If the young talent rising in the food ranks is anything to go by, our restaurant scene is about to get a whole lot more exciting. Viva's restaurant reviewer talks to three chefs ready to shake things up.
Young. Gifted. Chefs. There's a new breed rising to the top of our restaurant industry and they're on a mission. Level-headed, healthy and fit, collaborative, they're holding down their first "Head Chef" positions in some of Auckland's best and busiest restaurants and call themselves "The Next Crew - Aotearoa Raw Talent".
The collective (thenextcrewart.co.nz) is all about celebrating our most adventurous young chefs as they push boundaries, take diners outside their comfort zones and draw international attention to the raft of talented and young New Zealand chefs presiding over our restaurant kitchens.
One of their mentors, successful restaurateur and DineAid champion, Mark Gregory sums it up nicely; "These chefs want to be at the top of their game and to do that, they know they must push their cooking to the limits. This may mean at times we, as diners, need to be able to forgive them. Great tennis players don't win every match. These guys won't produce winning dishes every time but to beat monotony, and to raise the standard of dining through the roof, we must understand that practise, and risk taking, makes perfect."
The world of head chefs is a highly competitive one and only a talented few rise to the top.
In New Zealand, the likes of Peter Gordon, Michael Meredith, Al Brown are household names. Internationally the Jamie Olivers and Gordon Ramsays of this world are as well known as rock stars.
Determined to make their mark on the food scene, The Next Crew stages its first public event, a multi-course dining extravaganza with the theme "Deception", in Auckland in just over a fortnight's time. Here I talk to three of the young guns involved to find out what it takes for a young chef to survive and thrive in the highly strung, intensely competitive industry of cooking.
Head chef, Dallows & Sale St, Freemans Bay
When I first tried Nick Honeyman's degustation menu it made me sit up and take notice, big time. It is dishes like his clever rice-less cauliflower risotto, or lamb served with a hot gazpacho gel, that simply dazzle the senses. And while it appears Honeyman has seemingly come from nowhere, the truth is more that he's come from everywhere.
Born and raised in South Africa, he took off at 18 to pursue what he describes as "a burning passion for cooking". He flew straight to Sydney where he enrolled on a four-year cooking apprenticeship. So talented and motivated was he, he tore through it in less than three years.
The driven Honeyman then set about targeting the world of Michelin-starred restaurants, working for great chefs such as Alain Passard (L'arpege), Pascal Barbot (L'astrance) and Iron Chef Sakai in Tokyo before making the move to New Zealand in 2009.
Why New Zealand? "To be honest, I was running away from a girl," he laughs. "Actually, I'd been hearing great things about Simon Wright and The French Cafe so I paid him a visit. He told me to come back in two months and I did. It was the beginning of another love affair. This time with New Zealand."
At only 28, he's now in charge of hospitality baron Luke Dallow's kitchens - and watching Honeyman work you get a sense of what this new generation of head chefs is all about.
There are no mid-service tantrums or signs of over-blown arrogance - it's all about clarity, communication, fairness and fun. And like many of his generation, Honeyman looks at his career as a portfolio of opportunities, grabbing as many of them as he can fit into his busy schedule.
One example of this is that every year, for the past three years, he's taken off to France for a stint at Le Petit Leon, a small restaurant that's only open for nine weeks, from July to September. Last year the owners were so impressed with Nick's menu that they appointed him "head chef at large" and begged him to return this year. "You've got to keep building your game and working at Le Petit Leon helps to challenge me. It gives me my spark. In France, you might have five chefs working under you and every one of them, respectfully, wants your job. It's a great way to stay motivated."
The restaurant has no menu. Instead, diners choose how many courses they want and the kitchen decides what to prepare. It's the ultimate freedom for a chef and Honeyman wants to see diners in New Zealand be more prepared to trust the chef. "Diners can get too fixated on descriptions. Around the world it's far more common to leave it up to the chef to decide what they'll eat."
While acknowledging the pressure of being a top chef, Honeyman doesn't complain about the long hours or high stress. He surfs to keep himself sane and has a personal trainer who makes him work out so hard "he cries". "Hard out exercise is key, as a stress release and also to keep fit for the job. Anyone who doesn't do that will find it harder to get to the top." There's no doubting Honeyman is bold, brave and part of the new wave of chefs coming through our ranks.
Head chef, Foodstore, The Viaduct
The oldest of the trio, Mark Southon (31) has landed what some might consider a nightmare of a job; head chef at the Foodstore in Auckland's Viaduct where the entire food service - breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days per week - is monitored live for FoodTV.
Southon loves it. He shares the head chef responsibilities with chef Wylie Dean and, given his only previous performing experience was playing a dead person, he is chuffed with how well "the live TV thing" has gone thus far. Having worked in Melbourne's esteemed Vue de Monde as well as our own French Cafe, Southon felt he was ready to take on the mantle of head chef but he admits the huge hours, large team and increased responsibility were initially "a bit shocking".
Born in the UK, his world of cooking began "for real" when he worked under Paul Kitchen at one Michelin star restaurant, Juniper, just outside of Manchester. "A defining moment came when a regular diner came in and started raving about the souffle that we served and I thought it was a bit over the top ... until I tried it and then I got it. It really was the best souffle in the world."
Of his chosen profession he enthuses "It's an adventure and a journey and it can take you anywhere".
On a recent trip back to the UK, where many of us might choose to take the shortest route possible, Southon had a different approach. He booked tables at some of his "must try" restaurants around the world and planned his itinerary based on these eating destinations. The trip took seven weeks. So renowned are these restaurants that in one case he had to get up at 4am (NZ time) to phone New York's famous Thomas Keller restaurant Per Se, only to be put on hold for 40 minutes and even then, they could only promise him a place on the waiting list. Not deterred, he organised his itinerary to ensure that he'd be in NYC should his number come up. It did and it was an unforgettable meal. Lasting more than five hours and with a bill of just under US$2000 (NZ$2700), excluding tips, Southon's only comment was "I'd have paid it again just like that."
He reels off the world's top restaurants he's eaten in and those that he still wants to visit with the enthusiasm of an extreme mountain climber citing the peaks he wants to conquer.
Southon wants people to open up their minds to trying new food ideas, to trust the chefs more and step outside what you might usually be drawn to on a menu.
"Eating out ought to be fun as well as a learning experience and it can't be these things if your mind is closed to new ideas, flavours or ingredients." He remains stimulated, by all those expensive meals enjoyed around the world, to create brilliant food.
Head chef TriBeCa, Parnell
Though the other two chefs are not native to New Zealand, Hayden McMillan is 100 per cent pure New Zealand. Growing up in West Auckland he developed a hobby that to this day inspires and informs his cooking.
"My hobby is eating" he admits with a loud laugh. His process for developing his menu is incredibly down-to-earth. "First you need to imagine it, then create it, then taste it, taste it, taste it. To be on top of your game, it is so important to eat your food, to check on its flavour, the texture, the presentation, and the ease of eating it. Only then will you know what aspects you need to work on."
For anyone who has recently dined at TriBeCa in Parnell, where he is head chef, you might find it hard to reconcile this tall, solidly built young man with the prettily presented food that is served there.
Take McMillan's treatment of a simple hapuku fillet - cooked perfectly and crowned with a pile of crispy, deliciously salty shredded ham hock, the plate is scattered with delicate pea shoot tendrils as well as bright green peas, fresh and dehydrated, that add texture and surprise.
He explains "I'm no artist, can't paint or draw to save myself, yet I have no problem putting art on a plate - it feels spontaneous and natural to me."
Yet you won't find one ounce of silliness in his food. "It has to make sense" - again the pragmatic approach.
At 16 McMillan was legally too young to be accepted into tertiary study but his mother managed to convince the powers that be to let him enrol in an Auckland culinary course. Having "pretty much failed at school", he completely found his feet cooking. This was the kind of study he adored and he poured everything he had into it. He graduated with top marks, then set about targeting the "best of the best in Auckland" to work under. Looking at his career to date we see that his road to becoming a head chef at such a young age (25) has indeed been paved with working in some of our top kitchens with great chefs as role models - Vinnies (Geoff Scott), Huka Lodge (David Griffiths), French Cafe (Simon Wright) and Meredith's (Michael Meredith). "To be the best you, have to work with the best. In New Zealand, these places often have very small kitchens, which means not many positions are available, so I feel incredibly lucky that I managed to get into them. Right place, right time."
He wants to show off the bold flavours of New Zealand and he wants to take others with him. "I want more than anything to be involved in leading a kitchen of a wicked restaurant where everyone wants to eat. I've seen how much effort that takes and I'm up for it."
Testimony to his ambition, cheekiness and sheer ballsiness, on a trip to the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival assisting Michael Meredith, Hayden got to meet his culinary heroes Thomas Keller (French Laundry), Heston Blumenthal (Fat Duck) and Neil Perry (Rockpool and Spice Temple).
"I kind of stalked them at a book signing and then managed to get invited to an after party with them. There I was, after too much prosecco, walking into the night with Heston on one side and Keller on the other and I couldn't believe I was included in such awesome company. Thomas (Keller) was asking me about the food scene in New Zealand. Wow."
McMillan is constantly looking to these food heroes to spur him on. He's like a lanky teenager who is having all the fun in the world doing what he loves most - cooking. Oh, and eating.
All three chefs have a raw enthusiasm, drive and energy that's infectious. They've established The Next Crew to keep themselves on their toes and they're about to stage their first public event - a multi-course dining extravaganza with the theme "deception".
Honeyman has seen the concept work well in Sydney - where a group of the young chefs has got together to form Talent of Young Sydney - and knows it's just what this group needs. "Younger chefs in Auckland need to be inspired by each other, to push ourselves, and the diners, by being less conventional in our approach. We work hard all week in our respective restaurant kitchens but we need an outlet for pure creativity to keep it edgy."
If the future direction of our dining rests in the hands of this next crew, we're in for a deliciously joyful and electrifying ride.
To join in the fun for the first of The Next Crew dinners, 27 & 28 March 2011, visit thenextcrewart.co.nz. Starts at 7pm with canapés and includes five courses of wickedly good food, matched with wine. Tickets $120. Numbers strictly limited.By Nici Wickes