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Paul Hoath­er used to be able to look out the win­dow of his White House res­taur­ant on Ori­ent­al Bay and watch orca feast­ing on stin­grays in the water off the band rotunda. The White House was good to Paul — and it was good to Wel­ling­ton, too, over 21 years and two icon­ic loc­a­tions. But ‘things change’ as that old Sicili­an pro­verb reminds us, and it’s time for the Hoath­ers (Paul’s wife Louise is a crit­ic­al part of the busi­ness) to move their kit­chen a little closer to town — and a little closer to the water.

The new res­taur­ant is called White­bait — “we’re tak­ing some­thing from The White House” — and is the res­taur­ant centrepiece of the lux­ury Clyde Quay devel­op­ment beside Chaf­fers Park. All things being equal, it should be open by now and serving lucky pat­rons, but on the crisp spring morn­ing of our inter­view it was full of tradies per­form­ing their own brand of alchemy, turn­ing raw mater­i­als into fin­ished fix­tures, and open­ing day seemed a long way off.

White­bait is going to be focused on sea­food, Paul tells me:


PH: Well, we sort of want to com­ple­ment what we’re doing at Char­ley Noble [Paul’s oth­er oper­a­tion in the Hud­dart Park­er build­ing in the CBD]. We’ve got the wood-fire grill down there, so we’re want­ing to leave the big, heavy pro­teins to Char­ley. [White­bait is] by the sea, and per­son­ally I love sea­food, so it’s a great thing to work with.”


The big sur­prise to me is that Paul, whose demean­our is as far removed from the clas­sic ste­reo­type of a first-class chef, has decided to let someone else run the kit­chen. It’s a choice that’s typ­ic­al of a softly spoken man who appears to have little or no ego and is more than con­tent for oth­ers in the team to get their due ahead of him­self. The White­bait kit­chen will be led by Khan Danis, most recently to be found at Neil Perry’s Rock­pool Bar & Grill in Melbourne:


KD: I worked for Neil for about 20 years, the last six or sev­en at Rock­pool in Mel­bourne, which is like a steak­house, Amer­ic­an style, but using fant­ast­ic pro­duce from all around the coun­try. There’s lots of sea­food, beef aged in house. They had a great beef age­ing pro­gramme. You need lots of cool-room space with good cir­cu­la­tion, between ‑1˚C and 1˚C, so it’s really cold. You need great beef as well to start with — we had mainly grass-fed beef; there was some grain-fed beef as well as wagyu, so it was a big pro­gramme with an in-house butcher.

Things used to come in on the bone, not in a bag full of its own blood. It was all prop­er dry-age­ing like butchers used to do in the past, quite an expens­ive pro­gramme but with a great product in the end. And a really good sea­food pro­gramme, sourcing dir­ectly from fish­er­men. Again, there was a full-time fish­mon­ger, and you had ded­ic­ated fish cool rooms and all that stuff.


DSC_2103 Khan and Paul have come togeth­er at White­bait through a fam­ily con­nec­tion. They mar­ried sis­ters and Khan’s wife Cath­er­ine is a pastry chef who will be super­vising the bak­ing and desserts at the new res­taur­ant. The ori­gin­al idea was to open Char­ley Noble in the space — that’s how long these plans have been gest­at­ing — but then the Hud­dart Park­er loc­a­tion came avail­able. The next thought was to up and move The White House, but chan­ging trends and the integ­ra­tion of Khan and Cath­er­ine into the pro­ject meant it was time for some­thing new.


KD: I thought sea­food was a bit of a no-brain­er for a coun­try sur­roun­ded by water. In Sydney at the mar­kets we see so much New Zea­l­and sea­food — John Dory, snap­per, and gurn­ard and scor­pi­on fish. When the seas are bad in Aus­tralia, the go-to is New Zea­l­and product. You actu­ally see more over there than you do here, so I thought why don’t we try tap into that and show­case what is avail­able in this country.


Sea­food res­taur­ants in Wel­ling­ton haven’t always had the greatest of repu­ta­tions, of course. And for years Paul got to look out every day at the exec­rable Fisherman’s Table oppos­ite The White House, so he knows what he doesn’t want. Khan has already spent a lot of time sourcing sup­pli­ers and mak­ing sure that he’s got access to the best and freshest. The menu is likely to change with the weather.


KD: That’s the real­ity. I get a sea­food update from Rachel at Yel­low Brick Road Sea­food. She brings in sea­food from all around the coun­try, and it changes from day to day and from week to week. The oth­er day there were only two finned fish spe­cies, I think. Some days she’s got five or six, so I think it’s really going to be sea­son- and weath­er-depend­ent and pro­duce-driv­en: to try and bring a piece of pro­tein or veget­able or grain and not change it into some­thing it’s not, and really present it in a nat­ur­al way. Which is not being overly creative.


For a lot of diners, fine din­ing res­taur­ants could be a little bit like going to the opera — an expens­ively acquired taste — and Wel­ling­ton seems to be trend­ing towards less form­al options, but requir­ing no less fla­vour and no less craft.

Neither Paul or Khan com­pleted form­al train­ing, pre­fer­ring instead to head out into the world. Paul got the cook­ing bug as a Nel­son kid with a sweet tooth.


PH: Not hav­ing much money back then, if you wanted some­thing you had to learn how to make it your­self, pick­ing fresh straw­ber­ries and things like that. Every­body had a Ken­wood mix­er back in those days and it didn’t take me long to fig­ure out how to make a good straw­berry smooth­ie! Even at col­lege, Fri­day was like ‘hobby day’, and I was prob­ably the only boy in my home eco­nom­ic class mak­ing scones and things. And I found it a good way to win over friends, mak­ing treats, shar­ing food.

I did half of my City and Guilds, and by the time I’d done the first half of it I was 19 and get­ting a bit bored with Nel­son, so I went to Lon­don. It was either go to Lon­don or stay anoth­er couple of years and fin­ish the oth­er half of my City and Guilds course. I went and nev­er looked back really.


I asked Paul wheth­er he felt a chapter was end­ing with the end of The White House. Does it sig­nal the end for fine din­ing in Wel­ling­ton? Or have stand­ards every­where been raised so much that ‘fine din­ing’ does­n’t have the same mean­ing anymore?


PH: I don’t think so. Because of the choice that is out there with so many oth­er res­taur­ants. If you went back, maybe 20 years ago, it was all fine din­ing in Wel­ling­ton with very few every­day places, and that’s all changed with the num­ber of people liv­ing in the city. Fine din­ing allows a chef to take things to a totally dif­fer­ent level. Look at some of the best res­taur­ants in the world and what they’re doing and what they’re reinventing.


Paul and Louise opened The White House in a tiny little colo­ni­al house on Wil­lis Street that didn’t have much room but did have good fine din­ing bones — Petit Lyon had opened there roughly ten years earli­er. A rave review from crit­ic Dav­id Bur­ton after only two weeks gave them a jump-start, and the pat­rons and the awards fol­lowed. The busi­ness moved to Ori­ent­al Bay in 1999.

Des­pite hand­ing over the reins (“I enjoy being in the kit­chen. It’s been my life and that’s where I like to be, but it’s going to be totally up to Khan”), Paul is look­ing for­ward to being a sup­port­ing play­er for a while. Indeed, he’s so com­fort­able out of the lime­light that when I arrive at The White House for this inter­view he’s car­ry­ing a buck­et and mop and can’t shake my hands because he’s been clean­ing the toi­let floors. I’m not sure that Gor­don Ram­say still does that.


KD: We’re going to need all hands on deck. We’ll need every­body to be in there giv­ing as much sup­port to the pro­ject as pos­sible. I know Paul wants to do oth­er things, so hope­fully, once we’re estab­lished, he’ll be free to go pur­sue those oth­er pro­jects that he’d like to go for­ward with.


PH: I’m quite happy out the back there doing my own thing in the kit­chen. That’s why you don’t see me on cook­ing shows.