Simon Levy doesn’t always believe in sticking to a plan.
“We [Levy and his wife, Lisa Levy] were going to stay in Christchurch for six weeks and then move up to Hawke’s Bay,” the chef says with a laugh. That was almost 10 years ago, and the move to Hawke’s Bay didn’t go ahead. After he was offered work in the Christchurch area, the couple then came across a house they fell in love with. “Then a week after that we found out we were pregnant with our next child. A couple of weeks after that we moved into the house and we bought a puppy and I was like, ‘Okay, maybe we're not leaving’.”
Until 2013, Levy had been working in London, including as head chef at Gordon Ramsay’s The Warrington. A move back to Lisa’s home country of New Zealand, however, saw the couple begin to plan and design a restaurant of their own. They wanted it to reflect everything they love and enjoy about hospitality. The result is Inati, a place which focuses on coming together with loved ones over local produce and share plates.
There are smaller, more conventional tables available at Inati, but the heart of the restaurant is a chef’s table which can accommodate 19 diners at once. The raised seating means everything happening in the kitchen is on show. “There's nothing more exciting [than] when you're eating and actually getting to know the person either next to you or in front of you, someone serving you, whatever it might be,” says Levy. The set-up is designed for new friendships, and for people to see one another’s food and swap stories and recommendations. “I guess [that’s] one of the magical things [about] Inati,” says Levy. “You watch the tables of twos turn into fours, or sixes, and people start talking.”
Over the five years since Inati opened, the restaurant has built up a strong community of staff and regular visitors. “We always said [that] in order to understand how we were going to open our own place, we needed to know the area and the people – and Inati is built on the journey that Lisa and I've had together.”
The Levys view the restaurant as an extension of their house and home. “We've got people that literally came on the first night that come every four to six weeks now still, and they're very good friends of ours,” he explains. He also says the staff are vital to the way the restaurant runs. “We only do what we do, and as well as we do, because we have a team behind us that believes in our dream, in our journey, and work with us to make it happen.”
From running the restaurant to making a welcoming space for guests to the ingredients used in the ever-changing menu, everything comes back to relationships. “I found this lovely older couple who live about 15 minutes away from me who grow Jerusalem artichokes in their back garden,” says Levy. Whenever their crop comes in, he gets a call and immediately changes the menu to accommodate. At the end of last week, the phone rang – there were 87 kilograms ready to go.
It's a similar story whenever truffle season rolls around. Inati’s source is again about 15 minutes away. “We go onto a truffle hunt every year to try and show the team how it all grows … and harvest and bring back because you can't expect things to turn up in a packet in a restaurant.”
Early in 2021, the Levys put down further roots in Christchurch with the opening of Hali Bar and Bistro. Split over two floors, the venue features ocean-themed decor to go alongside a strong focus on sustainable and locally sourced seafood – and it offers a different kind of dining experience once again. This place is “more that hustle and bustle bistro style – and really good produce again,” says Levy.
The philosophy for both restaurants is simple. “It’s about having fun,” he says. “When [people] come into the restaurant, we want them to forget about their troubles, their woes, and just enjoy themselves and have a great experience.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Christchurch NZ.