Meet our Friday Muse Helen Emett, restaurateur and co-founder of Gilt

7 December 2023
By Fashion Quarterly

From corporate to cuisine, trace the journey of iconic hospitality force, Helen Emett.

Josh and Helen Emett.

When it comes to the local culinary space, the Emett’s are considered to be hospitality royalty. Known for opening iconic Auckland hotspots such as Onslow, The Oyster Inn, and more recently — Gilt, it’s fair to say that the power couple know a thing or two about running a restaurant. But while most of us know Josh Emett, his wife and business partner Helen Emett remains somewhat of an enigma to the public. Having been instrumental in the operation of her husband’s restaurants over the past few years and with the opening of Gilt, it seems like a fitting time to shine a light on Emett as a dynamic industry force and an FQ Friday Muse. Below, we chat with her about all things gourmet, the fast-paced hospitality life, and discover exactly what it’s like for her to work with her husband. 

In conversation with Helen Emett

Could you tell us a bit about you, your background, and your career to date?

I’m originally from England, raised in greater London, and have called New Zealand home since 2013. After getting a degree in Psychology from London University, my first job took me to the city of London where I specialised in recruiting for the banking sector. I ended up moving to work for Merrill Lynch in global client coverage, a job which took me to New York. 

You and your husband Josh are known as a power couple in the New Zealand hospitality scene. Could you share with us how you first met and how you came to work together?

My passion for food started young as I cooked for my family from the age of twelve and worked in hospitality throughout my studies. While living in New York, I completed a six-week culinary course at The French Culinary Institute in Soho further fuelling my passion for the culinary world. Fate took a turn when I met Josh at a party in the Lower East Side for a Kiwi work colleague, a friend of Josh’s from Hamilton. 

Josh and I started a family which saw a pause in my career allowing me to focus on our two young boys and support Josh from the sidelines. We always had a vision of creating dining experiences that we loved, inspired by the places we had dined in London and New York. About five years ago when the boys became more independent, we took the plunge and made headway to open restaurants as a team.

What’s it like working with your husband everyday?

Blissful! For anyone who knows us can confirm we are very different people despite being born a few days apart. I bring a different skill set to the party and a fresh perspective. I am hungry to learn and will often ask why we do it that way. I like to problem solve and love to seek efficiencies. I’m also very passionate about marketing. 

As you can imagine, being together morning, noon and night is a little exhausting at times and reminding ourselves not to talk about work all the time is a little hard. We often hear our kids telling us to stop talking about work! 

You’ve just opened a new restaurant, Gilt, in the heart of Auckland CBD. Could you tell us a bit about the process that went into opening it and what inspired it?

We actually looked at the site Gilt is now located in about four years ago before we found the Onslow space. As soon as we walked around we could visualise the space as a bustling brasserie, something we felt Auckland needed. We subsequently chose the Onslow space as the timing worked much better for us. About 12 months ago the site was put back on the table when our shareholder purchased the building. Despite not being quite ready for our third restaurant we couldn’t resist the opportunity. We partnered with Rufus Knight (Knight Associates) for the interior design and engaged Melbourne-based agency Studio Round for the creative and strategy. Both Josh and I love creating restaurants and worked really closely with the design teams to realise our vision. There are so many elements to opening a restaurant: the financials, marketing, hiring and project management.

Gilt Brasserie. 2 Chancery Street, Chambers, Auckland. Images: Supplied. 

Which dish is a non-negotiable must-try on the Gilt menu?

It is such a versatile menu so there are so many. You could come in for a light salad, quick steak frites, opt to have four courses, or oysters and a T-bone. The dishes I absolutely love are prawns with nduja, beef tongue, and king crab pappardelle. And let’s not forget the potato section – the confit potato squares with saffron aioli are so good!

What challenges (if any) did you encounter while working on Gilt?

Sourcing furniture was a challenge as we sourced some items from Europe and delivery times were a real challenge. The chairs only arrived the day before we opened. 

What does an average day look like for you?

I get up early, often around 5.30am, and this allows me to get some work done before I have to get the boys up. I’ll also try to fit in a workout on some days. Then it’s off to drop the boys to school before finding a quiet cafe to work in – I find it a good place to plan and complete tasks. Then it’s off to the restaurant where I work with the team to prepare for opening. As we are still in the early days, I am on the floor at lunch and will then head home around 5pm to get dinner ready. Some days I’ll head back for the later part of dinner service. Throughout the week, I have regular meetings with events, finance, marketing and management teams.

We’ve heard you’re a talented chef yourself. How did you get into cooking and what are your favourite things to make?

I wouldn’t call myself a chef but I love to cook and am pretty handy in the kitchen. My favourite thing I cook is a Sunday roast. This holds a special place in my heart as my Dad was a Yorkshire man and we had roast beef and Yorkshire puddings every Sunday on the table at 1pm. I still love to fit in a family roast every Sunday. Growing up in the UK, I fell in love with Indian cuisine and have memories of my dad taking me for a special Indian meal when I was seven-years-old. I’ve never forgotten the flavours. I make a great curry and have got my boys to love it too.

You and Josh are both such busy people. How do you switch off and relax?

We always find time to switch off and walking the dog along Kohi Beach is something we do together that always seems to destress us. I love pilates and get a lot of enjoyment out of listening to podcasts, especially while walking. 

Your sons were helping serve on opening night. What role does family play in your life and your career?

Family is really important and I always prioritise my time with my boys. I often lie with them at bedtime to talk about what’s going on in their life. With the opening being all consuming, I know something has to give and for me, I put the boys first. 

What’s next for you? Personally and professionally?

In 2024, I want to bring more balance and prioritise my health. Josh and I are also looking at creating a digital platform to get more cooking videos out into the world. We love connecting with everyday people to help them with the ‘what’s for dinner’ conundrum. 

Quick-fire questions:

Favourite cocktail and the best place serving it… I love a pisco sour – I am very partial to the ones at Azabu Mission Bay

If I had to listen to one musician for the rest of my life it would be… That’s tough as I have such a broad and eclectic taste in music. I do love Billy Joel! For a more modern artist I love Sam Fender.

This season I’m splurging on… Assyrtiko.

I would describe my style as… Classic.

The most cherished item in my home is… My pounamu from Anton Forde.

My favourite place to travel to… Europe.

The item at the top of my wish list… A week off!

Imagery: supplied.


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