What’s the secret to longevity in hospitality?
For some venues, it’s homing in on their signatures and never deviating. For others, progress is the key to staying power – an approach Nick Honeyman and Zennon Wijlens of Herne Bay restaurant Paris Butter can attest to.
The chefs are celebrating a newly minted partnership. In April Wijlens came on as a business partner to founder Honeyman, along with his fiancée, Catherine George, who helps Honeyman’s wife, Sina, with marketing.
Wijlens joined Paris Butter as sous-chef in 2019. In the four years since, the duo has built a relationship on mutual respect and support, a love of fine dining, and well-aligned palates. They’re also equally driven to push culinary boundaries for themselves and the team. Experimentation and creativity shine in each new monthly degustation menu.
As the name suggests, Paris Butter started in 2016 as a classic French bistro – which was very much of the time in Auckland. “I opened it as a business. I quickly learned that if your heart’s not in it, it’s not going to work,” Honeyman tells Broadsheet.
Both he and Wijlens came up in fine-dining kitchens – Honeyman at Paris Michelin-starred restaurants L’Astrance and L’Arpege, and The French Cafe under Simon Wright; Wijlens in some of Australia’s top kitchens including Momofuku Seiobo (now closed) and Tetsuya’s in Sydney, and Spice Temple and Cumulus Inc in Melbourne. Given these respective backgrounds, it made sense to aim higher and send Paris Butter down the fine-dining route.
“Zennon was a lot stronger than I was used to, in terms of the calibre of chef,” Honeyman says. “I had to change my managerial style with him and we learned to collaborate a lot more.”
“It was challenging for that first six months,” Wijlens adds. “Both of us had egos – and still, it was Nick’s restaurant, which I had to respect, but I also had that chip on my shoulder of ‘I could just walk out and go get another job’. But just like any relationship, we started gelling more and more – and then went from there. And now look at us.”
Paris Butter’s frosted windows block out the street, so you feel cocooned from the outside world. It seats around 36 people, depending on table sizes. And there’s only one sitting, so once you secure a table, it’s yours for the night.
From there you’re almost entirely in the team’s hands. Diners only receive the menu after the meal, to take home. Aside from reporting any allergies or severe dislikes when you make your booking, what you’ll eat is a mystery.
Every four- or six-course Evolution menu celebrates the best New Zealand produce and ingredients, often while riffing on nostalgic staples such as Kiwi onion dip, transformed and Paris Butter-ified through inventive and layered combinations of techniques and textures.
On the current menu (they change monthly), a dish of dashi-cured kingfish reflects the changing seasons with contrasting hot and cold elements. It’s arranged prettily in a wide bowl with horseradish sorbet, broccoli cream and ginger, and a hot, richly flavourful oxtail consommé poured around the lot upon serving.
Wijlens’s current favourite is the main – a Wagyu tri-tip, slow-cooked overnight and paired with a date, black bean and house-made miso butter. It comes with a roasted baby carrot brushed with carrot caramel and crumbed in macadamia granola. The dish is finished with fermented carrot juice beurre blanc (a butter-based sauce) and fresh wasabi leaf.
The overarching impression throughout is one of playfulness and creativity – but never at the expense of taste.
They’re unequivocal on the starting point for creating any dish. “Always the ingredients,” says Honeyman. “It normally goes ingredients, flavour paring, texture, temperature. And then, design.”
Lamb and salmon are two of the only flavours they don’t see eye to eye on – Honeyman isn’t the biggest fan of lamb, having grown up eating mutton, and Wijlens doesn’t love salmon.
“We never put something on the menu just for the sake of it ‘has to be there’”, says Wijlens. “If we don't enjoy it, then it's not going on the menu.”
Encouraging their staff to use work as a creative outlet is important to the duo, who’ve been running what they call “projects” every weekend for three years now. Every Saturday, the team has a week to come up with a new idea or dish, and chances are it’ll go onto the menu in some form. “It’s so easy to turn up to work at a job, go home and not be listened to,” Wijlens says – so this is what they’re trying to avoid.
There are regular collaborations with other restaurants; recent events include special dinners with six-person restaurant Mapu in Lyttleton, and Ides in Melbourne, with more to come this year including a July event with executive chef Scott Higgins of Penfolds Magill Estate Restaurant in South Australia.
They also run a “young industry table” Monday through Thursday, for $100 rather than $170, as a way to let people under 30 people working in hospitality experience Paris Butter’s full offering. “Both Nick and I know what it’s like to be a young chef and not be able to afford to eat in ‘fancy’ places, so this is our little way of giving back and getting the younger generation excited,” Wijlens says.
For Honeyman, it’s a relief having Wijlens on the ground in New Zealand year-round, as he spends up to nine months a year in southern France, running his seasonal restaurant Le Petit Leon.
“I think the main thing is that running a business is quite tough,” Honeyman says. “And as Zennon will tell you too, at the top everyone’s looking to you. And they want answers. They want advice, and it gets quite lonely. So what we’ve got now is unique … it’s like [having] a brother. It’s awesome.”
166 Jervois Road, Herne Bay
09 376 5597
Mon to Sat 6:30pm-late
Fri lunch 12pm-1pm