Aftershocks were still rattling Christchurch when Giulio and Christy Sturla launched a bold new dining experience.
Lyttelton has a new star in town, a restaurant that is taking food sustainability to a whole new level: award-winning Roots Restaurant is helping reinvigorate the town’s spirit as it rebuilds from the Canterbury earthquakes.
In a quaint, two-storey building on the main street of Lyttelton, on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, an excited hush descends as the first course arrives. There are only 10 tables at Roots Restaurant and none have menus. Diners by the window look out on the main street that was badly damaged in the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. Miraculously, this building survived those turbulent days. And now it’s turning out some of the best food in the country.
“Not having a menu is partially about trying to change preconceptions,” says Giulio Sturla, who founded the restaurant with his partner, Christy, in 2012. “People will come here saying ‘I hate mushrooms’ only to tell us, after we have served them a dish with mushrooms, that this was their favourite.”
The Sturlas’ devotion to forging new ways with food was rewarded with the gong for Cuisine magazine’s Restaurant of the Year in 2015, a rating of 17/20 and two chef’s hats. Roots also received the Ōra King Salmon Innovation Award for its pioneering approach to produce and sustainability. Most recently adding to the accolades, Roots was awarded 3 chef's hats at the 2016 Cuisine NZ Good Food Awards.
And while Roots is now firmly established as a culinary trendsetter, it is also helping to put the heart back into Christchurch’s port town, with the burgeoning array of new restaurants, cafes and shops proof of its resilience and the power of reinvention. Not unlike the story of Roots restaurant itself.
Giulio and Christy Sturla began with a simple philosophy: to serve good food using fresh, seasonal, organic ingredients. Much is harvested from the restaurant’s own garden, a fertile, urban oasis. They also source top-quality produce from farmers’ markets and organics specialists, and they supplement this with wild foods foraged from Banks Peninsula that juts out south of Christchurch – Lyttelton sits on its north-western end.
“People do not realise just how much food is in their environment,” says Giulio. “We have found herbs, parsley and wild spinach on Banks Peninsula – even pine nuts. There is nothing wrong with going for a walk and picking something fresh.”
Drawn to New Zealand by its natural beauty, Chilean-born Giulio, and Christy, an American, arrived in 2010 with the dream of starting their own restaurant. Giulio had earlier spent a year working without pay at world-leading Spanish restaurant Mugaritz with chef Andoni Luis Aduriz. This opened his eyes to how food could be presented as a complete sensory and creative experience.
In New Zealand, Giulio worked as a chef at the Old Church Restaurant in Napier, as well as Kermadec in Auckland before moving to Christchurch’s highly rated Restaurant Schwass, run by well-known Christchurch chef Johnny Schwass.
But the Sturlas could not have timed their move to New Zealand any worse. Giulio’s first day at Restaurant Schwass was 4 September 2010; earlier that morning, Christchurch had been shaken by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake. The restaurant was left relatively unscathed but worse was to come. On the day of the devastating February 2011 earthquake, Giulio recalls how “half the building came down”. Restaurant Schwass was extensively damaged.
By this time, the couple was expecting their first child and, having settled in Lyttelton, decided to start anew there. With little money, they began selling gourmet cookies, seedlings, bliss balls, grissini, sauces and preserves from a table by the town’s former organic wholefoods store.
Within months, they started running a cafe during the day and using it at night to host supper club dining. The supper clubs were effectively a testing ground for what was to come at Roots. From a slow start, the clubs quickly caught on and soon they had signed a lease on their own premises.
Money was still in short supply. Giulio painted and refurbished the premises himself and a barter deal enabled the pair to establish the garden. Some locals were sceptical but Giulio was confident his approach to food was the right one. After a year of hard work, Roots restaurant was finally open.
Without a set menu, there is a sense in which Roots is a new restaurant almost every day, constantly reinventing itself in line with seasonal produce available at any given time. Christy explains the restaurant’s wines are hand selected, many coming from small, local, family-run, biodynamic vineyards. “We have a lot of wine from Waipara and from throughout New Zealand,” she says, “as well as a lot of craft beers from Christchurch.”
Roots is not only helping people rediscover the pleasure of visiting Christchurch’s port town, it is also revealing new ways to enjoy the abundance and variety of produce that New Zealand offers.
“People enjoy their food more when it is fresh and when there is variety,” says Giulio. “It is not about how much is on the plate but whether it’s the best leaf ever in that salad on that day. In summer, we pick around 30 or 40 different edible leaves from around the garden. They are all tiny. Everything tastes different – it’s incredible.”
Giulio and Christy’s five local favourites
- Ferry to Diamond Harbour - “It reminds you that we are surrounded by water,” says Christy. “Diamond Harbour is so quiet and peaceful. It is a beautiful place to go for a walk.”
- Barry’s Bay Cheese - This traditional dairy, located near Duvauchelle, has daily cheese tastings. Between October and May you can even watch the cheese being made (every second day). “We always stop to sample the cheeses there,” says Giulio.
- Akaroa - Akaroa is a pretty little town in its own right and a great base from which to explore the area’s bays, wildlife and interesting French and English history. “This is a wonderful place to go walking, fishing or just enjoying the harbour,” says Giulio.
- Christchurch Gondola - Less than five minutes’ drive from Lyttelton is Christchurch Gondola in Heathcote Valley. The 10-minute trip to the Summit Station on Mt Cavendish offers impressive views. “It is a great place to visit.”
- Farmers Markets - Fresh artisan foods and local produce, arts and crafts, and live music. Local markets can be found in various locations in and around the city.
How to Get There
Lyttelton is 25 kilometres from Christchurch International Airport, or 40 minutes by car. Follow SH1 to SH73. Then take SH76 and SH74 to Lyttelton. Roots Restaurant is in the town centre (8 London Street). Bus: Take Metro 29 from the airport to central station then Metro 28 to Lyttelton.
Best Time to Visit
Any time of the year, any season. Every season brings something new. During summer, you will need to book weeks in advance (particularly for Fridays and Saturdays). May is the restaurant’s quietest month. Open for lunch on Friday and Saturday by appointment only and dinner Tuesday to Saturday from 5.30pm.
How to Book
Email bookings recommended (firstname.lastname@example.org). For bookings of eight or more, confirmation deposit is required upon booking.
Quail Island, a popular recreation reserve, is just a short ferry ride from Lyttelton. Canterbury’s largest island can easily be explored in a day. Historic sites include a shipwreck graveyard. Lyttelton has many beautiful bays on its doorstep. Corsair Bay is a popular swimming spot. Further on is Governors Bay, home to Sir Miles Warren’s beautiful formal garden, Ohinetahi. Visit an Edwardian township at Christchurch’s Ferrymead Heritage Park. The Little River Rail Trail is an option for active visitors. From Lyttelton, it is a half-hour drive to the cycle trail’s start in Hornby.