In my 20s, I travelled and occasionally worked across the Mediterranean in an attempt to escape my home in the UK. Before I realised it, 10 years had passed.
I spent most of my time in Greece. Here, the intensity of flavour in the most basic of ingredients and the simplicity and honesty of the food captured me. It was the everyday food that really appealed: sharing meals in the family homes of friends, spending endless weeks on island beaches lost in the middle of nowhere and surviving on whatever fresh produce was available.
The local vegetable markets across Greece and Italy were places of wonder and inspiration - where a zucchini tasted more of zucchini than you ever thought possible and piles of seasonal vegetables demanded to be eaten. This meant finding inspiration from the produce available that day, and accessing the local knowledge of cooking with only a few ingredients.
The painful necessity of actually having to grow up and find a real job led me to kitchens in London. It was never a career ambition, I just loved cooking. I fell in with a bunch of Italian chefs and another journey started.
Thirty years later I am cooking pasta in Auckland.
John Pountney is chef and co-owner of Cotto on Auckland's Karangahape Rd
Melitzanosalata (Greek eggplant salad)
This recipe expresses the simplicity and flavour in food that inspires me. If you have the chance, I recommend using the pale round purple Fijian eggplant which can be found at vegetable markets such as Avondale and Wesley. This truly tastes like no other eggplant you have eaten. The dish works as a salad or a side dish.
500 grams of eggplant, give or take
2-3 cloves of garlic, crushed
60ml extra virgin olive oil
Juice of a lemon
1. Cook the eggplant whole over a cast iron griddle or open flame, turning regularly until collapsed (10-15 minutes).
2. Set aside to cool then scrape away burnt flesh, season with salt then strain in sieve for 15-20 minutes.
3. Place in food processor with olive oil, lemon juice and crushed garlic. Blend well and serve.