Josh and Helen Emett lift the lid on their new restaurant, Onslow
It’s been a pressure-cooker year but Josh Emett and his wife Helen have just opened the doors to a brand-new restaurant. They tell Sophie Neville about the road to realising their longheld vision.
"It’s been an interesting year,” says Josh Emett. Typically understated, the award-winning Kiwi chef is slugging back a strong coffee before he begins his 16-hour shift at the new restaurant he and wife Helen opened in central Auckland just eight weeks ago.
Working in some of the world’s top eateries has taught him many things about staying calm under pressure, but even Josh admits a global pandemic, two lockdowns and the lingering uncertainty of closed borders wasn’t quite what he and Helen had in mind when they chose this year for the launch of their dream project, Onslow.
“Considering all the delays and uncertainty, it feels pretty special that we’re finally here,” he admits, casting an eye across the elegant dining room that will soon be filled with an eager lunch crowd. “It’s been a colossal job pulling it all together, but it’s very much ‘us’ and it’s got off to a booming start, so we’re pretty stoked.”
Helen was supposed to be here too, but like many of us juggling work and family, her morning hasn’t gone quite to plan. She didn’t get the lunches made for sons Finn, 11, and nine-year-old Louis, so now she’s stuck in traffic delivering sushi to school.
"Some mornings are smoother than others," she admits, calling in on speakerphone from her car. The juggle is real, but Josh and Helen knew 2020 would be busy; in fact, long before travel restrictions were put in place they’d decided there would be no overseas jaunts or long holidays as they focused on their “year of work”.
It’s been made slightly easier by the fact that none of their friends are off having fun either, jokes Helen. “I haven’t been driven mad by photos on Instagram of friends skiing in Europe or relaxing on tropical islands.”
Each day, Josh heads to the restaurant around 8am, where he stays till well after midnight, and Helen divides her time between Onslow, their Kohimarama home, and the couple’s other “baby”, The Oyster Inn on Waiheke Island. They purchased the iconic spot in February, taking ownership just as New Zealand went into Level 4 lockdown. “Not ideal,” admits Josh, again the master of understatement.
While working with one’s spouse isn’t for everyone, it’s clear that Josh and English-born Helen are a dynamic team. They met in New York in 2007, when Josh (whose first marriage ended at around the same time he met Helen) was running Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants, and Helen, who’d also been married before, was working in an investment bank. “We hit it off pretty quickly,” remembers Josh, who says they fell in love on a first date eating hotdogs at a Knicks basketball game.
After several years in the Big Apple, they moved to Melbourne, Australia, before seeking a quieter life in Aotearoa in 2012 with their little boys in tow.
Back in New Zealand, Waikato-born Josh set up Queenstown’s Rātā and Madam Woo restaurants, as well as leading the food direction of Ostro, in Auckland’s Britomart; at the same time he was appearing on hit TV show MasterChef as a judge.
The way the couple, both 47, talk about Onslow is a little like the way parents speak about a new baby. There’s a sense of pride and wonder, mixed with exhaustion from the relentless schedule.
Josh and Helen say they owe thanks to Ashley, who started as their au pair but is now considered an integral member of the family. “We call her our adopted Canadian daughter,” says Helen. “We couldn’t do it without her and the boys adore her.”
Helen’s British mum Paula, who has been in New Zealand since getting stranded at her sister’s Hawke’s Bay farm during lockdown, also regularly travels to Auckland to help ease the load, as does Josh’s mum Raewyn, who lives in rural Waikato.
“The chores don’t stop,” says Helen. “The boys have had exams, they have sports to get to and there’s a huge amount of juggling to do. I always say that you can tell what our lives are like by the state of the garden and the amount of paper piling up on the dining table. Both are shocking right now!”
“It is intense, but we always knew it would be,” says Josh, who, like most chefs, thrives on a certain amount of pressure. Creating their own eatery was always the grand plan and they’ve spent years gathering ideas and inspiration.
Thirty years in hospitality left Josh with a clear idea of what he wanted, and Helen has always shared the vision. “Ever since we got together we’ve talked about opening something like this,” says Helen. “And everywhere we went we’d be picking up ideas and thinking about how we’d do certain things.”
Anytime you dine somewhere, it has an effect on you… so it was a natural progression to do our own thing in the way we felt was right.
Recipe for success
The key to success when it comes to running a business together, they say, is knowing each other’s strengths and playing to them. While Josh has always been the public face, behind the scenes his wife has played a huge role, taking the lead on spreadsheeting, writing and marketing.
“We both have very strong opinions on how things should be done,” says Josh. “We discuss absolutely everything and we’re usually always on the same page.”
He is quick to point out that his swift rise to social media fame last year was all Helen’s doing. The launch of Josh’s cookbook The Recipe was looming, she decided to take the reins of his marketing, believing that Instagram was where he should make himself most visible.
With the boys both at school, Helen used her free time to learn, spending hours watching YouTube tutorials on social media marketing. She focused on the question every household asks itself, “What shall we have for dinner?”
It’s everyone’s pain point,” she says. “Even being married to a chef, we still have that ‘What shall we have for dinner?’ moment.
When Josh’s first cooking demo went live, he had 2000 followers. Within a few weeks, that had leapt to 10,000 and now sits at a huge 58,000. Fans loved the how-to videos of Josh cooking, which were filmed at home by Helen with cameos by Finn and Louis and occasionally even the family dog.
Authenticity was always more important than a slick production, with the occasional cooking fail all part of the fun. “It was about taking a really simple idea and being totally authentic with it,” explains Helen, who says it was incredibly exciting watching her husband’s Instagram account take off. When New Zealand went into lockdown in March this year, Josh and Helen took the page up a gear, running live “cookalongs” that were also hugely popular.
Unsurprisingly, social media has taken a backseat recently as the couple focus on running their restaurants, but they’re hoping to get back into it over summer, when they relocate to Waiheke Island for the school holidays. While they will still be working, they’re planning to scale back a bit, spend quality time with Finn and Louis, and reflect on the year that was.
While there’s no doubt the Covid-19 pandemic was a curveball, the couple are approaching their new endeavour with their usual optimism and team mentality. “There’s not too many things we squabble over, is there honey,” says Josh. “We never argue over work stuff, it’s more about managing the stress of daily life that can sometimes bubble over. It’s about making sure we’re having enough family time.” Helen adds, “But we don’t often get grumpy and we don’t hold grudges.”
They’re also both incredibly grateful for their strong relationship. “We just love being together. If we could choose anyone to spend time with, we’d always choose each other. So it really does feel special to be able to work together and create this dream together. We’re lucky.”
Photography by: Rueben Looi.