Celebrity cook Josh Emett on third season of MasterChef NZ

By James Fuller

"I messed around at school the last couple of years, didn't do a hell of a lot of work. When I looked at my marks I was qualified for pretty much nothing except catering. So my options were: 'So I am going to be a chef'."

Josh Emett leans back in his chair and laughs heartily. The MasterChef New Zealand judge and celebrity chef is easy company and not slow to poke fun at himself. But not always being serious doesn't mean he's not a serious man.

I meet him at Mt Maunganui's Nosh Food Market at the Tauranga launch of his Chef Series gourmet-meals-at-home range. It's the latest venture in a career which has seen him stride ever higher, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the world's finest chefs. He has worked in, and led, some of the most famous and high octane kitchens around. Yet there is something disarmingly down-to-earth about him. He's a farm lad from the Waikato and always will be.

He describes his upbringing on a sheep and cattle farm in Ngahinapouri, 17km south-west of Hamilton, as "blissful and easy".

From as early as six years of age, Emett was in the kitchen.

"Mum was definitely an influence but dad was a good cook too, Sunday night curried sausages and that sort of thing."

The Emett clan - of dad Roger, mum Raewyn, older brother Zac and younger sister Bec - moved to Hamilton as Josh turned 13. The youngster, who was into "hunting, shooting, fishing, anything outdoors", said his childhood has resonated throughout his career.

"Looking back on what I like to cook now my upbringing definitely had an influence. I love cooking rabbit and duck; well I was brought up rabbit and duck shooting."

It also meant his career choice would "not be confined to an office" though he checks himself after revealing this.

"I guess that's quite strange in retrospect because I ended up being hidden in the dungeon of a kitchen for the next 20 years. Which is actually worse than an office," he laughs again. "You work these shocking hours and don't see the light of day."

His first catering job was as a 15-year-old in an old people's home where he washed dishes and served tea.

"It was an amazing job and paid really well. Compared with mates doing paper rounds for $15 a week, I was doing two hours work a night and getting $23. By the end of the week I'd take home $130. I was loaded."

On leaving school, Emett studied catering at Waikato Institute of Technology but his big break did not come until he ventured overseas.

He worked in an Irish restaurant/pub in Mayfair, London, for a year before a spell travelling around Europe. On return he landed a job at Coast Restaurant, also in Mayfair, run by Stephen Terry who had worked for Marco Pierre White.

"That was my first serious kitchen."

Forced to leave London when his visa ran out, Emett wasn't ready to return home. Instead he headed for Melbourne, Australia, to work alongside Donovan Cooke, another former Marco Pierre White protege, at Est Est Est. Even though it is now closed the restaurant's name and reputation reverberates today.

"He (Cooke) was an amazing chef and there were other amazing guys there. I did nothing but work for three years, six days a week. That was a massive, massive part of what followed, a great foundation.

"It was a small kitchen, quite an angry little kitchen actually."

Emett is a believer in the pressure turns coal into diamonds school of thinking.

"Kitchens are like that. In Europe, if kitchens are not hard for younger chefs it's not a good kitchen. It's almost like a rite of passage. Younger chefs want to get mentally beaten up, they want to be hammered and pushed to their limits. They want to go through that."

The 39-year-old speaks passionately, displaying the drive which took him to the three-Michelin-starred Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea, as Senior Chef de Partie, and Claridge's, under Head Chef Mark Sargeant.

In 2003 he joined Marcus Wareing as Head Chef at the reopened Savoy Grill and earned the restaurant its first Michelin star in more than 100 years.

Since then he has overseen Gordon Ramsay's London NYC and later Gordon Ramsay at The London West Hollywood. Emett worked alongside the king of the ranters for 12 years.

"He (Ramsay) is a good guy and I had a great time. The first seven years especially were incredible, opening restaurants, building an empire and I was a big part of a lot of that. It was great."

Global interest in cooking and cuisine, helped by Ramsay and his ilk, has exploded in the last 15 years and show's no sign of slowing down.

Riding that wave is the new season of the hugely popular MasterChef New Zealand. Now in its fourth season, Emett joined in its second year. But what attracted him to it?

"It's good for business, being on TV and doing something a bit more visible," says the man who opened Queenstown's Rata Restaurant nine months ago.

"It was about doing something different, putting myself under pressure.

"I've spent years in the kitchen, you've got a good amount of knowledge, and you just want to be challenged in another way."

That may be so but it wasn't necessarily a comfortable experience in the beginning.

"The hardest thing is sometimes just to be yourself, forget about everything else, what people will think of you, and just be honest and call it as it is."

The winner of MasterChef New Zealand walks away with $100,000 of prizes and a contract to write their own cookbook. The standard gets higher every year, says Emett, but "there's always a few shockers".

One of those shockers was a woman who served up her speciality of baked potato with packet gravy.

"She was so sweet and lovely but it was like 'Come on, are you honestly serious?'."

Unsurprisingly Emett's food philosophy, though described as "pretty pure", is somewhat more complex.

"If you're putting a plate together it's about balance and looking after that main ingredient, not pulling it about too much and turning it into something it's not. Use its natural flavours and enhance them more than anything. Then put great accompaniments with it which help lift it as well.

"The more flavours you put on the plate the more subtle they have to be. If there are less flavours, say three or four, they can be stronger and more 'ballsey'.

"You put seven or eight flavours together on a plate and they have to be delicate and interweave with one another."

A lot of Emett's cooking is based on classical French techniques.

"It comes from really good knowledge and understanding, breaking down a whole chicken, lamb or anything.

"Huge technical ability in knowing about different cuts and what to do with them. Respect for ingredients, understanding them and getting the most out of them.

"All cooking aside you're trying to make money and sometimes chefs have a tendency to forget that. They're more worried about the flavours on their plate or feeding their egos than the bottom line."

He is not one of those chefs. Affable and amiable he may be but there is a business brain behind the straight-eyed gaze. The hardworking cook - who has been married to wife Helen for two years and has two boys; Finn, three-and-a-half, and Louis, two - has just added to his workload with the launch of the Chef Series.

For chefs, reputation is everything and a range of readymade meals might seem dangerous territory but Emett is happy to stand full square behind his product.

"It's as good as we serve in the restaurant and that's the idea. It's changing the way people think about a take home meal."

So if you're stuck for a dinner party menu have no fear, you can cheat.

"Absolutely. If they gently warmed this up and added a touch of seasoning, maybe a bit of chopped parsley, and hide the boxes of course, they would blow people's socks off."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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