When Sophie Cannon, acting head-chef at Te Whau Vineyard Restaurant, was told that she would be cooking for celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, a dream collided with reality. She shook with great excitement until tears came to her eyes. To cook for Ramsay had been Sophie’s dream for years. In fact, it was on her bucket list. She said, “Usually the items on your bucket list are something you have to go out and do. You don’t expect them to come to you.”
But this is exactly what happened a week ago at Te Whau Vineyard Restaurant on Waiheke Island, New Zealand when Ramsay rang to check out the possibility of having a late lunch. The excitement of such an opportunity still showed on Sophie’s face. “I’ve been floating for the past week,” she said, her eyes sparkling as she recounted her chance of a lifetime, and the coincidence that she was reading Ramsay’s autobiography, Humble Pie.
So what were the chances of a dream landing right in Sophie’s lap like this? It just so happened that Ramsay was in Auckland for a very brief visit to speak at a ‘Dinner with Gordon Ramsay’ event to raise money for The Rising Foundation program – a charity which works to support and unlock the potential of young people at risk in South Auckland. It networks with local business people to offer selected students training, apprenticeships and career opportunities – something that is close to Ramsay’s heart since he remembers only too well his own difficult start in life. In Humble Pie he recalled a list his mother made of all the different places he had lived in as a kid, unable to remember most of them. Reflecting upon this, he wrote:
When you’re unhappy in a place, you want to forget about it as soon as possible. You don’t dwell on the details of a house if you associate it with being afraid, or ashamed, or poor – and as a boy I was often afraid and ashamed, and always poor.
This is why, on the Friday morning of the fund-raising dinner, Ramsay paid an unexpected visit to Papakura High School in South Auckland, where he spoke to some of the students taking part in the Foundation program. The next day, Saturday, he was due to fly out.
It just so happened that his flight was delayed, giving him an unexpected opportunity to try another “great little place to eat,” which he said he had wanted to do just before leaving New Zealand on his last visit. So along with five guests, he flew to Waiheke Island by helicopter for the scheduled late lunch at four.
And Sophie, who is second-chef at Te Whau, happened to be head-chef that day in the absence of Marco Edwardes who was away on holiday. With this unexpected visit she then saw the chance to “do myself proud.” Once the initial shock and excitement subsided to a more manageable level, Sophie rose to the occasion with fellow chefs Fady Dawood and Chad Whakahau, and began preparing five starters of paddle crab salad on a wasabi mousse, venison carpaccio and Te Matuku Bay oysters. For mains, Marco Edwardes’ recipe for Aoraki salmon was served with marinated fennel salad, charcoal prawns and fresh, mixed vegetables. Sophie was pleased to note that Ramsay left nothing on his plate. Dessert was a unanimous choice of sticky toffee pudding.
Te Whau Restaurant owner, Tony Forsyth, said Ramsay was full of praise and genuine compliments. Gordon Ramsay told Sophie that if ever she gets to Europe he will help her get a foot in the door.
Well, perhaps it is no surprise that after working at Te Whau for five years, Sophie is heading off to Australia in two weeks’ time for a month’s stay before travelling to Europe on a working holiday. Sophie assured me that she will definitely take him up on the offer.
Originally from Cornwall, Sophie grew up around restaurants. Cooking runs in the family, she said. Her mother is a chef, and there is a bit of friendly competition between them about who they get to cook for. After cooking for Ramsay, her mum said she was “so proud.” Sophie’s other inspiration is her godfather, Rick Stein, a well-known television personality and restaurateur, who opened his first restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall, which is famous for its fresh fish. After hearing Stein’s comment: “I’ve come to the conclusion after years and years that what I really like about being a restaurateur is pleasing people, seeing people happy,” I get the feeling that this was one of Sophie’s secret ingredients that made the day such a success for all concerned. I have to admit, it made me happy just listening to Sophie’s story.
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