'Don't go out to eat, stay home': Head restaurant chef's surprising message to Kiwis

Roots chef and director Giulio Sturla
Roots chef and director Giulio Sturla. Photo credit: Instagram/Roots.

On my way to interview former Roots owner Giulio Sturla, I have to admit I was a bit nervous. 

In my home city of Christchurch, Roots was an institution; a degustation restaurant on the other side of the Lyttelton tunnel, that was revered and protected by locals and tourists alike. 

I never got to eat there myself - its glory days during my years as a university student meant a degustation dinner was low on the spending priority list. 

Roots had its last service on May 25 this year, but Sturla brought it back for Auckland-based fans this week in one night only pop-up Taste of Roots for American Express Restaurant Month. 

Sturla says even though the restaurant is now closed, the ethos lives on. 

"It was restaurant based around our philosophy of celebrating nature and local ingredients, celebrating the best NZ can offer," he explains. 

"I feel like when I first came into NZ 10 years ago nobody was telling a story [with their food]; everybody was cooking delicious food but nobody was telling you 'why'.

"We thought 'why not start?', and it did pretty well."

That's an understatement. The restaurant was consistently honoured in the country's restaurant awards, winning New Zealand's best restaurant at the 2015 Cuisine Good Food Awards and Sturla named Chef of the Year at the 2018 awards. 

"It was crazy when we won - nobody knew where Lyttleton even was," Sturla recounts.  "I just wanted us to survive. It never was about making the best restaurant, it was about 'this is the food I want to cook'.

"When we became best restaurant it went from 60 people a week to 160 people a week." 

In the opposite system of many trendy Auckland spots, Roots only did bookings, no walk-ins.

"If there were two people [booked] we'd cook for two people, that's it. If there was 10 we'd cook for 10. We never made extra, we never had waste," says Sturla. 

"If we didn't have bookings we wouldn't open, we wouldn't work. We'd stay home with our families and enjoy life." 

It's an unusual system for a restaurant owner, but most of Sturla's opinions over the future of food tip the Kiwi hospitality industry's mentality on its head. 

"People need to start cooking at home, that's the first thing... Go buy rice, buy a whole chicken and roast it yourself. 

"Why are we throwing so much food away? You eat out every single day, [then] you don't understand how much work goes into food. That's why I did a restaurant with a very high price point - because I didn't want them to come every day - I would tell my customers 'go and cook at home'. 

"I will give you something you will not cook at home… [But] why go to a restaurant and spend $150 on roasted chicken when you can do that yourself." 

And for those who think a degustation delight is too far beyond reach? 

"If you stop paying $5 a day for coffee and make coffee yourself at home, then you will have enough money to cook at home then [occasionally] go to an expensive restaurant.

"I think NZ needs less restaurants and more good restaurants… and less focus on making money, more on having a good life."

I'm happy to try Sturla. 



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