Howard Morris and Rob Fanselow have been leading lights in the Nelson hospitality scene since they bought their first business together in March 2000
Not long after they bought Ciao in Collingwood St and rebranded it as The Cut there was a major fire in the premises just before the very busy summer season.
While the arson caused lots of headaches the old saying of behind every cloud is a silver lining couldn’t have been more true in this case; the fire gave them the opportunity to restructure the layout of the premises, making it more open plan rather than being confined to a couple of smaller rooms.
The Cut reopened in February 2001 and was a very successful restaurant but Howard (or Harry as everyone calls him) and Rob wanted to move away from more formal dining so they opened Harry’s Bar & Dining in Hardy St., running both businesses for about 18 months before selling The Cut.
Harry’s Bar & Dining was designed right from day one to have a focus on a casual atmosphere, a menu packed with fresh flavours and a great beverage list, including a range of craft beers both in bottle and on tap and some of their now famous cocktails.
Authentic Asian dishes rather than the popular fusion fare are the food focus and some of my absolute favourites include the chilli salt squid, crispy red braised chicken wings with plum sauce and the spectacular looking as well as great tasting crisp fried whole snapper with yellow bean sauce.
Despite the success of Harry’s in Hardy St Morris had always thought the best place for their business was the top of Trafalgar St and when the opportunity popped up to relocate in March 2011 they jumped at it, so after five and a half years in Hardy St they moved to the building that was once home to the famous Chez Eelco – one of New Zealand’s first proper coffee houses.
Since the move Fanselow and Morris have taken the business to a whole new level now they are in the dining hub of Nelson City, and have focussed on working front-of-house and employing great kitchen staff.
I sat down with Morris last week to find out what makes Harry’s such a successful local hospitality business and the answer was soon very clear, both of the owners bring a huge amount of passion for the industry to everything they do and Morris has a very impressive cooking background to call on.
His first job as a school boy in Dunedin when he was just in 12 years old was cooking burgers at a place called Burger King, not the Burger King we know today but a local burger bar. “I didn’t want to deliver papers and wanted an inside job so working in the burger bar was a for me” says Morris.
“While I was still at school I applied to go to Otago Polytechnic’s cooking school, in those days the courses were designed to support apprentices but because I wasn’t an apprentice I had to pay my own way; the course was structured to have two month long full-time block courses and each time I had a block course I had to give up the job I had so I could go to class, it wasn’t easy and I had to take whatever work I could but I was determined to make food my future.”
Morris went to Australia when he was 19 and worked at Massoni Restaurant in St Kilda, Melbourne before working on Great Keppel Island for a few months and then moving to London in 1985 and is where he and Fanselow first met.
While in London he worked at a restaurant called Joe Allen in Covent Garden then at Launceston Place and Kensington Place under the guidance of chef Rowley Leigh who had worked at La Gavroche for the Roux brothers for a long time.
Kensington Place won restaurant of the year in its first year of operation, “it was a time when Leigh, Alistair Little and Simon Hopkinson were leading the way into a more modern style of dining – relaxed bistro fine dining and it was a fantastic environment to be exposed to, especially with the mentoring Leigh gave me.
My first real ‘food moment’ was at Kensington Place, it was a busy kitchen with many staff and while I was beavering away doing prep in the veg section all of a sudden there was an aroma I hadn’t smelled before, I looked around and saw Leigh brushing dirt off a fresh truffle and was astounded, it was intoxicating and changed my whole outlook on what food, restaurants and hospitality was all about.”
Morris came back to New Zealand in 1990 with the idea of going to university in Dunedin but after a couple of months, thought “what am I doing here” so he went to Sydney for 10 years where he worked at a restaurant on Circular Quay for a about five years, then at Buon Ricordo in Paddington before going to work for Rockpool Group at The Museum of Contempory Art when renown chef Neil Perry had the catering contract there, “we did lots of Asian style foods and this experience was the influence for Harry’s.”
With the unsociable hours of the hospitality industry, all of the time spent travelling in Sydney and the fact he wasn’t home very much to spend time with his three young kids he and his now ex-wife decided to move back to New Zealand and the choices were his home town of Dunedin or Nelson, fortunately for us Nelson won.
Morris met up with Fanselow again and they were both at a loose end with not a lot of work around so they decided to create their own future, after looking for about three months they ended up buying the first place they had walked into, the then Ciao in Collingwood St.
Fanselow hadn’t had any experience in the hospitality industry until they set up The Cut, his background was in sales and marketing and he had returned to his home town of Nelson after spending time London and many years in Wellington.
After more than 15 years in business together they have settled into running a busy restaurant/bar and while they have a head chef Morris still works with him on the menu and keeps an eye on the quality of food leaving the kitchen, “we have been very lucky to have had great chefs and kitchen staff who have stayed a long time, Nigel Fahey and Paul Lowry in particular have been a real strength in the kitchen” but Morris has been doing more cooking in recent times, mainly because cooking is where his heart is, “I just love the kitchen and using fresh ingredients to make great food.”