Kitchen Confidential: Tony Stewart, Waiheke Sails into the Bay

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Fine dining restaurateur Tony Stewart came all the way from New Zealand with an uber-cool dining concept: to bring his country’s food and culture to the 2013 America’s Cup. Waiheke Island Yacht Club is his stylish pop-up restaurant that opened its doors at San Francisco’s Pier 29 this summer. From the easy-going ambiance to the sophisticated food, every nook and cranny of the space brings a taste of the the airy Waiheke Island.
In fact, Stewart is making his fellow Kiwi countrymen proud by gaining a following that many restaurateurs can only dream of. Celebrities from Tom Cruise to Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark have already dined there. Pretty impressive for a pop-up that came together in just thirty days!
Stewart dishes with Haute Living on his journey, his favorite San Francisco restaurants and what’s next for his brand.

Tell us about your background in restaurants.
I’ve been doing this for about 20 years. Had my first restaurant when I was 21. I’ve Had Clooney in Auckland for seven years. I’ve done a pop up in New Zealand and now this one.

Had you been to San Francisco before?
Only a few times in the past, but not for about six years; there was nothing really familiar to me about San Francisco. I didn’t know any chefs here; I was coming in completely cold in that respect.

What was your inspiration to build Waiheke Island Yacht Club?
It was definitely the America’s Cup. I was trying to see if America’s Cup was big enough for what we were trying to do, and if our food felt right within San Francisco. The more I looked at our style, the more I thought it could potentially be well received.

How did you become connected with the America’s Cup?
I really just jumped on a plane and went to see realtors. I walked up and around the Embarcadero. I even looked at car parking spaces to see if maybe I could do something on the top of one of those spaces. I went to the ports and they suggested that I come down here to the America’s Cup.

What is the concept of this restaurant, and what is the style of the food?
The restaurant is obviously New Zealand inspired. It’s really casual chic, which is well positioned for San Francisco. There is a fineness in our food that originates from New Zealand. It was really important for the plates, cutlery and furniture to also have that fineness.
Our food is a casual approach to fine dining with focus on main ingredients, then flavor and texture.


What menu items most represent New Zealand?
I think the lamb is very indicative of New Zealand. All of the dishes have the particular style that we are used to.

What celebrities or notables have already walked through the door?
There have been quite a few. Tom Cruise was here and he loved it. He thought the lamb was the best thing he’s tasted in a long time. He did the tasting menu, which was great because he saw the best of what we do.
There’s a lot of understated wealth associated with America’s Cup. The Prince of Denmark was here. The Prime Minister of New Zealand is coming in next two weeks.
Thomas Keller has been here for drinks. We hit it off ; we had a great time.
We’ve hosted dinners for America’s Cup sponsors. The owner of Artemis Racing of Sweden has been here. We’re getting a great crowd. The America’s Cup is a wealthy sport, and where our brand is positioned leads to a nice demographic.

Do you anticipate making any changes after the America’s Cup ends in September?
Our complete focus will continue to be on the San Francisco clientele. To me, the America’s Cup was a fantastic extra, but it will just be business as usual. We will be making some changes in the menu, and we will probably do some special dinners and just try to showcase a little bit more.

What are your plans after this restaurants closes on December 31?
I’m not sure. I’m talking to a few people with the possibility of extending into next year, either this space or new space. We’ll get closer to October/November and go from there. At that time, we’ll be in a good position to look at various options.

What are your favorite restaurants in San Francisco?
I haven’t eaten out that much as of yet. I like Flour and Water, Commonwealth, State Bird Provisions. Eaten at lovely places. I’ve been to Benu and the French Laundry. I really appreciate the work of French Laundry and how they strive for perfection.

What do you want visitors of Waiheke Island Yacht Club to take away?
Experience and quality.

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