Laurent Loudeac wanted to be a vet, but that never panned out. “I cooked a lot for my dad, pretty much made him lunch daily, somehow got into an apprenticeship and then found myself travelling and cooking!” he told Hotel Magazine. For the past decade he has run the restaurant at QT Museum Wellington – aptly named Hippopotamus.
Loudeac completed his apprenticeship in Chateaubriant, his hometown in the Loire Valley, at the Hostellerie de la Ferriere. After working in Switzerland for three years and a year in London, he came to New Zealand in 1995 and spent three years at Puka Park Lodge in Pauanui and the Park Royal Hotel in Wellington. Briefly leaving our shores to work at Level 41 in Sydney and returning to France, Loudeac came back to New Zealand and established Hippopotamus in 2007.
In 2015 Loudeac won the Dilmah Global High Tea Challenge in Sri Lanka, ranking first out of 22 teams from 14 countries. The resulting title of Dilmah Ambassador means that Hippopotamus is often the first in the country to receive new Dilmah products – a boon for their ever-popular high tea service.
For someone as experienced and passionate as Loudeac, he says that people are often surprised to hear that his kitchen is quite a relaxed atmosphere. “I’m lucky to have a dedicated and passionate team working with me,” he said. “Many of us have been working with me long enough to know my expectations and the level of quality that is expected before a dish leaves my kitchen.” He makes sure that his staff is aware of his standards and puts an emphasis on quality. “I always tell them to put themselves in the customer’s shoes – would you happily pay what we charge for what you serve?”
While slow braising is his favourite cooking technique (“I just love a nice braised beef cheek bourguignon style on celeriac puree, something close to my heart that we’ve just put on our winter menu”), his signature dish at Hippopotamus comes from the abundance of fresh seafood available in New Zealand. His ‘Salmon Sashimi, My Way’ is a “must-have” for diners and was developed during the Dilmah Global High Tea Challenge. He’s also pleased to see the rise of foraging – “Foraging has been a tradition in European restaurants and for European chefs for decades so it’s good to see New Zealanders making the most of it now.”
At the moment, Loudeac is happy where he is, and there is change on the horizon as well. QT Museum Wellington has a new restaurant opening early September, an Asian fusion establishment serving authentic Asian fare with a modern twist, a range of share plates and a cocktail selection. “It’ll be an alternative offering to Hippopotamus, a place to let your hair down, the next place you just have to be seen at,” explained Loudeac. “I’m very excited for it!”
In the future, Loudeac is thinking about starting his own suburban restaurant. While that would be a change from the hustle and bustle of hotel life, the one thing that won’t be changing is his attitude to food. “Food is a bit like fashion,” he said. “Trends do come back, and you can see now a return to good, honest food and simplicity.”