Been-there-done-that local superchef comes back for good.
Queenstown superchef Varick Neilson feels he’s “finally come home” after cooking up a storm in some of the world’s top kitchens.
The fun-loving grub-rustler lived the high life as owner of a six-business empire of fine-dining eateries and popular bars in Auckland.
In the 1990s, his flagship establishment Varick’s became an international brand and he picked up countless Restaurant of the Year awards for first-class food and service.
And long before the likes of fiery TV chef Gordon Ramsay shot to fame, Neilson was a household name in New Zealand as co-host of the prime-time, small-screen reality show Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?.
In between, he’s also partied with the rich and famous while running some of the country’s most exclusive luxury lodges.
Now Neilson is banking on his Midas touch working for him again.
He recently left his job as executive chef at the resort’s swanky Eichardt’s Private Hotel to take over the upmarket Postmaster’s House restaurant in Arrowtown, which he aims to “casualise” while extending opening hours to include lunches as well as introducing outdoor dining.
“When I was running all my businesses it was some ride and a helluva lot of fun,” he says.
“But I was putting in 20-hour days, seven days a week and eventually knew there had to be more to life than that.
“In a nutshell, I changed, chilled out and came home.”
Neilson, 46, was raised in Queenstown. His dad Geoff was the Anglican vicar at St Peter’s Church and his late mum Lynette was a local schoolteacher.
“When I was a kid, the town had a population of under a thousand people – now it’s the valley of sin,” he laughs.
He first became interested in cooking as a teenager after taking a job washing dishes to get money to buy a motorbike.
He served his apprenticeship at The Cow restaurant in Cow Lane under now-legendary former Queenstown chef and hospitality guru David Williams.
But by the time he hit 20, Neilson’s wandering feet took him to Wellington, Auckland then London.
“By that age, I felt it was time to get out of Queenstown,” he explains.
“I was the sort of guy that wherever I went, it wasn’t big enough for me.”
Neilson hit the jackpot for 14 years while his Auckland food and beverage empire – led by restaurants like Varick’s, Escargot and Bistrot 305 – boomed.
And when TVNZ bosses came a-knocking, he couldn’t resist co-hosting the Sunday night Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?, which attracted audiences of 750,000 when it started screening in the late 1990s.
He’d travel around NZ in a limo with presenter Suzanne Paul and surprise unsuspecting families by dropping in to cook for them – and the households would then be further shocked by the arrival of a celebrity dinner guest. “I got the gig because Suzanne was popular with women and gay men,” says Neilson.
“I was a bit of a rugby-type who could keep the guys amused while cooking for them.
“Soon I was getting recognised wherever I went but although it was a good laugh and I got to meet some incredible people,
I doubt if I’d do it again.”
After selling up his businesses, dad-of-one Neilson went on to run exclusive hotels like Kingfish Lodge in Northland and the Whare Kea Lodge in Wanaka.
Two years ago he returned to Queenstown with second wife Jennifer Graham. And after recently taking on the task of relaunching Arrowtown’s Postmaster’s House, he insists he’s here to stay this time.
“Queenstown has got a big drawcard for some people,” he says. “Every time I’d go away the hankering was always for home.”