Queenstown restaurateur Tony Robertson sure has his plate full. Not content with running one local restaurant, he’s opening his second Nelson premises this month – and now he’s moving there. He discusses his life in cuisine with Philip Chandler
Forty years after first coming to Queenstown, the resort’s longest-serving restaurateur is upping sticks.
Hamills owner Tony Robertson is relocating to Nelson to open his second restaurant there.
The 64-year-old, who opened his first Queenstown restaurant in 1986 and his first in Nelson in 2012, was talked into bidding for another one when dining there about six months ago.
Aussie-born Robertson says his partner Yasuko wanted to live beachside, preferably in Australia.
“I don’t want to go back there, so Nelson was a compromise.”
His new restaurant will be for meat-lovers: “Everyone up there caters for the vegans and alternative lifestylers so we’re going to cater for the alternative alternative lifestylers.”
Robertson wasn’t destined for a restaurant career – in Australia, his last job was running a photography darkroom.
He fell for Queenstown after a skiing holiday in 1977, settling here the following winter and working as a ski instructor.
He also worked as a barman to save money for ski holidays in the United States and spent two-and-a-half years instructing in Japan.
With the aim of moving to Japan, he enrolled in a Japanese language course in Christchurch.
Taking a break back home, he was persuaded to open a Japanese restaurant by gin-drinking friend Eileen Todd.
For his share in Minami Jujisei, which originally opened in Rees Street, Robertson says his brother put his house into a second mortgage – and he put $5000 on his credit card.
Todd’s business partner Sir Roy McKenzie lent money to keep Minami afloat after the 1987 crash and it recovered.
It was the first New Zealand restaurant to prepare Japanese-style lunch boxes – between 100 and 250 a day were sold to Milford-bound Japanese visitors.
In the early ’90s, Robertson decided to open an upmarket restaurant in the upstairs premises opposite, where Prime Restaurant is now.
The day he was to sign the head lease, local developer John Martin invited him to look at nearby Steamer Wharf.
Robertson and chef Grant Jackson were convinced after climbing a ladder to see the view.
He sold his Minami shares and opened their successful seafood restaurant, Boardwalk, in 1994.
“I tend to like to reinvent myself every seven or eight years, so after that time I decided, with one of my chefs, ‘let’s go to Frankton’.
“I had just moved to Kelvin Heights and I couldn’t see the point in driving all the way back in.”
An early Remarkables Park tenant, he opened Hamills in 2004 – “everyone thought we were crazy, and we probably still are”.
Robertson was talked into his first Nelson restaurant by his former ASB bank manager, who’d moved there.
“I said, ‘I’m not really interested in a restaurant’.”
Despite the waterfront site’s chequered history, he decided on the spot he’d take it.
Styx has “proven very effective”.
One of his recipes for success is having chef partners in all his restaurants, he says.
“It keeps them happy, gives them an incentive to work.”
Then there’s his “gift of the gab”.
“I used to sell encyclopaedias, it was my first job out of school, and I made a shitload of money.
“I tell the kids who work for me that everything is sales, particularly in this town.”
His other advice is not to judge customers by their appearance.
When he was a hotel barman, he recalls brewery magnate Doug Myers traipsing in in shorts and mud-splattered legs, and other staff not treating him well.
“I didn’t know who he was but I got a bottle of champagne out of him that first night.”
Asked what’s changed about running restaurants, Robertson – a former Restaurant Association of NZ vice-president – says food supplies are much better.
Formerly, he had to fly fish in from the Pacific Islands or Auckland, he says.
“It’s harder to get staff these days, harder for them to live in town, unfortunately, and to be honest, it’s harder to make a buck – the rents are the killers.”
He pays a third more at Hamills, for example, than for his two-storey, 160-seat waterfront restaurant in Nelson.
“On the other hand, it’s Queenstown and we can’t be angry about it because we’ve helped make it the town it is.”
Guess who came to dinner?
Tony Robertson takes a Boardwalk booking for an unidentified group, arriving September 14, 1999.
“Over the next couple of weeks, we kept getting these big husky blokes in T-shirts and crew-cuts, coming in individually for lunch or dinner.”
At 7pm on the appointed night, he’s informed a group including US President Bill Clinton will come in at 8pm.
“At 7.30pm, Secret Service guys came in and said, ‘we need this table and this table’.”
Unfortunately, Queenstowner Gill Wikstrom had booked one of those tables for her birthday dinner and wasn’t happy about being moved, he says.
At 7.55pm, Robertson tells his newest staff member, Jacko, to greet a special-needs customer in a wheelchair.
“At 8 o’clock, Clinton climbs up the stairs and Jacko’s jaw drops.”
Robertson tells the president he’d had to move Wikstrom’s group – “he wished her a happy birthday, it certainly made her night”.
Robertson says the night went well aside from one hiccup.
A mate rang him about 8.30pm to ask him what Clinton’s daughter Chelsea was like.
“I said, ‘I wouldn’t kick her out of bed’.”
When he popped to his office, he suddenly realised a security agent was listening to phone calls: “He just looked at me and shook his finger.”