“Like a lot of Kiwi kids, I always wanted to be an All Black,” says chef, Paul Duncan. “I started when I was six years old and played until I was 17—at rep level—but my boss told me that he didn’t want me playing rugby as he didn’t want me getting hurt. So, I chucked it in and focused on my new dreams as a chef!”
He reminisces about baking as a child with his mum and grandmother, such things as “licking the bowl, the taste of raw batter and the sweet smell of cookies fresh out of the oven”. By the time he was 15, Paul had secured a full-time kitchen gig following an after-school stint the previous year at a French restaurant in Hokitika, initially peeling 20-litre buckets of vegetables. “The chef got me onto working on the dessert section once and week,” Paul tells me. “The rush of service and the challenge of the situation fascinated me just as much as the cooking.”
The chef recalls crepe suzette being one of the very first dishes he had to cook: “We had to get six pans going at once to cook about 100 crepes continuously. During service we would light the brandy on fire and pour it over the crepes at the table. A bit old-school, but as a young teenager, it blew my mind!”
Paul now heads Anise, a private chef and catering company that brings a fine dining experience to homes, workplaces, and functions, servicing the greater Auckland area and beyond, to the Bay of Islands, Rotorua and Hamilton. “I provide everything, including plates cutlery and linen,” he says, “and turn up 90 minutes before the first course to set the table and prepare. It also gives me chance to interact with the guests—it can be a bit daunting having a stranger in your home!—and after cooking and serving I clear up all of the mess.”
Paul, who runs Anise with his wife, came up with the idea of a home catering service following the Christchurch quakes. “The restaurant where I was head chef was damaged beyond repair,” he says. “It was chaos. I was still employed, but everything was in limbo. It was difficult having nothing to do so I began cooking for friends and family at home. It was so much fun, and the idea was born. We moved to Auckland and established Anise in 2014.”
Is there a story behind the name?
“Anise is simply named after my favourite spice, star anise. I have a strong Asian influence in all my cooking and I wanted that to show that through the name.”
Paul admits that one of the biggest challenges was getting home dining known as a “thing to do”: “Getting consistent business at the start was hard work, but once word of mouth kicked in, and people got a taste of the experience, it was all go.”
Any memorable moments?
“Where would I begin! Once people are comfortable in their own home, and you add a few wines, anything goes, that’s the beauty of it. The conversations are the best part by far. It always starts off mellow, but by the third or fourth course the topics usually turn to custard! I’ve had people wear onesies, I’ve had people wear no pants. I’ve had a 70-year-old go away and come back 30 minutes later in lingerie! Love it.”
The chef tells me he feels blessed to be doing what he does. “Cooking is an endless battle that you will never win, and I enjoy that,” he adds. “You will never know everything about food, we’re all learning. Most of all, I love the joy the food experience can bring to people. When you work such long hours, for so long, it has to be worth it.”
Among his most treasured experiences were preparing a couple of dinners for terminally ill guests. “Just to put a smile on someone’s face for a couple of hours and have them spend true precious time with their family is extremely touching and humbling,” he says. “What food can do is very powerful.”
Chef for Hire & Chef at Home?
Paul says that what most people ask most often is if he does the cooking at home. So, does he?
“The answer is I’m very rarely home at dinner time, so my amazing wife looks after me in that department. I love to cook on my barbecue on my days off. I’m an avid rugby league fan, so I get to as many Warriors games as I can. My wife and I love eating out of course, and I tend to my vegetables and herbs as often as possible, too.”