. He’s so nice, you want to please him, and that filters down through the whole kitchen.
Cooking with Peter taught me to be completely fearless. Nothing sounds odd to me as a flavour combination—at The Providores I saw the impossible come to life. That makes your mind work in different ways, and even though I draw upon a lot of traditional dishes and methods in my restaurants, I think, what is the thing that will make it different, that no one else has thought of before?
The other thing I learnt was how to balance a dish: to create levels and textures. There is a dish that comes on and off the menu at Oklava that demonstrates this. The Turkish element is the monkfish chargrilled over coals, with Turkish urfa chilli. I add bitter orange caramel, honey, soy, olive oil and a hint of fish sauce. I serve it with a blood orange and coriander salad. That is probably the epitome of the food I cooked at The Providores meeting the food I cook today.
The Providores has been an incubator for good chefs because they created a good place to work—and they have never been afraid to do their own thing.
When I was at The Providores it was the dream team: Hamish, Anna, Miles, Selin. I think that’s why I stayed so long—I was there for nine years. It was a really beautiful, encouraging place. You’d make something and Peter would taste it and say, “Add this”—and he’d be right. You’d make something like smoked strawberries and it would go terribly wrong, and he’d say, “Well, you tried. That’s how we learn.” He was an amazing mentor: you could always catch a word with him and ask some advice. Peter is the person who discovered fusion food, basically, and he is the single biggest influence on me.
At The Providores I learnt that while a kitchen can be stressful, it can also be fun. Running a restaurant is about being firm but fair. You could have a laugh, but at the end of the day Peter was the boss. Today, at Spiritland, that’s how I run things: no one calls each other chef—we have names—and I encourage my staff to be creative. There’s no divide between front and back of house, no yelling or screaming. The Providores instilled that in me.
When I came to create the menu for Spiritland, I sat down with Peter. I wanted to chat about the fact that there would be some crossover, because I learned so much from him. He said, “That’s wonderful. Just as long as you don’t put Turkish eggs or scallops with crème fraiche and sweet chilli on the menu.”
At the end of the day, Miles, Selin, Hamish and I went to the same school. I helped Miles at Caravan. I helped Selin in her first pop-ups. We laugh and talk and make food and bounce off each other. I know it’s hippy-ish—especially coming from someone called Moondog who walks around barefoot—but I believe this sort of unity comes through in the food.
Miles Kirby, Caravan
The moment I arrived at The Providores I knew it was the perfect fit for my personality. I’ve never tolerated people who are unreasonable, shouty, mean or bullying. That behaviour happens in certain kitchens, and I’ve done my darndest to avoid them. What I didn’t know was how much fun it would be. There was an expectation that you would always do nothing but your best, but there was also support to make sure you did. The whole team was built around camaraderie and I thrived in that environment. It was a step up from anywhere I’d worked before in terms of professionalism, and I loved it.
I joined The Providores at the end of 2001 as chef de partie, just after it opened. In my first week in Peter’s kitchen everything I tasted—absolutely everything—blew me away. Being from New Zealand there were a lot of ingredients I was familiar with, but I was still mesmerised. I loved the unapologetic, unrelenting pursuit of flavour—heat, salt, acidity. Though there’s a balance that needs to be mastered, of course—there’s nothing worse than someone saying, “Can you tone it down a bit?”
I do think the culture of New Zealand is reflected in The Providores—multiculturalism, humility, communication—and I’ve strived to create that at Caravan. We have an open forum in which everyone can have their say on how we can improve. That’s very New Zealand. A sense of collective responsibility is what makes kitchens great.
Setting up Caravan was never about leaving The Providores. It was about going back to my friends, Laura and Chris, who I’d met in Wellington 25 years ago. In 2009 we felt like we’d all earned our stripes and could pursue our dream of having our own restaurant.
In Caravan I wanted some of the vibe of the Tapa Room. I loved the sharing small plates. We call ours ‘well-travelled cuisine’: anything goes, as long as it is a true representation of something I’ve tried elsewhere in the world. I wouldn’t say it’s fusion. I think Peter really owns that space and I don’t want to copy him. But in the pursuit of flavour, of excellent relationships with suppliers and in terms of vibe inside and outside the kitchen, we definitely have similarities.
Anna Hansen, The Modern Pantry
People think that fusion is having a restaurant where you cook both Italian and Indian food, or where you do a classic French dish using lemongrass. That’s not what it is for Peter. He doesn’t set out to cook an Indian dish ‘with a twist’—he reinvents the wheel. What I love, and what I think Peter loves, about fusion is that it is individual and creative. What he cooks and what I cook will be completely different, even if we have the same ingredients. We have our own styles.
Our way of being in the kitchen was pioneering—but I don’t think I knew that at the time. Peter was only the second chef I’d ever worked with in Britain and before that I was with Margot and Fergus Henderson who were equally cool, relaxed and friendly. They were part of a small group of chefs heralding a new era of running kitchens. For them, it wasn’t about killing yourself over Michelin stars. It was about working together to make food that was good and interesting. We did work ridiculous hours, often—but we did so by choice, because we all wanted to thrive and succeed.
We had so much fun doing The Providores. When it was time to work, it was time to work, but we had a joke, listened to music, and we worked together, although it wasn’t always easy. It was the first time any of us had opened a restaurant before and it was a massive undertaking. It was a good experience to have had when it came to opening The Modern Pantry—though that was a different challenge. This time I was doing everything on my own.
The time I spent with Peter was invaluable. He believes in people, and I think the effect you can see around London is because of that. He’s a unique human being who has touched the lives of thousands of people, inside and outside the world of food. He is also a very clever man. The only chef who can touch him for creativity and kindness is Yotam Ottolenghi—and he is good friends with Peter, so he must be okay.