New Waitangi Treaty Grounds executive chef Aaron Stott has some wild tales to tell from 30 years in the hospitality industry overseas. Jenny Ling reports.
Of all the big names, billionaires and celebrities Aaron Stott has cooked for over the course of his glittering cheffing career - and there's been a few - the most memorable has got to be Robert Plant.
Stott, who has cooked in swanky restaurants around the world for the last 30-odd years, remembers it well.
"I was working at The Engineer [in London] and Robert Plant walked in.
"I thought oh my god, it's Robert Plant, and I went out and thanked him for his music.
"He said 'sit down and have a beer'.
"From then on, whenever he came in we'd sit down and have a beer and a chat.
"He was a lovely man, a tall, huge guy. Down the road was a recording studio so we had everyone in there, including Noel Gallagher."
Don't think the elbow-rubbing and yarns stop at the former Led Zeppelin lead singer.
Fifty-year-old Stott has also served up signature dishes to Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Lou Reed, Marilyn Manson, Johnny Depp, Prince Andrew and "The Iron Lady" Margaret Thatcher during his time working in executive and head chef roles in restaurants in London and Russia.
Another highlight was cooking for Russian president Vladimir Putin at a summit in St Petersburg.
"I couldn't go anywhere near him, I had to be smuggled in and out again because they only had Russians cooking for him."
Now Stott has taken up a post at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, a job which is also on his list of highlights.
His move north came after opening and running the Tinakori Bistro in Wellington from 2015 to 2017, returning to the construction site for a bit – he's a builder by trade - and a stint helping his brother-in-law's family at the Railway Station Café in Kawakawa.
It was only meant to be a three-month contract.
Eighteen months later he's still here, now with a fulltime job as executive chef at the Treaty Grounds, handling conferences and events at Tahuaroa Function Centre along with café fare at Whare Waka Café.
He took up his Far North post in June and within the first week had pulled off a hangi evening and gala dinner for 150 people during the three-day Te Hono Conference, a partnership between the leaders of New Zealand's food and fibre sector companies, iwi and government agencies.
Stott was making the most delicious looking and smelling cinnamon scrolls when the Northern Advocate popped in for a chat.
Of Ngāti Porou descent, he grew up Mahia Peninsula in the Hawke's Bay before making his mark on restaurants in several major cities, where he implemented new menus and concepts.
The classically French-trained chef started out in London, working as a sous chef for The Engineer which was not only was frequented by rock stars, but was co-owned by Sir Laurence Olivier's daughter Tamsin Olivier.
Over the next 13 years in London he also worked as chef de partie at Harvey Nichols Fifth Floor, and as senior sous chef at Vong, owned by internationally renowned French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
There were also a few years at Motcombs cooking for "high profile diners including politicians and the horse racing fraternity".
It was at Nobu Park Lane where Stott developed a passion for Japanese and Asian cuisine, having worked with head chef Scott Hallsworth who "does a contemporary post-modern Japanese style" cuisine.
"The food is banging and people are lined up out the door."
He enjoys Izakaya style eating, which involves lingering over a meal with a drink or two while sampling different dishes.
Stott has also come to love working with fire and robata, a long-standing Japanese grilling tradition of cooking over hot charcoal on a wide, flat open fireplace.
"I love to work with fire and robata...I like the Japanese culture and the flavours, they're high impact flavours.
"I found there's simplicity in the food and complexity in the flavours."
Stott went on to open a Japanese restaurant in Dubai before being lured to Russia where he spent six years, first working at Kinki in Moscow followed by the Buddha Bar in St Petersburg.
Russia was "amazing", Stott said.
"It was the whole lifestyle; we had nannies, cleaners, drivers and flew in private jets everywhere.
"At the time it was set up for billionaires – it's the most expensive food you've ever eaten.
"You could get a California roll in Moscow which would cost you 500 Rubles [about $10] - at our restaurant, it was 2000 Rubles [$40]."
But it was the sanctions put on Russian state banks by the US and EU in 2014 in response to Moscow's continued backing for separatists in eastern Ukraine that things got really interesting.
"Anything coming into the country from Europe was contraband.
"I would fly to the south of Spain in a private jet and pick up a 250kg whole tuna and bring it back to Russia, quite often once a month.
"Sometimes he [the boss] would send me down there just to buy truffles."
Stott returned to New Zealand five years ago, and along with establishing Tinakori Bistro, did some freelance consulting work which included introducing a new Asian tapas menu for a bar in Moscow.
His plans for the Waitangi Treaty Grounds are to create "simple but tasty food".
He'll keep the standard café menu but wants to introduce more fresh food as well.
"At the moment it's very cabinet-driven, and I want to get away from that.
"I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel but put dishes in that people are familiar with, like having a selection of bagels, and dishes they're not so familiar with, like pork belly bao and fried noodles.
"Coming up to summer I'd like to have the barbeque going out here so we can do slow-cooked barbeque meats and have people sitting out on the grass and coming up and ordering.
"I'd like to change the scenery a little bit.
"There's so much scope here...I'll look at fresh and seasonal ingredients, and see how we can work with those.
"That will dictate how we truck along with our menu and how it evolves."
As for the food for conference guests, he'll be tweaking that too.
"I want to take that back to more of a retro slant and do a carvery and have fresh vegetables and lyonnaise potatoes.
"Give it a while and we'll see what we can come up with.
"I think we can create something really special, where people will come and eat and sit in the gardens."
The Far North, he reckons "is an amazing place to be".
"I didn't think I'd be this busy, I thought I'd be working a four-day week then sitting on the beach.
"But I felt like I wanted to step back into the kitchen.
"It's been a really good move for us."