Fusing fine cuts of meat with fine native garnishings has carved Hawke's Bay butcher Aaron Pohatu a slot in the Butcher of the Year grand final in Auckland in September.
He took out the lower North Island regional 2018 Alto Butcher of the Year title in Wellington last weekend and accordingly booked a place in the national event.
"I'm thinking about it already," Pohatu, who plies his skills at Greenmeadows New World, said as he accepted the congratulations of his workmates after arriving back at the chopping block on Monday.
As his butchery boss Kieran Horsefield said, "We are all very proud of him."
Even more so because he had not initially wanted to enter.
Horsefield won the regional title last year and a few months back encouraged his colleague to "give it a go".
"But it's not the sort of thing I'd normally do," Pohatu said, adding his response to his boss was "probably not".
But he went home and thought about it — and thought about how he could apply his passion for creating something away from the usual cuts.
After deciding to take on the challenge his efforts, in creating 32 trays of creative cuts from chicken, beef and pork, in just two hours, resulted in the thumbs-up from the judges.
"My theme for this was 'native New Zealand'."
He sourced and used garnishings such as puha, manuka, kanuka flowers and bush asparagus.
They hit the mark.
"I like to throw a bit of a spin on it," was how he put his desire to create something eye-catching and tasty.
He will pursue the "native New Zealand" theme in the grand finals but will drop back the number of cuts because it put too much additional pressure on given the time frame.
"I will just dig deeper."
He is looking forward to the challenge of taking on the rest of the country's very best.
"The Auckland guys seem to take it out every year so I'll have my work cut out — but I want to give them a go."
Pohatu has been in the butchery trade for 18 years, having done his apprenticeship at a Havelock North butchery and also spent eight years in the army.
Back in his younger years he had been a "full-on hunter" and said he wanted to learn how to cut and prepare his own meat — so took up the trade.
With youngsters at home now he had not been too involved in hunting lately but with a smile said, "I'll get back there."
The event was a winner for New World as the regional Anzco Foods Butcher Apprentice of the Year title was taken by Makalah Stevens from New World Foxton.
Head judge Matt Grimes, who has been involved with the competition for 13 years, said the skills to become a great butcher were ever-growing.
"Year-on-year these competitions get harder and harder to judge as the skill level of the butchers and apprentices keeps on improving."
He had been "blown away" by the creativity and craftsmanship and said the industry was clearly in good hands.
"He's a star butcher," was how Horsefield summed up his colleague, adding they were looking forward to him shouting the crew.
"No, no, that's not the way it works ... they're going to shout me," Pohatu said with a laugh.
Hawke's Bay Today put a few meaty questions to Aaron, which he was happy to serve up answers for.
1: What do you look for in a good steak?
A nice marbled steak is always better than a lean steak.
It needs a little bit of fat — scotch fillet is my favourite.
And the colour. A nice red — not too dark and not too pale.
2: What makes a good sausage, and what are some of the more imaginative flavours out there?
The most important thing is good quality beef and good quality pork.
It is the meat — it must be very good.
Cracked pepper I like, and apple and cider is a good one.
And parmesan cheese and spinach — the flecks of green with fine cheese and top beef.
3: What is the most popular meat sold at the butcher?
Oh, it is beef — by the truckload.
We sell a lot of lamb and pork but it's beef — but product like the beef steaks just fly out all year round.
4: What is the best meat for a winter casserole?
Chuck steak is very good, as is blade steak.
A good quality stewing casserole meat — we trim hard on them and they are well aged.
5: Should people be cautious about what they put on meats like lamb and chicken?
When it comes to seasoning just give it a go.
Try a marinade and try some different seasonings.
People should be a bit more adventurous with food — experiment a bit.
Add new things, try things out and write down what you've done so you can add or subtract if you feel you have to next time.
We shouldn't be boring with our foods.