Hawke’s Bay is recognised on the world stage for its award-winning wines, and renowned as the ‘fruit bowl of the country’, where seasonal produce from the plains is sought by the rest of the country. Well-fed sheep and cattle roam the land. Fertility reigns.

Surprisingly, in a place offering such natural fodder for foodies to flock, it has taken some decades for the restaurant industry to capture the potential. Helping to close the gap is the talented Jeremy Rameka, who with his award-winning skills as a chef has placed Hawke’s Bay well and truly on the culinary map. His uniquely understated Pacifica is his platform.

Jeremy is the first to agree that New Zealand has taken its time to achieve any kind of cuisine identity. As a child growing up in a true Pacific māori style, food was the foundation of all family gatherings. His mother cooked, but it was his father who instilled a standard often refusing to dine should the meal not be up to scratch in his eyes. “Actually Dad was incredibly precise about everything,” laughs Jeremy, “if Mum mowed the lawn leaving tufts untouched, Dad would go over it with the scissors. I think she used to tease him and leave stray bits just to get his reaction.” However, he concedes it was that perfection which instilled in Jeremy the golden rule for his future.

Pacifica has garnered its fair share of awards, including Hawke’s Bay’s Restaurant of the Year four times; Best Chef four times (the latest earlier this year) plus best signature dish. Nationally his accolades include fi nalist in Cuisine magazine’s Restaurant of the Year competition in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011; Runner-Up in Cuisine’s Smart Dining category, Best Regional Restaurant in the Cuisine NZ Good Food Awards in both 2015 and again this year 2016 (praised for his “artistry and passion” as well as the “professionalism” of his front of house team), gaining a Cuisine Hat in 2015 and just this past month the only restaurant in the Bay to win two Hats.

This Jeremy regards as his benchmark. “They are awarded anonymously much the way that Michelin do theirs, so they are highly sought after and held in high esteem by the industry.” He relates that a few years back when renowned food writer Lauraine Jacobs (at the time senior food editor for Cuisine and herself a dab hand in culinary skills) first encountered his food, she was in a quandary as to where to place the restaurant. The magazine ended up opening a new category because of it – Smart Dining.

And that’s only part of the awards list. No small feat considering that Pacifica opened under Jeremy’s helm in 2008. He admits the first year was really tough. “I was the new kid on the block … no one knew me and it was hard getting the fresh produce from suppliers. I mean you couldn’t even get live oysters then! And forget mushrooms” (a friendship with Bruce Mackinnon of Hillcroft Mushrooms sorted that out).

He started his own garden as a result. Nowadays he has a list of those he trusts to provide the freshest of the fresh, who call him when they have something special – “truffles were in last week”. And seafood of every possible variety – from reliable sources like HB Seafood, Oceans North, meat from the local butcher, even foraging himself. He is currently working with a friend to start another garden from which he will take the pick and his friend will then sell the rest.

It’s a reflection of another Jeremy attribute … “I hate wastage”. No doubt a well-earned dislike born from having originally run Pacifica with an à la carte menu, six chefs, six front of house and more besides. Two and a half years ago, when “it was either change or walk away”, he decided to create just two five-course Degustation menus. At $50 a head (selected wines to go with each course are a mild $100 a head), his chef friends thought he was crazy.

“But I knew what I was doing. One is devoted to Kaimoana, the other has a broader range. And it works. If I hadn’t I think I would have just gone. The stress was just too much. For the first six or seven years I was up at 6 a.m. and would not get to bed until 1 or 2 in the morning. You can’t focus on the details. 2013 and 2014 were the hardest financially and emotionally. Something had to give.” His light-bulb moment happened when he was invited to participate in FAWC (the Hawke’s Bay Food And Wine Classic) in which “I did a tasting menu. For a month. And then I just carried on with it.”

What he does now allows him freedom to use that which is available and his imagination. He starts at 10 a.m. having slotted in a stint at the gym or a ride on his bike. Stunning tattoos snaking around his very fit torso trace the story of his journey. Running marathons and half marathons are also part of the regime – a routine he adheres to strictly, ensuring he keeps his life in balance.

Entering Pacifica is a bit like walking into a foodie’s kitchen. Glass jars of herbs, spices and dry goods are lined up in shelves above the servery. Unpretentious and very inviting. A vast gas stove above the oven is aflame with just Jeremy and his number two chef cooking. “I am now in control. I was always worrying about what the others were doing when I was simply not able to watch every move [hard with six chefs working]. When you rely on others who may not do it my way, there’s only so much yelling you can do,” he adds wryly. “It has meant I have been able to pare down my menus a lot and cut costs.”

He attributes this to experience. “As you gain more knowledge you gain confidence … know when to scale down not add. I am stripping away a lot of the extras now.” The result is manna for those fortunate enough to be one of the 35 diners Pacifica can seat at any one time. “I used to make a chicken liver pâté in which I threw in everything; now it’s totally about refining, although I do like to add the unexpected. But that means you can actually taste it. Too many ingredients muddle the palate. My pâté now uses minimal but the best ingredients, and it’s probably the finest I have ever made.”

So how does a young boy from a small Māori community in the King Country escalate to such heights? “I was mischievous during school; spent more time doing art and music or riding. In fact I barely went to school. I thought I would focus on either art or music as a career. But I was pretty shy about playing in front of people. And I liked being in the kitchen.”

A move to Auckland saw him taken on at Bar 2 and 2 where he watched and helped with small plates. “I mucked around a bit, went to Queenstown and worked at the Park Royal and then at the Chateau on the Park in Christchurch where I really started taking an interest. And it came quite easily. I didn’t have a problem with getting on with it and keeping my mouth shut.”

Then a move to Australia really “opened my eyes to the cultural side of cuisine … And you know, I suddenly was introduced to real ethnicity. I had friends in Melbourne who were Greek, Italian, Turkish, Lebanese. I dined at their homes and I became aware of what New Zealand was missing. We never really had an authentic cuisine; there was always that emphasis on French food.”

After moving back and forth between NZ and Australia for another few years, he married and returned to NZ, “where the food was just the same stuff as when I left. If Pacifica had not come up for sale, I would have gone straight back.” Fortunately providence prevailed.

He also looked to his own heritage as a basis for his own culinary passage. “I couldn’t understand why we looked to a style of food which had no authenticity in our country. When you could see what was happening in places like Melbourne, which plumbed the ethnic heritage to build fabulous restaurants, why was it not happening here?”

Of Tuwharetoa and Ngapuhi descent, Jeremy is very aware what his Māori ancestry has taught him. “Our Māori culture is all about food. Friends and family visit. There was and always is a meal.” He admits though, despite a distinct Pacific lean to his food, “it’s something that was just there rather than making it a stamp of my style. I’ve never tried to make it a point. I’ve always wanted to be accepted as a chef first … one who happens to be a Māori .”

His food – widely acclaimed as being ‘delicious, daringly innovative’ – rests on subtle preparation of what he amusingly refers to as “bits and pieces”. Well they may be, but they are also such delicacies as greenlip mussels, kina, paua, muttonbird, clams, lamb’s brains, sweetbreads and venison. Good Kiwi kai which is totally of his own technique; the freshest produce which truly showcases the best of the region. “I quite like making things up, then there will be something I recall from 20 years ago, but I put it together in my own way.”

He confesses vegetarian and vegan are a challenge, but “I’m getting better at it and preparing it in ways I really like. I have to enjoy the food, I won’t do it just because it’s the ‘in’ thing, so I am constantly finding ways of developing dishes. Seafood which I love is typical. The old expectancy used to be a big bowl of mussels if you offered a seafood platter. Customers have a lot more appreciation now when they are presented with something different.”

His brain is constantly in action. There are plans for a move in a few years. “Back to Kakahi. It’s a long term plan to get a small team together and open up there. I never ever thought I would go back home. But the town is dying, and it’s harder and harder for the people. Only some 50 or so now; there used to be four thousand in the sawmill days. And I want to help. It’s also a constant challenge to rely on people so we thought just the two of us (his partner Natalie Bulman, who is front of house and manages the restaurant) would work with the local youngsters and teach them a craft or trade. There are a lot of B&Bs and lodges with a good tourism industry developing round the national park area.” So the potential is there.

Natalie is, as she admits, “the reluctant manager”. I do it for Jeremy to be supportive, but basically I am really shy. I come from a small town in Wales where I would hide away like a hermit.” She is also looking forward to a life that will allow her own creative streak more scope.

This is very evident in the highly original Pacifica bar, which she masterminded. Not much has changed in the decor since Jeremy bought it from Mark Sweet (who then turned his hand to writing) until he discovered a beautiful woven mat decorating the ceiling which had been created by his aunt, and rocks outside that had come from the river at his hometown. “It just felt right. As if meant to be. We haven’t really changed it much at all because it’s quite timeless.”

But they both felt the bar needed help. “So,” says Natalie, “I enlisted the aid of Ken Sando who is a local artist and can pretty well lend his hand to anything, and he found the old bits and pieces of wood which make the front. People do make many comments about it; it really adds character in keeping with the rest of the house.”

It’s a welcoming invitation to “come inside and join the family”. For there’s no doubt Pacifica, with its typical villa-like appearance and bright blue frontage feels like home. And as they say, “the heart of the home is in the kitchen”.

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