We caught up with executive chef and Town Tonic owner, Jamie Bennett,
to find out what inspires him and his cooking.
What was the inspiration behind you choosing a career as a chef?
I grew up in Christchurch and then moved to Queenstown at the age of 15. Down there, I started washing dishes in big hotels, bars and restaurants. I would go to work be asked to help out with food prep, plating entrees and desserts. I would meet so many different people, locals and travelers and would listen to their adventures, stories and travels. It felt like freedom and as if you could work anywhere in the world. I was inspired!
How did you start out?
Washing loads of dishes, peeling loads of garlic, potatoes, carrots you name it, I did it! I helped with cleaning up after the chefs. I still regard the kitchen hand as one of the most important roles in the kitchen.
How long have you been a chef for?
It’s coming up 25 years in the kitchen and I am still training to become a chef…… wow how time has passed!
Tell us a bit about your journey so far
From Queenstown back to Christchurch then traveled to Europe for 5 years where I spent time in Spain, Austria, France, England, Andorra, Germany working for club hotels, restaurants, high end brassieres, catering, bars, quaint English pubs. Along the way, I opened restaurants. With travelling, I was checking out different cultures and trying new food. Then I returned to New Zealand where I started a farmers market and over the past 15 years, I opened and ran four restaurants! I have also worked for NZSki while running my own businesses and raising four beautiful children….all of which has been possible because I have the most amazing supportive wife!
What has been your career highlight?
There have been a few - Catering my own wedding, co-founding and establishing the Christchurch Farmers Market, cooking in a private hospital in England for very sick patients and making them feel and be happy with food and conversations. Running club hotels in the French alps, opening three restaurants in Christchurch, having a customer say “wow” that tasted amazing and working with loads of inspiring people.
When did you open Town Tonic?
Almost 4 years ago! Before this venture, I had Passengers&co which was created 6 years ago and Riccarton House Bistro which started 14 years ago. We built and opened 3 restaurants in the space of 2 years which was exciting but at the same time almost killed me.
What is the ethos behind your vision with Town Tonic?
Creating an atmosphere where there are no barriers but more so interactions that create those special memories. Freedom, openness a place anyone can enjoy and relax in, a creative kitchen with no rules and no boundaries. Food and music is also very important to me, music can guide me on a journey of exploration. A restaurant that supports local and is an individual identity. Rules are there to be broken.
What experience do you hope your customers are having when they dine with you?
We give our best each day we hope they see that in our food and they enjoy our creativeness. We want them to leave wanting more and we want them to treat Town Tonic as their own space.
What is the rationale behind changing the menu frequently?
Ingredients change regularly. Learning, pushing, looking for the next opportunity and keeping everything fresh. I don’t really like being restricted by menus, I prefer to just cook and see what happens. I love it when my customers just say "Jamie just cook for me what you are currently loving". I see some of our best flavours and creations happen in this environment. I have served a few WOW dishes that I have surprised myself with and they have never been served again they stay with that customer as just a special experience while we move on.
What makes you love what you do?
What drives me is the continuous learning and that customer saying thank you very much we loved your food. The rush of a busy service a team that hunts down the customers during service and nails a busy service to perfection. The noise the sound of happy people and a buzzing kitchen.
What's in store for Jamie Bennett in the future?
I’m about to turn 40 and I feel my best cooking is still to come!! There are always aspects of our operation that require improvement and we're already looking into these areas to improve….so watch this space! We'll keep you updated on any projects over the upcoming summer and thank you so much for your patronage over the last four years at Town Tonic, which I hope you consider your place as well. I would also like to build a sustainable business that supports our staff and families and for me and my crew to travel and work in other restaurants and bring back new ideas- something like a 3 month exchange.