“Jimmy the Fish” Gerard has been cooking professionally for over 40 years and has a vast knowledge of the bounty in New Zealand waters.
After cheffing at Auckland restaurants Le Brie, Habourside (which he part-owned) and Jimmy the Fish, he’s now opted for a quieter and less stressful existence - a few nights a week in the Grey Lynn Returned Services Club kitchen.
Jimmy says he was first introduced to the joy of kaimoana in his “idyllic” Northland childhood.
In Whangarei he enjoyed a “relatively classless upbringing” - going barefoot until intermediate and enjoying the kaimoana Māori clients gave his lawyer father as koha.
“I ended up shucking rock oysters, plucking ducks or pheasants or a sack of toheroa would come in…”
After leaving school early, and a brief stint at a bank, around 1972 Gerard decided to be a cook - before it was trendy, he adds.
He was almost fired in his first job for incorrectly peeling an onion (always leave the root on).
After learning “proper French classical” cooking in Dunedin and a disappointing experience in London, Jimmy arrived in Auckland when the so-called ‘food revolution’ was underway.
Opening the large-scale seafood restaurant Harbourside on Auckland’s waterfront in the mid-80s was “a big mountain to climb”, Jimmy says, but at the same time exciting.
“A huge family, we had 80 staff at one stage. It was just phenomenal what we accomplished in that period of time.”
After 24 years at Harbourside and a couple more in Ponsonby at Jimmy the Fish, Jimmy sold that business and took his first summer off in 40 years.
“By about February I’d run out of money… One night I was down at my local, at Frida’s, and the barman said ‘Why don’t you see what’s going on at the RSC? So I gave them a ring and said ‘Are you looking for a chef?”
They’d never heard of him, but took a punt.
It was “Where are the burgers? Where are the chicken nuggets?” and “What’s all this fresh fish and crème caramels and polenta chips and tex-mex beans?”
Another new addition to the menu is pig’s trotters.
“Some of the old guys from the committee said ‘Let’s get some offal going’ and I said ‘You’re talking to the right guy here.”
When it comes to eating fish, New Zelaanders are fixed in their ways, Jimmy says – “This is what I grew up, this is what I want to eat.”
So which fish species are we underappreciating?
Skate, Richardson’s boarfish, parore, blue warehou, brill, turbot and lemon sole (NZ sole is “not a good fish”)
Any advice for those looking at the restaurant game?
Jimmy says customer satisfaction and enjoyment of the food you’re creating are the right aspirations to go in with, rather than making money.
He says it’s also crucial to start off with standards you know you can maintain into the future.
“So many places start off with a very high standard and after a year they’ve lost the plot. The head chef’s gone, the owner doesn’t know how to cook, the new chef comes in and he or she isn’t as good as the one prior. You’ve got to be careful of that.”