As a chef, I am often asked how I arrive at the dishes I create. It’s a question I take very seriously. The inspiration comes, maybe, from a certain colour in the morning sky, or a certain plant or vegetable that arriving in my kitchens in the morning. In any case, it is hopeful. My dishes are expressive of something from New Zealand culture and society … something that we can all identify with, yet the dish itself is completely new and arrived at in unforeseen ways.
To narrow my parameters, I break down the processes to seasonal, regional and dirt raised, which allows me to focus on things at hand and what they evoke. My thoughts may turn to an idealised New Zealand – languid, late summer afternoons … innocently swimming in the tidal rock pools of Makorori … looking for trumpeter to throw on the barbie.
For example, I have a sauce that we call in the kitchen “Low Tide at Makorori.” It looks like wet sand after the wave has broken onto the shore. The wave brings flavours of kelp, seafood and minerals; and the texture is fine yet damp. To create the wet factor and the colour, I turned to field mushrooms, redolent of mineral and fungal flavours. I shave off all the black mushroom fins, moisten them with miren and my own worcestershire sauce, and then sprinkle sweet marsala and pacific salt crystals over it all. The salt releases the mushroom juices. After about two hours, I quickly heat this mix, blitz in a food processor and, by adding a little cream, arrive at just the right colour … the colour of wet sand at Makorori.
On the plate, this can be enhanced with the use of Korengo, a native kelp that the Japanese use for Nori. I can then recreate my little rockpool by adding small clams, etc. Placed back of plate and slightly to the right, my composition follows a design principle similar to “the rule of thirds.”
In creating a dish, the real trick is to think flavour at all times and to make sure that the conceptualizing doesn’t outweigh taste and presentation.
Recently we have been exploring Hawke’s Bay Firstlight Wagyu beef – magnificently raised, seductive, textural and exotic. Inspiration comes from imagining the ideas and whispers in the kitchen of a faraway Japan, along with Kobe beef – really the sumo wrestler of the beef world.
As it happened, Steve at Mr. Bean offered me some nettles. So we simply ground some Wagyu with a knife, blanched the nettles, and then bound the mix with a little light soy. This we wrapped in a Peking duck pancake made from flour & water, and then popped the tube into a hot oven to crisp the pancake and just set the meat. We served it over a Miso sauce with a little Thai chili paste from Orcona Pepper Farm. A salad of rehydrated Wakame tossed in limes and toasted sesame finished my Japanese thoughts. The point was to create a Japanese feeling in the Kiwi vernacular, i.e., cannelloni. The good news … it was delicious.
These are just two examples of the way a dish might evolve and what it expresses for me. The final product, like a good painting, is art imitating life…or life imitating art. It’s all the same.