Francisco Javier (Javi) Garcia Perea: restaurateur; b March 23, 1962; d June 24, 2022
OBITUARY: When Javi Garcia Perea died – in the house his grandfather built in a small Spanish village on the plains of La Mancha – his family carried his coffin out the front gate, just as they had for his grandfather before him.
They walked him through the cobbled streets of the historic town to the funeral home, pausing only to drink a beer in his honour from the vending machine at the tiny service station, which served the coldest beer in town amid a ferocious Spanish summer.
It was a fitting tribute to a man whose connection to his homeland and love for his adopted home of more than a quarter-century straddled the antipodes of Spain and New Zealand, an exuberant figure, never happier than surrounded by extended whānau or delicately ministering over a massive paella pan, usually with a Corona in hand.
Garcia Perea was ebulliently – almost boisterously – passionate about family, Spanish cuisine and culture, the outdoors, New Zealand, sport, sailing, politics, friends, and just as passionate about sharing those passions.
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He possessed the ubiquitous Spanish love and respect for good food, drink and bonhomie and, alongside wife Jackie Garcia Knight, established one of Christchurch’s longest running restaurants, the Curator’s House, nestled on the banks of the Avon River in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens.
From the handsome 1920s Tudor Revival building – once a perk for the gardens’ curators – he shared his love of Spanish cuisine with a generous side of authentic hospitality.
Born in Cadiz, Spain, the middle child of five, he grew up in Madrid.
Older sister Pilar Garcia Perea recalls that, as a baby, he contracted pertussis, or whooping cough, becoming gravely ill.
Their mother went to church, bargaining with God that she wouldn’t care how naughty her son became, as long as he was saved.
Following his father into tax law, he graduated in 1987, establishing his own law firm, García Perea Abogados, which brother Fernando runs to this day.
But at 30, he walked away from the law.
Garcia Knight jokes that he “didn’t like everyone coming to him with problems”. “Everybody, when they go see a tax lawyer, it’s because they’re in trouble. He said it was really stressful, he wanted to do something more positive.”
He spent some time bartending, but seeking a more drastic change, decided to head abroad to study English.
Sister Pilar says he was incapable of doing something he didn’t like.
“He would stop everything to go in search of what he needed to enjoy life, of what he really wanted.”
Finding a long queue at the United States embassy, he crossed the road to ask at the New Zealand one, and was handed a brochure for the language school where he would meet his future wife. A week later, he was in Christchurch.
Garcia Knight clearly remembers his arrival, and of having to demote him before his first day was done.
“He came into my class because he was really articulate … I was teaching Cambridge First Certificate and was on quite a hard grammar point.
“At morning tea, I went to the deputy principal and said he’s not going to make it – they demoted him into the class next door. He was devastated, apparently.”
After switching English lessons for business classes, he moved into her house as a boarder, wooed her with his cooking, and an enduring romance began.
He returned to Spain but, despite the hardships of long-distance relationships in the pre-Facetime era, the couple made it.
After a year together in Spain – complete with a storybook wedding in a 14th-century church in Los Hinojosos, the village where Garcia Perea’s grandfather built his home among vineyards and windmills – they returned to Christchurch, and he began his search for the perfect venue for a tapas restaurant.
He trained as a Spanish language teacher, taught evening classes at Canterbury University and Christchurch Polytechnic, and worked as a Spanish translator and interpreter while raising his newborn son Carlos and indulging his love of the outdoors, particularly fishing and golf.
In 1999, just before the birth of daughter Rosa, he found his locale when he learnt the Christchurch City Council was seeking tenders to lease the Curator’s House.
After a frantic weekend preparing the application – together with his wife’s parents, Colin and Noela Knight – the family won the tender to develop the restaurant alongside the Friends of the Botanic Gardens, who would establish demonstration gardens behind the house.
There, he concentrated on sourcing top-notch local produce, fusing it with classic Spanish cuisine and adding his own flair. The grounds thronged with locals and tourists alike, and the captivating gardens flourished.
When he could not find a good chorizo for the restaurant, he began making his own, taking out a Cuisine Artisan award in 2013.
Although he lacked hospitality training, wasn’t a chef, and had no experience owning and operating restaurants, he would say he’d learnt his love of cooking holding on to his mother’s apron strings.
Despite his skill in the kitchen, it was his facility with people most often on display.
“That’s what he loved in the restaurant,” Garcia Knight says. “If you were ever looking for Javi, he’d be over at a table talking to customers. He built really lovely, authentic relationships. He would know them, know what was going on with them, they’d be talking politics or sport or New Zealand or Spain.
“He was the host who was there because of the people – there just happened to be really good food and beverages included.”
He made several cameos on popular Spanish travel shows, promoting Canterbury as a destination.
“He was so proud of New Zealand,” his wife says. “He had the gift of the gab and spoke with such passion – they just loved him … they’d get him into doing larger snippets, and they got played and replayed in Spain.”
Sister Pilar says he was utterly in love with New Zealand, to the point the family would sometimes tire of hearing how marvellous everything was.
But she says there was no better host, and visits here were the greatest of her life, thanks to Javi’s passion for Aotearoa.
“In fact, the entire family absolutely loves New Zealand, because we’ve seen it through Javi’s eyes.”
Son Carlos, a professional snowboarder and filmmaker, remembers his father’s dedication, and the endless weekends he spent taking the budding Olympian to the snow.
Carlos never felt pressured, his father’s credo only that he should always have fun.
“Dad always said the most important thing is that you enjoy your life, that you have fun and do it with good people.”
And he says his father’s experience of walking away from a successful career in search of fulfilment set a powerful example.
Daughter Rosa, who is completing a double degree in law and journalism, says his warmth and unwavering support are what she most remembers.
“He was always the loudest person in the crowd at my ballet recitals – I was so embarrassed, but now I’m going to be that person for my kid.”
She says the pair bonded over a shared love of the law, with her father vicariously enjoying her studies.
“I’ve always been his little princess, he always loved me and would do anything for me. But that was when we really connected. Intellectually, debating, conversations and challenging each other.”
Although officially appointed honorary Spanish consul for the South Island in 2009, Garcia Perea had long devoted time, effort and enthusiasm to assisting Spaniards and Spanish speakers in New Zealand, as well as New Zealanders visiting Spain.
In 2011, he was awarded the Cruz de Oficial de la Orden del Mérito Civil (Officer’s Cross) by the Spanish government for his outstanding service to Spain and its nationals, particularly following the Christchurch earthquakes.
Diagnosed with brain cancer in December 2020, and told he had about 14 months to live, the family returned to Spain, where they were enveloped by family and a close-knit group of friends.
Garcia Perea’s ashes are scattered on a small, wooded hill overlooking the village, the house his grandfather built, and the church where he and Jackie married.
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