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Champagne, crayfish and terrible coffee: 30 years of Cuisine (Video)

Restaurateur Tony Astle on the high life of the late 80s.

It was the year of the last hurrah.

The stock market crash was imminent, yet financiers quaffed cheap Champagne and ballyhooed their way through expense-account meals at a handful of fine dining restaurants in Auckland and Wellington.

Shoulder pads were as sharp-edged as origami swans and hair was aerodynamic. Air New Zealand served roast saddle of lamb, stuffed artichoke heart and duck liver pate to First Class customers, who ads would suggest all bought their business attire at the same minimally-stocked shop.

Yum. Magazine styling in 1987.

At home we ate paste-like white sauce spread on fish, chicken, meat and vegetables and experimented with microwave cooking. And pesto, tofu, fresh pasta and other exotics.

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In the midst of this hubbub came the launch of Cuisine magazine, the publication of record for professional foodies and aspirational home cooks. The cover of the first issue made a real statement -- quite a boozy one -- featuring sculptural filo parcels stuffed with feta and sweetcorn and bowls of chilled peach soup made using an entire bottle of bubbly.


Cuisine magazine, a publication of record for professional foodies and aspirational home cooks.

This "effortless luncheon on the terrace"  was finished off with a fruit terrine into which two cups of muller thurgau had been poured, and was accompanied by glasses of more white wine.

1987. It was a scene.

Julie Dalzell
Founding editor Cuisine

The breakfast of champions: a Cuisine cover image from 1987.

Cuisine was a big fat mistake, really, because it was predicated on a wine magazine that had existed before. [There was a wine glut and] the Government was paying $6000 a hectare to pull out grapes. We realised wineries were a bit stuck until they could grow more stuff, so we added food.

We didn't do any market research, we just thought we'd give it a go. There was a gap for a magazine for women interested in food and men who were banging on about wine all the time. [We thought] let's try and give you some new ideas and see if you like them and try to make them easy enough to cook.

By issue 4 we were talking about polenta and parmigiano. Then we clicked that people really wanted to make this stuff but they couldn't buy it - we were sourcing ingredients for the woman in Timaru who had to mail order them. It wasn't just high-end fancy people [buying Cuisine], it was your part-time teacher and her bloke.

Miranda Harcourt as Gemma in Gloss. Check out the collar.

We didn't have a coffee culture, which has changed the whole mode of eating. The coffee was terrible, it was absolutely shocking, and we had a lot of strange sort of grape varieties — hock, grey riesling, moselle, muller thurgau.

The pride in New Zealand food was there. We always had the paua fritters and Bluff oysters and Akaroa salmon — it was more how we dealt with them that changed. Using top-notch and flavoursome ingredients, we realised we didn't have to do much with them cos they tasted pretty darn good to start with!

Tony Astle
Chef/owner Antoine's

Fools and their money were soon parted. People had more money than they knew what to do with and they had gone mad. Suddenly they knew about things like foie gras and truffles, caviar was just the norm, crayfish suddenly became the norm. I had a man who'd order "the Krug and cray combo". People used to have 100 grams of caviar a time, at $200 or $300.

They always looked to see what other people were having, that bullshit. It was a very false time. We were probably the dearest restaurant and people wanted to be seen here. If you looked outside you saw all these Rolls Royces, Mercedes and Porsches and I used to think, why do I work so hard when they have all these cars? But then the crash happened and they lost their lease cars and I owned mine.

I had a Rolls Royce courtesy car with a chauffeur and I used to send it to pick people up and take them home, and people could get absolutely rotten.

Our most popular entree was foie gras, scallops and caviar for $150. It cost us about $65 or $70 to put it on the plate. You could afford to buy really good ingredients and pass the cost on. You have to remember, they weren't actually paying for it themselves, it was shareholders. I made my own brioche to go with it. I used to go through three or four kilos of caviar a week.

It was also the time I sold Chateau Petrus for $18,000 a bottle. It was named the best Bordeaux in the world, and I had about four cases of it I bought in 1976. They're $24,000 a bottle now but I can assure you no-one buys it. I keep it for shock value.

It was the best time in my life, we'll never see it again.

Judith Baragwanath
Maitre'd, girl about town

The 80s, if nothing else, was a great time for people watching. True theatre. Horror, Goth and sitcom central. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, My Favourite Martian and Creature from the Black Lagoon tinged with Brideshead Revisited.

Depending on the night, depending on the company and depending on the 'mood-enhancing' liquid refreshment consumed beforehand, the dining room staff could be certain of either serving an angel at the table (man with wife) or a wild and untamed beast (same man with mates.)

If they couldn't park the Porsche/Maserati/Lamborghini directly outside the restaurant window, then the appropriate car keys displayed prominently on the table would portray the braying oneupmanship loud and long.

Women dining out shoved lettuce leaves around a plate holding FLP — fork like pen — and giggled naughtily at the very suggestion of a dessert. Men ate meat and potatoes. Nothing's changed.

I don't recall anyone bingeing on moderation. There was an insatiable thirst for everything BUT water.

It's always a smart move to be civil to a maitre'd. Treat people well and with courtesy and it shall be given in return. Unlike the pompous ass who spent the night snapping his fingers for attention. Naturally he was ignored. He could hardly complain about the service, because there wasn't any. Those were the days when the wait-staff were haughtier than the customers.

What did I eat in 1987? I never bothered.

David Burton
Food writer/restaurant critic

At that time we disowned New Zealand cuisine -- that style of Kiwi cooking went right out the door. People used to say, thank god it's no longer meat and three veg. They used to put down traditional Kiwi cuisine in a big way. It was only in about 2008 that we stopped apologising for it.

You'd still have pavlova at your suburban motor lodges but no trendy restaurant would have served pavlova in 1987.

There was a huge assumption that anything from Italy or France had to be better -- that was a bad assumption in my opinion. We allowed ourselves to be patronised by European people to a huge extent.

There wasn't the information there is now on social media and television -- the MasterChef effect. People are a lot more informed and opinionated now. I talk to restaurateurs, they get so pissed off with all these self-professed food experts.

That whole style of leaner, healthier, well presented food was high end. Nouvelle cuisine was only the preserve of a small number of high-end restaurants. New Zealanders, when they went out, still had hearty appetites and it was still steak and potatoes.

Your standard repertoire was probably beef Wellington, French onion soup, chicken liver pate, chicken chasseur, risotto, garlic prawns, chateaubriand, pepper steak. For many years this stuff went out of fashion because it had been thrashed by restaurants.

Tony Adcock
Owner/chef at Le Brie and Harbourside, he appeared in the first issue of Cuisine

In the early 80s Ponsonby Road, Auckland, happened for the first time. It was where the ad agencies and media ran; they spent money like hell and they went out all the time. They had to be out and about, there was a lot of raucousness. A big part of [the restaurant business] was business people eating out on account.

Before 87, the Champagne was $20 a bottle, people drank it like water, they really drank it all the time. You also had heavy import controls, so you couldn't get a lot of things. You couldn't get olive oil, there was only one place selling olive oil. Basically you used butter in everything.

At Le Brie the most popular dish was always onion soup, and something like squid. You couldn't buy "squid" but there was squid "bait" at wholesalers so we bought that and put it on the menu. The first time we did it we sold six a night, with garlic butter and parsley. Then it became one of our most popular dishes.

The crash didn't take effect until 1991, when the banks asked people to pay their money back. Everyone carried on till then. We still had very big turnovers until 1990-91. Our business dropped by $1 million in one year.

Geeling Ching
Actress on Gloss, which launched in 1987 and ran for three years

Gosh it was fun, the whole era was so much fun and so much silliness, it was just hilarious.

We did go out a bit. Me and Simon [Prast], Peter [Elliott], not Lisa [Chappell], she was too young. Craig Parker would always be out and about. Miranda, Miranda, Miranda [Harcourt]. She went out once or twice. She was sensible.

Club Mirage was amazing, terribly grown up.It was so sophisticated. Peter Urlich's clubs were more for dancing and picking up guys. Club Mirage was Studio 54. Judith Baragwanath would be swanning through and anyone who was a vague celebrity would go there.

We drank more cocktails than anything, we didn't really drink wine. Dreadful things like brandy Alexanders and grasshoppers and white Russians -- they were quite flash back then -- and we gave martinis a bit of a go because that was a bit New York.

It was such a terrible time for food. I look back and think, really, we ate things like chicken and apricot? Blackening was a thing then and it was very exciting, so we would do things like blackened chicken and blackened fish. That was probably when we started getting banana on pizza which is even worse than pineapple on pizza. We had Yoplait which was incredibly glamorous. French. Yoplait.

We used to get our Bluff oysters in a big flat can, you'd literally open it with a can opener. Mum, from the cordon bleu book, would do the half avocado with cocktail sauce -- mayonnaise and tomato sauce, Worcester sauce, Tabasco, lemon juice, softly whipped cream and brandy -- and Bluff oysters or shrimp, and they weren't fresh either. That was delicious, I still do that.

Julie Biuso
Cuisine writer 

In 1986 I took a trip to Italy that formed part of a lot of Italian features for six or seven issues of the magazine. Imagine having that kind of space in a magazine now! That's how little people knew about Italy and Italian food then.

Back then chefs looked to the magazine for inspiration and information because there was no Facebook or anything else. Now it's the chefs who lead the food scene.

People would cook all day for a dinner party. It would be three courses if not four. It would generally involve an elaborate dessert, a gateau or a pastry thing, and you could have seafood -- we used to eat a lot of crayfish. Meat was really cheap so you could do magnificent beef. Lamb shanks, they gave them to you.

We matched the dishes with wine and everyone would bring a bottle of wine in a brown paper bag, you had all the wine in the world, and we would have tastings. There was more planning put into a dinner party then, you'd look through magazines and books.

I look back on some of these recipes and they may be 30 years old and they are still as good as they were then. There's absolutely no point tinkering with a great recipe for the sake of change.

Miranda Harcourt

My father would pay me from whatever job I was doing, so all through the Gloss years he kept me at the rate I was on at the Fortune Theatre Company in Dunedin which was something like $75 a week. It really confused me because I always went out and everyone else had money and I was eating orange slices on toothpicks and cubes of cheese off other people's plates.

My memory of the 80s was basically alcohol because that's all I ate, to keep the figure. Yalumba methode champenoise. I also sustained myself on the cheese scones at TVNZ, which were amazing. They are still amazing.

Simon Wilson
Cuisine editor 2004-2006

Back in the 80s I worked in book publishing and we put out David Burton's New Zealand Food and Cookery. It didn't sell very well. We put a new jacket on it because we thought it was the jacket, but it wasn't. We talked endlessly about what was the national dish that should be on the cover.

The defining item in restaurants was a baked potato in silver foil. You got a white flesh potato for roasting, you wrapped it in silver foil and it was served on the plate in its foil — it's quite weird when you think about it — and that would be high-end. It might be stuffed with cheese and a bit of onion, some bacon, or it might have been just a potato with butter or sour cream.

Weiner schnitzel with a heavy sauce was popular — it had a European name. In Wellington there was a restaurant run by Austrians, I think, and they served weiner schnitzel and you chose your sauce, maybe one with capsicum or one with tomato, and that's what you had. Winter food.

Cuisine didn't aim at what you could knock together for dinner tonight, it was special occasion dining. It had that aspirational quality. Food, like all style things, you look back a few years and think oh god, did anyone think this was any good? Everyone is doing their best to say this is the cool stuff now and it's astonishing how quickly — five years, ten, 30 — it looks outdated.

When Lois Daish opened Brooklyn Cafe and Grill in Wellington, all she served for the opening party was asparagus and new potatoes. It was brilliant. You just ate a perfectly cooked, beautiful little potato and perfectly cooked asparagus. That's a real statement about what we could do. I've rarely seen as good an expression of what we all talk about as that.


Sunday Magazine



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