Hippopotamus is one of the few restaurants in Wellington which has a reputation unto itself.
It serves french cuisine and, while in recent years the white table clothes have gone, the level of service at one of Wellington’s best dining institutions has not. Enter, and the strains of Edith Piaf greet you alongside a waiter with champagne in hand, chandeliers surround you overhead and the great view of Wellington will take your breathe away. And that’s before the food even starts…
While many know Hippopotamus, and its famous French meets New Zealand cuisine, few know the story of the Executive Chef, Laurent. QT Museum Wellington and Hippopotamus Restaurant are celebrating a rather significant relationship this October, one that we hold close to our food loving hearts. Over the decade, Laurent has created award winning dishes and cult foodie favourites with his classical training and a willingness to explore and embrace local ingredients and flavours.
As I walk out of the lifts and towards Hippopotamus Restaurant at QT Museum Wellington on a bright Monday at lunchtime, I almost collide with Laurent Loudeac, hurriedly talking to a waitress. We are meeting to talk about his 10 years as Executive Chef of Hippopotamus, yet somehow are heading in opposite directions. I introduce himself and he changes from being all business to all charm. He swiftly swings around and we re-direct to the plush Louis XIV style couches and he offers me coffee or water.
With his mop of dark hair, black button up chef jacket and Fleur De Lis tattoo on his wrist, I’d be lying if I said Laurent wasn’t a little intimidating. However, he proves an open and willing residents, happily showing me behind the scenes of the kitchen, introducing each of the staff (“We have many nationalities in here … the language is changing all the time!” Loudeac says of his worldly staff”) and ushering me over to a regular older gentleman customer who peacefully lives at the QT Museum Wellington and has his lunch each Monday, while finishing the crossword. Safe to say, by the time I leave, my first impressions of the intimidating chef have melted away like cold lemon sorbet on the tongue.
Where did he begin his journey towards being a Chef?
Laurent Loudeac was born in France, in Châteaubriant. “A small village - about 20,000 people - in 1970. I became a Chef, but that wasn’t my objective originally” he says. “It is flat part of France. No hills. There are old castles and the Loire River. When I return back there, not much has changed in 30 years. There is the market every Wednesday. People grow their own vegetables.” It also is an area famous for its food. Nearby, there is La Notte, which is famous for Beurre Blanc. The area is also famous for apple cider. It is almost famous for Crepes or galettes. It is close to Brittany so the traditions cross. My mother would make a Crepe dinner every Friday night while I was growing up, and we would fill them with everything, from Ham to Nutella.”
Laurent originally wanted to be a vet, but a family friend has a restaurant so his mother pushed him towards working in a Kitchen. “I was sixteen and just finished school. I did an apprenticeship - and cooking is all I know now. I am glad for it because I have travelled the world. But I see people changing jobs, and it feels like, wow. I have grown to love it.”
After working in his home area, Laurent moved to Paris and then Switzerland. “It was good for me to learn other styles of cooking - Italian and German. At the time, Switzerland was a place where there was opportunity” he says. Laurent even worked in Saint Maurtiz, the famous Ski field of the rich and famous, where he would ski during the day and work the graveyard shift at night. “After three years, I was starting to get a bit over all the Mountains!” Laurent jokes. “But I’d started travelling - and I wanted to do it more.”
How did he come to New Zealand?
A friend of Laurents had gone to Australia, and returned with stories of how great it was. What did Laurent know about this part of the world? “Crocodile Dundee” he laughs. Laurent travelled Australia, up and down the country. In order to stay longer for his Visa, he had to go to New Zealand for a few days, ending up in Auckland. “I had no idea where I was. That was my first ever time.”
Laurent met a Kiwi woman, and moved back to London with her, where she fell pregnant with Laurent’s son, Jeremy. They decided to move back to New Zealand, and settled in the Coromandel. “That was my first year in New Zealand. I then moved down to Wellington, where I worked at the Park Royal Hotel for two years, now the Intercontinental. It was the 90’s and the food scene was just starting to come out.”
Laurent returned to France, via New Zealand, before returning again to New Zealand. While his relationship ended, he wanted to remain around his son. “I came back and spent 4 years at Hummingbird. It was a great experience. You could see all the nightlife in Courtenay Place - a bit more civilised than it is now. Then, I was asked to come and run Hippopotamous. And now I’ve been here 10 years.”
Laurent used to walk past the hotel building everyday on his way to work at Hummingbird. When he came to work at the restaurant, it was a blank slate. “It was called Faces then. We had a French Matire’d and we had free reign over whatever we wanted to do. We started out in a French direction. It took about a year to get it to where we wanted it to be and since then it has been constantly evolving.” Once the restaurant got a reputation, Laurent made changes to the decor, under former owner Chris Parkin, turning it into the plush dining establishment it is today.
“During the 90’s and 2000’s, hotel dining went out. I believe it is coming back. People want an experience - the service; the food; the drinks” Laurent explains. “It has become an icon in Wellington.”
How has Laurent changed over the last 10 years?
“I have become more laid back. I used to say to my staff ‘You’re not here to have fun, you’re here to work’. I was never a tantrum chef. But I was a strict European Chef” Laurent says. “Now, I encourage my staff to have work/life balance. They can’t work 70 hours a week and be good at what they do. They need to go and do that what makes them happy, for their family, and return to work refreshed. 45 - 50 hours - no more.”
Now Laurent even lets his staff make some of their own dishes. “I can get grumpy, but I’m not a yelling Chef. I am more open to people making mistakes. Once, twice… but not more” he smiles. “There’s no point beating someone down. You need to be more open minded about your staff.”
What local ingredients does he use?
Laurent gets his ingredients locally when he can, including working with an individual who forages for the restaurant for dishes, herbs, flowers and mushrooms, delivering twice a week. At the bar, you’ll find many local spirits and wines. “We use as much local alcohol as we can in the Kitchen, except for French alcohol which of course we incorporate” Laurent says. “During the Dilmah High Tea Challenge we tried to use local products as much as possible.”
Are French or New Zealanders more obsessed with the other?
“It’s 50/50” says Laurent “We have many French people coming through, because of the Lord of the Rings. It has been an eye opener for the world to New Zealand. And...” he says “of course the Rugby. And the accent helps too!”
What does he do when he has time off work in Wellington?
Laurent spends his days off working in the back garden, walking the dog on Petone beach, and watching movies. “I enjoy having a day off, doing nothing” he says. “For me, it is all about enjoying the nature in Wellington, taking things slower, enjoying a good life.
“I am not going anywhere however, after 10 years, I’m happy that this is like my own restaurant, and people from Wellington are like our friends.”
On Friday, October 20, Laurent and Hippopotamus would like to invite you to come on a sensory experience and revisit Laurent’s last decade in the Hippopotamus kitchen. Laurent will host a 10-course degustation with wine to match, with each course representing a dish from each year of his time at Hippopotamus.
The evolutionary menu will include the likes of 2010’s Kikorangi Tortellini with Creamed Leek & Walnut Sauce and from later down the track, the delectable Stilton Cheese Soufflé, which featured on the menu in 2016.