MEET THE HEAD CHEF
When and where did you start cooking? I used to cook a lot as a kid with grandparents and my mother and I worked in my father’s bakery in Te Awamutu from the age of 13. I started cooking ‘properly’ in Hamilton at the Bank Bar and Brasserie then later at Tables on the river about 23 years ago.
What was your most formative experience? I worked with a very good chef named Leigh Diggins in London. I learned the importance of consistency, attention to detail and preparedness. And working in Heston Blumenthal’s kitchen for a month was inspirational – it taught me that cooking is a real balance of science and art.
What are your top five ingredients? I'd say garlic, smoked paprika, saffron, truffles, pork and all fresh herbs (that’s six, but there you go).
Where do you source your products? It’s a constant balance between integrity, quality, availability and affordability. But we try to buy local (all our olive oil, herbs, buffalo and a lot of our beef). We try to buy seasonally as much as possible.
What's your signature dish? I think the pork hock I introduced to the Menu when I first arrived is probably the longest running dish I've put on any menu and braised lamb shoulder is never far away...
What do you most enjoy about where you're working right now? Our relaxed environment means we get to be able to serve great, well executed food but without some of the labour-intensive and often wasteful practices I've experienced in more formal restaurants. And it’s great to surprise customers when they come to a 'Pub' but get a meal produced by a team who love their work and are always trying to deliver their best!
JOHN WHEELER - THE STABLES RESTAURANT
When and where did you start cooking? At the Mandalay Reception Lounge in Newmarket catering for functions for 1000+.
What was your most formative experience? Opening Wheeler’s Restaurant in 1980 which I owned for many years before selling in 1993.
What are your top five ingredients? Lamb and duck would be my favourite meats to cook with, as well all fresh New Zealand seafood. All root vegetables, local virgin olive oil and the freshest of herbs would also be on the list and always expect to see asparagus on our menu when in season.
Where do you source your products? We source all our products locally wherever possible. Research is always key to finding new and interesting products.
What's your signature dish? It would be difficult to stick to just one signature dish but we are very proud of these two as a fresh entree and hearty winter main: Tuna Tataki with cucumber, mushroom, coriander and sweet sesame soy, and Braised Lamb Shoulder with potato purée, creamy leek and cabbage, crispy bacon and a thyme lamb jus.
What do you most enjoy about where you're working right now? John loves the local area and the community spirit that goes with it. It’s great to have such diversity in The Stables kitchen where he and his team are able to create food for many different scenarios: contemporary à la carte to small plate tapas to large functions and events.
JACQUI BROWN - GINJA CAFE & RESTAURANT - OMAHA GOLF CLUB
When and where did you start cooking? I was born to love all that is culinary, however my cooking started at the ripe old age of 5 where I soon learnt that steel cannot go into a microwave and subsequently it blew up!
What was your most formative experience? I travelled to Italy recently and was fortunate enough to land myself in one of the kitchens learning true Italian cuisine – an experience I will never forget. Working with Gordon Ramsay at the Good Food and Wine Show in South Africa was a real treat – he’s a lovely, down-to-earth man with a winning side-order of ADHD – like most chefs in my experience!
What are your top five ingredients? Butter (of course), coffee beans, pasta, basil, all types of fish.
Where do you source your products? I try to source directly from the producers - I find being in New Zealand it is far easier and such a treat!
What's your signature dish? I think because I was trained in an Italian kitchen I would have to say pasta of any kind, I infuse it and turn out some truly delicious dishes!
What do you most enjoy about where you're working right now? I have found myself in the most beautiful setting but what has really captured my heart is the community. They are so special, supportive and just make you feel like you are home!
DAN O'DONNELL - JIN JIN
When and where did you start cooking? Kiama, NSW 1989. I’d left NZ at 16 and was backpacking down the South Coast with my surfboard when I ran out of money. I was an experienced dishwasher so this café said I could work there if I shaved off my dreads, took out my piercings and got rid of that funny smell. I was really there for the surf.
What was your most formative experience? The early days with Annabelle Guinness at Oblio’s. Most recently, hanging out at hawker markets in Bangkok.
What are your top five ingredients? Iberian ham, kahawai (delicious, sustainable and well priced, what's not to love?), cheese (blue), Thai birdseye chilli, starch balls (thanks to Kelly at Jin Jin), durian the king of fruit.
Where do you source your products? Not telling!
What's your signature dish? Sooo many to choose from. Currently working on roast duck: get ready!
What do you most enjoy about where you’re working right now? I’ve spent 25 years trying to find my thing, and I’ve found it. We have the best team, and we can’t wait for summer so we can do some street food action. Maybe an entrée and dessert bar to keep all the Jin Jin punters happy while they’re waiting!
ATESH RAM - PLUME THE VINEYARD RESTAURANT
When and where did you start cooking? When I was nine years of age I started cooking back home in my mother’s kitchen in Fiji – my mother taught me everything she knew!
What was your most formative experience? I was reporting to a Scottish Head Chef when I started off in life in formal kitchens – I had to work beside him and keep up with his pace of work. He was a hard and challenging chef who taught me a lot and made me determined to succeed as a chef. An example – I had to prepare live crayfish to order in an open kitchen visible to customers…
What are your top five ingredients? I love vanilla, lemon grass, citrus fruit, good cuts of red game meats, chocolate.
Where do you source your products? All our herbs from the potager gardens adjacent to the restaurant and café, fruit including figs, feijoas and citrus come from the orchards of the vineyard, olive oil from our own olive groves, grape sorbet made from grapes in the vineyard. We use local suppliers for most of our products as much as possible.
What’s your signature dish? Squid ink crusted salmon, orange beurre blanc, cauliflower puree, nicoise salad.
What do you most enjoy about where you’re working right now? The challenge of handling the demands of both a busy restaurant and a thriving café in Matakana, handling conferences, weddings, corporate functions. Our proximity to Auckland leads to large à la carte numbers, especially on the weekends. We have to ensure we handle these to the satisfaction of all.
Photo credit: Louise M Photography
KERRY JOHNS AND SARAH WILLIS - RAVISH
When and where did you start cooking? Sarah: My mum is a great creative cook – she taught me to use a recipe as a guide, not a rule, and to use what was in the cupboard or the garden. After having children, I started by making cakes and building on ideas.
Kerri: While on my OE I lived with 12 people and was always the first one home. I started cooking dinners and loved cooking for lots of people and experimenting with different flavours.
What was your most formative experience? After becoming friends, we quickly realised that we shared the same passion for food and fresh ingredients. The timing was right for us both to combine our individual styles and work together. After a cheeky little road trip north to buy our first kitchen, Ravish was born.
What are your top five ingredients? Sarah: butter, lemons, dark chocolate, vanilla and coconut butter. Kerri: garlic, lemon, chilli, basil and kaffir lime leaf.
Where do you source your products? Locally wherever possible, markets, our gardens.
What’s your signature dish? Sarah: Probably my caramel bombs, a chewy buttery base laced with sticky salted caramel and dark chocolate. Kerri: Pulled pork - yummy in a burger, taco or pie!
What do you enjoy most about where you’re working right now? We get to work together in a fun environment with fabulous staff, and customers who become our friends. It’s great to know the food we love is also enjoyed by our customers.
CAMERON SCHWARZ - THE GLASS HOUSE KITCHEN, BRICK BAY
When and where did you start cooking? I started work as a kitchen hand in 1993 at 16 years old. By 1995 I was working full time in restaurants on the North Shore – I enjoyed the fun vibe and fast pace of hospitality.
What was your most formative experience? Working in London for Peter Gordon at Providores. Peter encouraged the team to be creative and come up with new dishes, some of which would make it onto the menu. This encouragement of creativity is still the driving force behind how I work.
What are your top five ingredients? Chardonnay vinegar, in-house spice mix, beetroot, lamb and olive oil.
Where do you source your products? Our kitchen gardens produce herbs, edible flowers and some vegetables. The Brick Bay farm orchards grow macadamia nuts and seasonal fruits such as figs, quinces and persimmons. We also have olive oil and honey, and this year we began working with a boutique abattoir in Whangarei to process our own free-range Brick Bay lamb. We use Monaghans for fruit and vegetables, and the Warkworth butcher for our other meats – we like their ethical approach to free-range meat. We’ll showcase the best regional producers, and recently did a Pop-Up dinner featuring Whangaripo Buffalo products.
What’s your signature dish? Braised Brick Bay lamb shoulder, roasted eggplant chutney, freekeh pilaf, lemon chilli jam, yoghurt, minted salsa.
Along with using our free-range lamb, I like the layers of flavours here, and introducing people to new tastes and products.
What do you enjoy most about where you are working right now? The evolution of Brick Bay: it’s always looking forward, never stagnant. It’s a beautiful environment here, and we have a great team.
MARK TOWNSEND - ICATER
When and where did you start cooking? Auckland 1986, the iconic DKD café.
What was your most formative experience? Working as Banqueting Chef at the Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden, we catered high-end events for up to 700 people. Although we had a state-of-the-art base kitchen, we often worked from makeshift kitchens around this huge building. This taught me how to cater to a high standard with minimum kitchen equipment and maximum ingenuity.
What are your top five ingredients? Aged Poll Hereford beef fillet, truffles and truffle oil (anything to do with truffles really), Whangaripo buffalo cheeses, Agria potatoes and streaky bacon.
Where do you source your products? As a caterer we work with different clients, events types and budgets. The client's budget dictates our purchasing, so the diverse range can include huge wholesalers like Bidvest, or local artisan suppliers such as Whangaripo buffalo cheeses.
What's your signature dish? Whole seared and roasted aged beef fillet, thinly sliced over potatoes dauphinoise with Bearnaise sauce and jus. A classic which I’ve been cooking for 25 years.
What do you most enjoy about where you're working right now? Using my industry knowledge and cooking experience to help make a client’s catering vision come to life for their wedding or event. When it all goes according to plan and the night is a success for all involved, I consider this a mission accomplished.
ANTHONY THOMAS - MATAKANA MARKET KITCHEN
When and where did you start cooking? At 11 years old, I started as a kitchen-hand for my grandma who was an Executive Chef for a hotel in the Bay of Islands.
What was your most formative experience? In hotels, I had the opportunity to work with a variety of nationalities of chefs, who demonstrated many different influences and methods of cooking.
What are your top five ingredients? Shellfish, citrus, chilli, garlic and butter. I feel that so many amazing flavours can develop from a solid base and these provide me with that.
Where do you source your products? Locally as much as possible. As a market kitchen our menu is structured around seasonality and local availability.
What's your signature dish? This varies on my mood, but growing up in the Bay of Islands, I've always dived and fished, so shellfish is my 'go to' dish.
MATT MACFARLANE - WHARF STREET BISTRO
When and where did you start cooking? My first job at 17 was at a little Turkish restaurant called Café Bizarre in Devonport. I learned to prepare Turkish food and washed dishes by night, while the owners drank copious amounts of beer. By day, I studied at AUT culinary school.
What was your most formative experience? I was Head Chef at Clayoquot wilderness resort on Vancouver Island working under executive Chef Tim May. Fresh crabs and giant halibut arrived by the boatload, wealthy guests flew in on seaplanes, we smoked whole salmon fillets in front of open fires while brown bears wandered past the camp. It was an incredible experience.
What are your top five ingredients? Anything that tantalises the taste-buds, but it's often the simple things that are best: good salt, lemon, garlic, chilli, fresh herbs.
Where do you source your products? We have such great local suppliers – my favourite are Rob the Warkworth Butcher, Tom the Matakana oyster man and Sandra the chilli and watercress lady, to name a few.
What's your signature dish? It’s awesome to hear the locals shouting across the pass, "Great job chef – I thought I could cook a steak but that was sensational!" I like pulling together a great crew of people to produce food that people genuinely enjoy.
What do you most enjoy about where you're working right now? I slow-roast free-range pork belly, serve it on a mountain of creamy mashed potato and a poached pear and top it with a crunchy slab of crackling. It’s drizzled in home made jus and finished with fresh watercress.