Nic and Kelly Watt talk about finding balance and why New Zealand is home
A personal quest for work/life balance is at the core of a new restaurant and wellness centre run by a top chef and his yogi wife.
Words: Emma Rawson Photos: Jane Ussher
It’s 7:30am in Kohimarama, Auckland, and Nic Watt has forgotten to take out the rubbish. Nic is known for running a tight ship at his award-winning restaurant Masu, but he drops calm disposition as he Usain Bolts-it up the drive to present the wheelie bin to the truck. Meanwhile, as if sensing the urgency of the rubbish run, the Watt backyard bursts into action. The family’s plymouth rock chickens, brawny in their silver livery, begin competing in a steeplechase against the nimbler brown shaver chooks. Eddie, the wheaten terrier, scoots in to steal some chicken food. Somewhere a guinea pig meeps.
Usually, the household would be easing into the day to the rhythm of yoga-teacher Kelly Watt’s vinyasa routine but the impromptu high-intensity exercise is due to a woefully short sleep-in. The pair has been working 15- hour days on their new project, a restaurant and yoga wellness centre called True Food & Yoga based in the old Hammerheads building in Okahu Bay.
8:30am, breakfast time. The table is awash with colour: orange turmeric lattes, red cassis-berry herbal tea and the suspect amber colour of Kelly’s home-made kombucha, delicious despite appearances. This is not a “snap, crackle and pop” household. The only Coco on the table is 11-year-old Kiana’s guinea pig (named Coco) who lies cocooned in a bike helmet next to Kiana and her brother Lucas (seven).
Kiana has made a plea bargain with Nic and Kelly for Coco’s early release from her cage; bail is set at one lemon from the tree. The lemon makes its way into the “trustie” breakfast Nic is compiling – avocado smashed with feta and mint on toasted sourdough. It’s an old trusted favourite of Nic and Kelly’s, discovered together while visiting Dr Jekyll cafe in St Kilda, Melbourne. Trustie is on the menu at the restaurant at True Food & Yoga, as are their other “flavour memories”. The “tiradito”, a Peruvian sashimi dish, conjures the memory of a culinary course Nic and Kelly did in Peru learning the art of ceviche, and “nikkei” is a blend of Peruvian and Japanese cuisine. The “grasshopper” kids’ menu was designed by Kiana and Lucas and includes their favourites such as ‘scrumdiddlyumptious scrambled eggs”, and “green eggs and ham” (eggs greened with a dash of chlorophyll).
“What we have on the menu is our life. It’s our true story. It’s what we cook, it’s what we eat, it’s what we love,” says Kelly.
Nic and Kelly have travelled through the United States, South America, the Maldives, South East Asia, Japan, Macau, Africa, Australia, London, Hong Kong. Some of these journeys were with Nic’s work in restaurants, such as Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant Nobu in London, and working alongside acclaimed Germanborn chef Rainer Becker launching Roka in Hong Kong, Macau and Arizona. It was at Nobu, Park Lane that the couple met in 1998, Kelly was a waitress and Nic was chef de partie.
“I just arrived in London, and I had this very pretty waitress picking up my food at my station. She came and asked me for the chilli sauce; I grumbled something about being a chef and not knowing where the sauce was, but needless to say I found the chilli sauce, and we’ve been together ever since,” says Nic.
“She’s just beautiful, and we share a passion for food and travel, and we’ve had a crazy journey together travelling. When I brought her back to New Zealand she was already a Kiwi at heart – she’s always caught the biggest fish and can fillet them.
“When we go fishing now no matter what I do she still catches the bigger fish, but now I make sure I fillet them,” says Nic.
It was during a four-day visit to Auckland to help with a Peter Gordon fundraiser in 2012 that Nic decided on a change. The family had been living in London and Nic was travelling around the world with his work at Roka. “I was driving back from Sky City, and it was a beautiful Auckland spring day with flat water, and I had a moment of thinking both ‘eureka’ and ‘you idiot’. I thought, ‘What am I doing? I have a beautiful family but we live in London, and I’m travelling all the time.’
“I wanted to give my kids the kind of upbringing I had; putting footprints in the sand, visiting the Great Barrier and exploring the Hauraki Gulf.”
Nic didn’t have to twist Cheshire-born Kelly’s arm. She had her own lifestyle epiphany a few years earlier while working 80-hour weeks at Nobu. “I was quite unwell, and I wasn’t looking after myself. I was pretty stressed-out and had some tummy issues.” A yoga class at her local gym provided the solution. Kelly felt so relaxed after her first class she almost walked into traffic while buying grapes in the Portobello Markets. She was hooked.
Kelly loves the Kiwi lifestyle. Her favourite things are tending to the family’s four chooks, DJ, Ninja, Yolkie and Monarch and sampling the honey from the top-bar horizontal beehive. Much to clutter-phobic Nic’s horror, nearly every available drinking vessel in the family kitchen is filled with her kombucha in various stages of fermentation.
“Kombucha making is so addictive. I guess I’m a sensation junkie: I love chocolate, I love silk, I love soft wools, I love aromas and teas and, for me, yoga fits in that box too,” she says.
Kelly decided to study to be a yoga instructor full time in 2014, and she is also a trained reflexologist. The idea of blending a yoga and wellness centre with a restaurant has been something the couple has been thinking about for more than 10 years. The transition from hospo to yoga isn’t such a leap, says Kelly.
“In hospo, you get used to reading people’s faces, which comes in handy as a teacher.”
12:30pm, yoga time. After a busy morning feeding chooks and making sure both of the guinea pigs get an equal amount of pats, the family heads to True for Kelly’s afternoon class. While her mum is busy taking the class through transitions, Kiana gives perspective yoga gym members a tour. On the other side of the building, Nic talks through the menu with guests on restaurant balcony overlooking Okahu Bay. The True philosophy is about work/life balance; patrons can attend a class before settling in for lunch at the bistro, where kombucha is served on tap. While things are admittedly a little “wonky” at the moment for Nic and Kelly, with their 15-hour days due to the facility being new, Nic says they will soon be practising what they preach. “To be able to drive or even cycle to work in 15 minutes and be here in this beautiful view – that’s kind of living the dream,” he says.
THE CIRCLE OF LIFE
The 1914 building that is now home to True Food & Yoga has had many past lives. It started its life as a council pumping station before becoming Navy League headquarters in the 1960s and Hammerheads restaurant in the 1990s. Nic’s second job was at Hammerheads, and the restaurant’s battered shark head now sits in his home. “When we looked at the building before starting True we found little had changed, the fridges were still there, the old stove was still there. I imagined myself back on the pans 25 years ago,” says Nic.
Architect Kit Lowe refurbished the building, making it fresh but still true to its roots, adding wood and stone and brass to the original building’s basalt and steel. The steel trusses that hold up the native wood ceilings are now soft white. “I’m big on natural light,” says Kelly. “In London, you live in these basements and these places, and it’s quite dark. New Zealand has beautiful, light, open living spaces.
“Roast” is a dirty word in the Watt family. Kiana became a pescatarian for ethical reasons after a visit to the Green Expo a few years ago and Nic and Kelly must put money in the swear jar if they breathe a word of beef. While it does put limitations on what they can cook at home, they respect her choice and it’s not too much bother. While a Sunday roast is a thing of the past, Sunday is the family’s digital detox day. All devices have to be prised from the hands of Lucas, who loves technology. “The digital detox day is just another reminder for us to go outside and enjoy the country.”’