From Orsini’s to Sails: Valerie Littlejohn reflects on 63 years in the restaurant business

Valerie Littlejohn remembers when crayfish was cheaper than chicken and you couldn’t order wine to drink with either. She reflects on six decades in restaurants and tells Kim Knight why she’s heading back to business.

On Stephens Island, in the middle of Cook Strait, the wētā are huge and the lizards have teeth.

At night, fairy prions crash-land in their thousands heading for burrows that may have already been taken over by tuatara. Somewhere, under the rocks, is one of the world’s rarest frogs.

In 1894, the Stephens Island lighthouse shone for the first time – a “landfall” light, designed to be among the first that ships would see on their approach to New Zealand.

In the 1930s, if the lighthouse keepers wanted meat, they killed a sheep. If they wanted butter, they milked a cow and churned it themselves. Access to the island was via a basket, lowered on to a boat and then winched high and dry above inky, rugged seas.

This was Valerie Littlejohn’s life, aged 6.

“People are quite surprised when I tell them I lived on an island,” she says. “You know, there were rumours of a land frog. My brother and I would go searching for hours at a time. We were going to find that frog and sell it for 600 pounds.”

She speaks with the diction of a woman who knows exactly which fork to use and when. For this interview, she wore a pale caramel batik silk top paired with creamy leather ankle boots. On the day of the photographer’s visit, she greeted him wearing all white, then left to change for the photos and reappeared, wearing something else all white. Before liquor licensing rules made it legal to have a chablis with your seafood crepe, Littlejohn went to court to defend a charge of sly-grogging. The newspaper report focused, mostly, on her wardrobe.

“I’ve lost that clipping,” she says, with considerable regret.

From wildlife to a wild life. The little girl who once lived on an island grew up to become a grande dame of hospitality. In 1958, she and husband Philip opened Orsini’s, one of Wellington’s most infamous fine-dining restaurants. This year, aged 89, Valerie is back on the floor at Auckland’s Sails Restaurant.

The iconic eatery with the millionaire views has been in the Littlejohn family for three decades. Its operation is synonymous with their youngest child Bart, who died unexpectedly last year, aged just 57.

“I was supposed to die,” says Valerie. “And he would take it over and it would all be very easy . . . “

Bart Littlejohn was a hospitality legend, conceived in the flat above the original Orsini’s and born in the hospital around the corner. When he was 12, the family moved to Auckland and opened a second Orsini’s in a stately mansion on the corner of Ponsonby and Crummer Rds. He was a gregarious personality with a lifetime of exposure to good wine and good food – but his mother hoots at the obituaries that had him in the kitchen washing dishes as a teenager.

“He went to King’s College! He never washed a dish!”

A few months before Bart’s death, she says, his long-standing insurance broker retired and Bart reorganised his business affairs. Valerie reports a conversation with the new broker went something like this:

Who is taking over the restaurant if something happens to you?
My mother.
Bart, I believe your mother is very old . . . ?
You should meet my mother!

You should meet his mother. She is fierce and funny; entertaining and engaging. Is she really running this enormous restaurant? What, exactly, is her job title?

“Director,” she replies. And then: “Interferer!”

Grandsons Zac and Tom are learning the management ropes and a staff of 25-30 keep everything ticking over. Valerie is the icing on an elegant, waterfront cake.

“I check the bathrooms, dust, change the way something is facing and tell them that they have to be able to pay attention to all the details that I have always worried about.

“The thing is, 95 per cent of your business always runs well. It’s the 5 per cent that makes the difference and that 5 per cent is you noticing everything and attending to everything – your eyes are always swivelling, you’re always looking at everybody and everything.

“I always said it was a package deal. When somebody came to the restaurant, it had to look good, you had to be good and the food had to be good.”

Orsini was Valerie’s great-grandfather’s name. She was born in Wellington and her dad was the engineer and lighthouse repairman when she lived on Stephens Island. When Grandmother summoned the children back to the mainland to attend school, her parents gave up their Cook Strait posting. Valerie attended Hutt Valley High and was living in Auckland when she met her future husband, Phillip. She worked in retail – fashion, interior design, music and a photography studio – and she loved to dance.

“He’d been to Massey and done sheep husbandry, but was working with his father in a contracting business, laying post and telegraph cables. I used to go to the Orange Ballroom, and he called in one night . . . “

She recalls a core group of a dozen friends enthralled with Auckland’s burgeoning restaurant scene. Perrin Rowland’s book, Dining Out, describes this new wave of internationally influenced eateries that hit the city in the 1950s – the Hi Diddle Griddle with its red leatherette booth seats and a waterfall of giant clam shells; the Gourmet, co-owned by Otto Groen and operated like a private club; and Bob Sell’s La Boheme with one air conditioning unit, two international chefs and gold leaf on the menu.

“We used to talk about food,” says Valerie. “Everybody was going to get into food.”

Married at 19, a mum to Jude at 21, and at the time based in Hamilton, she instructed a real estate agent in Wellington to “have a look around at what’s for sale, and if you find a suitable building for a restaurant, would you let my husband know?”

They bought in Cuba St. The book Eating Houses in Wellington records the state of the place: “Paper was peeling off the walls, junk lay everywhere, but the shape of the villa was graceful and charming.”

A week before opening, the chef quit. A 20-year-old who had worked at The Dorchester stepped up (“very talented, but full of himself and of course he’d really just done the soups and things”). Valerie made pavlovas and chocolate sauce and, eventually, Philip decided he could run the kitchen. Her farm boy had become a chef and she would run the front-of-house. They were on their way to becoming Wellington legends.

The archival box should be bigger (“we never thought we were anything famous until they told us we were”) but Valerie eventually pulls out the piece of Orsini’s-branded notepaper, on which entertainer Danny Kaye has scrawled his address and phone number “so we could go and visit”. Film director Alfred Hitchcock dined with them once. He was, she says “just as he looks – formidable”.

In 1958, the only place you could legally drink after 6pm was in a government-owned hotel. But the guests who dined on the 15 shilling Tournedos Orsini (fillet steak with mushrooms, red wine and french fried onions) did not go without. They brought their own bottles, duly labelled and hidden in the kitchen; a locked front door with a peephole gave them time to hide their glasses from the police.

Dig deep into that box of archives and there is a creased and yellowed newspaper advertisement taken out by the managers of Cafe Du Boulevard, Orsini’s and The Tulip. The year is missing, but it thanks their “many patrons for showing so much understanding and co-operation on Saturday, June 13”. Nobody mentions the police raid, but the advertisement notes a silver lining – far more people now know where to find the best restaurants for high-class food.

Crayfish was cheaper than chicken and fishermen left the restaurant’s orders in an unlocked, outdoor refrigerator. Broiler chooks were cooked for hours to render the “supreme” tender to the bite; poussins finally became available and “chicken in a basket” was a customer favourite. “The lamb was very unreliable,” says Valerie. “And we’d never seen broccoli.” Orsini’s was chandeliers, heavy burgundy drapes and a dance band that played past midnight. Back then, a restaurant dinner was An Event.

“The thing I have noticed most now, is that people leave early. They swarm in and swarm out again. In our little restaurants, I don’t think the trio finished playing until 1am.”

When Philip Littlejohn died in 2001, his obituary noted New Zealand had been in “the dark ages of wowserism” when Orsini’s opened, but when licensing laws relaxed in 1961, the restaurant became part of the “holy trinity” of Wellington’s upmarket restaurants, alongside Le Normandie and Des Britten’s Coachman.

“We used to go to Des and Lorraine’s for dinner now and then,” recalls Valerie. “At 2am or 3am! In restaurants, your social life is entirely different.”

Eventually, the family’s upstairs flat became a bar. They moved to a modern, new home in Khandallah, with an internal courtyard that featured a swimming pool. At the restaurant, Valerie hosted actors, musicians and “everyone, really” who visited the capital. She remembers the American men who came seeking oil and couldn’t understand why Wellington restaurateurs couldn’t get Bluff oysters fresh in the shell. Undeterred, they sought to game the system, organising a boxload from Invercargill, that was labelled “rock samples”.

“It was offloaded for something else. It never arrived!”

Valerie and Peter, who planned to spend five years in the restaurant business, did occasionally attempt to get out. They built a yacht and moved to Auckland, but in 1981, opened the second Orsini’s in Ponsonby. It cost half a million dollars to buy and refurbish the historic building. All the while, Phillip hankered for the farm life that had been his early dream.

They bought 8ha in South Auckland. Valerie describes a huge house with a swimming pool, tennis court, billiard room – and goats. Angora goats that were, she says, supposed to do all their breeding at 3pm on a sunny afternoon so they wouldn’t interfere with her beloved restaurant life.

“We would leave the restaurant at 1 o’clock in the morning and drive out to the country and inspect the goats. The nannies would be dropping kids everywhere and then we would work through the night, matching them up with their mothers. If we couldn’t find them, I had to take them back to the house, put a tube down their throat and pour the milk down. Well, they were worth about $2000 each.

“I was in London, when Phillip rang to say he had an offer on the restaurant building. He rang me three times and said ‘I think you should give up the restaurant and stay on the farm’. So I did. Worst thing I ever did. And then all the shares went down, and the goats went down and four years later, I bought this one.”

She’s talking about Sails. Paul Holmes broadcast his last radio show from this dining room. British Prime Minister Tony Blair reportedly ordered fish and chips with a side of malt vinegar when he ate here in 2006. Rod Stewart and Rachel Hunter came in for dinner but decided it was too big – too many people were looking at them. The clientele is loyal. Post-Covid lockdowns, she says, customers have flooded back and the tips have never been bigger.

“All the reviewers, all the people who do those write-ups, they hate our restaurant,” says Valerie. “They think we are so old, so traditional – we can’t win. But I went to one of the new places they were raving about and they took most of the food off my bill. I said ‘would you get the chef to try that?’. I couldn’t eat the fish and the Eton mess was just a mess!”

In 2001, Valerie became the first woman to be inducted into the New Zealand Restaurant Hall of Fame. At 89, she says, time is limited. “I’m on the way out – oh God, yes.” But the thing is, she says, she has always loved the restaurant life and the personalities the industry attracts.

“Bart said to me, ‘Valerie you won’t like what goes on in the restaurant any more, because certain people are on their phones’. But since he died, and I’ve been here more, I’ve found there is always someone coming in who I know, there is always someone to say hello to.

“When the restaurant is full it takes on a whole new vibe. We’re all racing around and the guests are here and it’s a show.”

And if you’ve had a bad day? If you’re not feeling it?

“You leave it at the door,” says Valerie. “It’s better to go to work.”

SIX DECADES OF FINE DINING: A LOOK BACK AT THE MENUS

2021: Sails, Auckland – Golden Beetroot, salted buffalo curd, flaky pastry, red wine reduction, candied walnut; Pan-roasted John Dory, sweetcorn, toasted farro, golden raisins, spiced almonds, brown butter vinaigrette.

2011: Sails, Auckland – Salt and pepper squid with nam jim dipping sauce; Twice-cooked duck stuffed with date and lemongrass, served with sweet potato blini and braised cavolo nero.

2000: Sails, Auckland – Hāpuku Cajun-style with spiced prawn filo, roasted lime and guacamole; Eye fillet of beef on pumpkin gnocchi and pancetta with capsicum ribbons.

1983: Orsini’s, Auckland – Smoked marlin mousse; Roast duckling with green ginger sauce and segments of mandarin.

1977: Orsini’s, Wellington – “Foies de Volaille Flambes” (chicken livers, mushrooms and onions, sauteed in butter flavoured with brandy and served on fried bread); “Avocats Crevettes” (avocado pear with prawns and a separate vinaigrette).

1958: Orsini’s, Wellington – “Tournedos Orsini” (fillet steak with mushrooms, red wine and french fried onions); “Viennoise Schnitzel” (fried veal with olive and anchovy fillets).

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