Sugar Club Fusion
Andy Lynes - January 19th, 2014
Peter Gordon caused quite a stir when he brought fusion food to London in 1995 at The Sugar Club in Notting Hill. Even considering the globally influenced menus of “modern British” pioneers like Alastair Little, London had never eaten food quite like Gordon's before. Signature dishes—such as grilled scallops with sweet chile sauce and crème fraîche or beef pesto, featuring a soy marinated fillet served with the classic Italian basil sauce—mixed and matched cuisines in a no-holds-barred way not previously seen in the city.
The critics raved, and chefs and celebrities, including Madonna, queued to try his food. A second branch of The Sugar Club opened in Soho in 1998, but Gordon left the name behind a year later and went on to open The Providores and Tapa Room in neighboring Marylebone in 2001, which is still going strong today.
Now Gordon has revived The Sugar Club brand, this time in his native New Zealand, on the 53rd floor of Auckland's Sky Tower. To mark the opening, Gordon cooked two celebratory retrospective Sugar Club dinners, hosted at The Providores in December, where the guests included renowned food and drink author, editor, and broadcaster William Sitwell, British TV cook Anjum Anand, and Evening Standard restaurant critic of 40 years standing Fay Maschler—who gave the Notting Hill restaurant a rave review when it opened and who has subsequently named Gordon in print as one of her heroes.
It was the perfect opportunity to reassess the whole notion of fusion food in an age where the hyper-localism and studiously regional approach embodied by René Redzepi at Noma is en vogue.
Although some of the dishes (see menu below) were first served in 1986 when the original Sugar Club opened in Wellington, New Zealand, there was nothing dated about the food's extraordinary flavors. Inspired by a trip down Southeast Asia's Mekong River in the 1980s, just one highlight of a memorable meal was the fermented mudfish in a curried pork stew made with a deep-fried lemongrass/cinnamon/clove paste served on coconut/jasmine rice with curry leaves, crispy shallots, toasted coconut, coriander, and spring onions.
“To be honest, I haven’t changed my style of food at all,” admits Gordon. “Probably it’s become a little bit more refined and less rustic. People are paying a certain price, and they're in a particular room, so you need it to be of a certain elegance. In the old days or even in Notting Hill, I was doing tomato/chile jam served with a chicken breast on it. I don’t think I would do that now.”
Fusion may not be the buzz word of the moment, but Gordon's influence continues to be felt worldwide. Dozens of chefs who have worked under him have gone on to open their own restaurants all over the globe, including Anna Hansen at Modern Pantry and Miles Kirby at Caravan, both in London, Che Barrington at The Blue Breeze Inn in Auckland, Tom Hutchison at Capitol in Wellington, and Brad Farmerie at Public in New York City.
“Peter was, and still is, a big influence on my approach to cooking and how I run a restaurant,” says Farmerie. “I think he developed so many interesting techniques and flavor combinations because he wasn’t bogged down with the 'right' way to do things, and would always second-guess the 'hows' and the 'whys' in the kitchen. He had such a wealth of information about ingredients, classic dishes, travel, cuisine, and culture, and cultivated a culture in the kitchen that pushed for creativity and for education. I think that this is what set him apart from the other practitioners of fusion.”
Farmerie says that because of the creative work environment Gordon engendered, he discovered numerous techniques and ingredients while working at the Notting Hill Sugar Club, including quick-curing meat, fish, and vegetables with brown sugar and salt, then hot smoking over Chinese black tea and rice. Farmerie also picked up 'cracking a caramel'—cooking minced aromatic Southeast Asian ingredients like ginger, galangal, lime leaf, lemongrass, and chile in golden brown 'burnt' sugar to make sweet chile sauces.
Hansen, who likewise worked at Notting Hill and went on to open The Providores and Tapa Room with Gordon, was equally inspired. “Things like tamarind, miso, and fish sauce are integral to my food, and I discovered them all in his kitchen. Not so much technique, but more of an attitude, has stayed with me from that time, and that's the idea that one should always feel free to explore ingredients and use them in contexts that are perhaps not obvious.”
Although the fusion style is evidently alive and well, the term, at least in the U.K., will always be associated with the 1990s. That's not something that unduly concerns Gordon.
“My restaurants are pretty busy, so I don’t feel as though the public has turned away and said that it’s a tired old concept. But it's a funny thing to be labeled with. In 1996, the Sugar Club won best Pacific Rim restaurant in the Evening Standard Eros, awards and on the same day of the same week, Time Out voted us the best Modern British restaurant. Up until that point, I had just been doing 'Peter Gordon’s food.'”
Farmerie is comfortable with fusion as a descriptor but feels it doesn't cover what he does at his restaurants Public, Saxon + Parole, and The Thomas. “I still hold the philosophy of fusion in my head, but over the years it's probably less obvious when reading the menu or tasting my dishes. It's whispers of fusion instead of slapping folks in the face.”
Hansen is more enthusiastic. “I like the word fusion, as it perfectly describes what we do. I think that the world is plenty big enough to support and appreciate a multitude of cuisines, whether they be culturally or creatively led. That's what's so exciting about the realm of food, that it's boundless. Although I love what Redzepi does, I would hate to think that was all I would ever be able to eat forevermore. Variety is key.”
Although Gordon's approach remains fundamentally unchanged, he continues to create new dishes that push the parameters of fusion food. Crab linguini created for the Auckland Sugar Club sounds traditional, but of course there's a twist. The sauce is a dashi broth enriched with cream and butter, and there's tapioca (a favorite Gordon ingredient) cooked in crayfish bisque, as well as pine nut, crab, and saffron linguine.
“It’s a really elegant, complex, delicious dish. It’s definitely not Italian or Japanese or Southeast Asian, but a really interesting combination of all three,” says Gordon.
With The Providores now in its 13th year and Kopapa, Gordon's other London restaurant, recently celebrating its third anniversary, fusion food obviously has staying power. “We have remained confident. It’s not as though this year we're doing paddock to plate and next year we're doing something else. We just carry on; there's a real integrity to what we do,” says Gordon. “I enjoy doing cooking fusion, it's true to me and came about through personal experiences, formal apprenticeships, and traveling through Asia, thinking that these flavors were so incredible that I wanted to use them. If you look at what other chefs—what other, more French-based, Michelin-focused chefs—are doing, there's a lot of fusion going on, but they're able to just call it contemporary English or modern British. But I'm the fusion guy.”
Menu for The Sugar Club retrospective dinner, held on December 3, 2013, at The Providores, London
Canapé of grilled scallop, sweet chile sauce, crème fraîche
Man O’ War Tulia Sparkling Blanc de Blancs 2009
Sugar-cured salmon with wasabi/miso dressing
Waitaki Braids Pinot Gris North Otago 2011
Sweet potato pastry, black turtle beans, bean sprouts, nam phrik num dressing
Waitaki Braids Pinot Noir Rosé 2011
Pork mudfish stew with coconut/jasmine rice, coriander, chile & crispy shallots
Seresin Estate Reserve Chardonnay Marlborough 2010
Ata Rangi Pinot Noir Martinborough 2011
Dry River Syrah Martinborough 2004
Cendol dan burbur chacha (tapioca, pandan noodles, coconut cream, banana, sweet potato & caramelized peanuts)
Chocolate star anise mousse cake with tamarind ice cream, poached tamarillo, and vanilla cream
Craggy Range Fletcher Family Riesling Marlborough 2008
Petits fours, coffee & teas