Paris, Rome, a tropical island? Nah, says Andrew Clarke, his idea of sublime time out is staying at home, having a good sleep in.

Life's crazy flat-out for the award-winning part owner and head chef of Hamilton's Victoria St Bistro.

He's juggling the restaurant and designing menus for other Lawrenson Group restaurants; wife Julia is supporting the running of other restaurants within the group and designing wine lists. And the couple's son, Leo, is an active, "fearless" 18-month-old. Hence the craving for sleep.

Andrew's work ethic, his self-motivation, and drive is grounded in his early years. He was born and raised in Southland, living on a 300-acre sheep farm near Winton until he was 12. Much of that time his education was through the Correspondence School.

When Andrew was 5, his father suffered a broken back, but struggled on with the farm, which had been in his family for five generations, for a few more years until a decision was made to move to a warmer climate in the Waikato; Tamahere to be precise.

It was something of a culture shock starting Hillcrest High School, but only for the first couple of weeks, Andrew says. He's an adaptable kind of guy, knows what he wants, goes after it.

His career is a case in point. The idea developed at an early age, sitting on the kitchen bench while his mother was baking, licking the bowl.

"The farm was in the middle of nowhere, so if you wanted something nice you made it yourself. I started about 10 with cakes and slices."

He landed his first job, aged 15 and still at school, at Gails of Tamahere, working the wedding season. "There was just me and the head chef. We did ridiculous hours – 60 hours in four days around the Easter weddings."

Next step was chef training at Waikato Polytechnic. During his last year work opened up at Tables on the River, then The Balcony under chefs who would shape and mould him, build up his knowledge, skills, and resilience.

Then came a stint in Melbourne. "I didn't really know where it was on the map until I got on the plane."

He checked out all the best restaurants, landed a job under celebrity chef Justin Derrick at the Marque Hotel, then for Simon Duff at the Sebel, a swanky 4 ½ star Melbourne hotel. Duff might have made Gordon Ramsay look tame, but Andrew learned a lot.

A couple of years later he was back in Hamilton at The Balcony, where he met Julia. Soon, he took over as head chef, then bought the restaurant with Julia, and renamed it oneZB.

Two-and-a-half years later their dreams were shattered, when oneZB was liquidated, and the pain of that is still reflected in Andrew's eyes. "It didn't work because of a lot of things, like the recession, and we were naive and only 23 and 24 when we bought it."

John Lawrenson of The Lawrenson Group picked him up, offered him Furnace, and gave Julia a job at The Helm. "He looked after us. It was pretty rough after the closure of oneZB."

An offer to head up Vespa, the Italian restaurant Lawrenson had just bought, followed. And Andrew saw it through to its reincarnation: Victoria St Bistro.

That was 5 ½ years ago, and during that time it's won glittering prizes, including two-hat ranking in the Cuisine Good Food Awards 2016, and in 2013 New Zealand's best regional restaurant in the Cuisine Awards.

Andrew defines the restaurant as upmarket bistro-style, leaning towards contemporary New Zealand dining with a lot of international influence. "But it's not intimidating or pretentious.

"I try to use local and seasonal produce as the basis for our menu. The perk of supporting local is that you get the best of local – the best price, best product, at its peak."

"The city has evolved a huge amount since I went to Melbourne, especially in the last 10 years. We have world-class food in New Zealand, even in Hamilton."

Favourite coffee shop? How do you take your coffee?

Scotts Epicurean. It's pretty much a Hamilton institution. A good barista is the single crucial element in making good coffee, and you've been able to guarantee that since Scotts opened. I take the standard brew – a flat white with one sugar.

Favourite brunch spot? What would you order?

I don't go out for brunch; I work late and, if I get the opportunity, I sleep in. But Ash Brody, one of my old sous chefs, is coming back from Melbourne and opening a new place in Hamilton, Gather, and I will support that. I like to support others doing new things, and I love her infamous croquettes.

Best park?

Hamilton Lake. Julia and I take our son Leo to the playground there, and it's really cool. He loves "steering" the little boats and cars, and the water courses. He's going to go mad there when he's a bit older.

Best watering hole, and what's your poison?

Two actually: The Lawrenson Group bars Keystone and Shenanigans. I'd probably have a Heineken or a Monteith's, but if I'm drinking wine it would be a Barossa shiraz or a buttery chardonnay with lots of oaky goodness. A Church Road Reserve is just the business.

Best date spot?

Takeaways in bed, watching Netflicks or something online. If we're pampering ourselves Jules and I will go to Raglan, probably have a massage, then on to Orca. It's by the sea, laidback, and serves good food. Getting out of town is always good. It's time out together where we don't have to worry about what's going on around us.

Best view

Watching the sun set from one of the hills in Raglan, but I've heard the top of the Hakarimata's is pretty good.

Where would you take tourist?

I'd take tourists to Hamilton Gardens. Jules and I got married there. It's outstanding; even if you're not into that sort of thing you'll be blown away.

A fond food memory from the region?

Earlier this year I went on a Kawhia fishing charter. We took our catch to The Blue Chook Inn in the town, and they fried it in butter and served it with potatoes and salads. It was simple and fantastic.

Favourite weekend or holiday getaway in the Waikato?

Raglan, it's close, or Coromandel where we stay with a friend on his 1500-acre farm, which has private bays. We go fishing, hang out a lot by the beach, and have barbecues on the beach.

What Waikato product are you drinking?

Good George Apple cider. It's long, cool, and refreshing, and nicely balanced – not too sweet but not super-dry either.

What Waikato produce can you not do without this season?

Asparagus. It's seasonal and such a good product. It's just coming on now and we're hammering it. The range is exciting too – green, white, and purple, and they each have slightly different flavours.

Favourite day trip with kids?

Hamilton Zoo. Leo loves going anywhere he can run around and look at things. He's straight up to the glass at the chimpanzee enclosure and "talking" about them, really excited and pointing.

What do you think is Waikato's best-kept secret?

No one outside Hamilton knows how good it is to live here. The quality of life here is great, and the nightlife in Hamilton is huge – Lonely Planet rated it highly. People are going out and having fun!

Image source: Mark Taylor/Fairfax NZ


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