Twenty-one years after opening The White House on Willis Street (and later Oriental Parade), chef and restaurateur Paul Hoather is changing direction again. With the help of brother-in-law Khan Danis from Sydney, he is determined to create the seafood restaurant that Wellington has been missing. He’s calling it Whitebait and he and Khan met with Dan Slevin to talk about their lives in kitchens.

The Interview: Paul Hoather and Khan Danis


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.