Salt or pepper? Lemon or lime? Poached or fried? Chris Schulz goes cooking with the best of the best to find out the tricks of their trade.
Gareth Stewart, head chef at Euro
When Gareth Stewart woke up one recent morning, he went straight into his home kitchen and prepped dinner for his sons, aged 8 and 5.
"They love meatballs," he says. "Simple food."
It's an early start but Stewart needs to be organised: as executive chef of The Nourish Group, he's in charge of 10 restaurants nationwide, including big names like Soul, The Culpeper and Jervois Steak House.
Today, he's on the pass for a busy lunch at Euro, a famed waterfront eatery in Auckland that takes advantage of those harbour views by delivering a menu heavy on fresh seafood.
Afterwards, he'll "touch base" with five Nourish restaurants in Auckland, including Herne Bay's Andiamo, which is being refurbished for a November opening.
So how does he balance his time? As knives sharpen in Euro's kitchen, there's a long, slow intake of breath. Stewart replies: "Probably not very well."
There's another thing that's landed on his plate today: teaching Weekend how to cure salmon, then plate it up, his first trial for an appearance at Taste of Auckland's masterclass series, which lets punters practise their skills alongside proper chefs.
"Do you want a jacket?" Stewart asks as we arrive in his kitchen. "I'll get you one of mine." He returns, holding a pressed white shirt with complicated button arrangements. As he helps do it up, he smiles and says: "It's an absolute privilege, that." No pressure, then.
The heat quickly gets turn up in the kitchen. There are herbs and spices arranged in little bowls, and a giant salmon gleaming on the silver bench. Stewart's prepped everything in advance to show us how to make cured salmon with "fresh peas, chicken skin (and) some sheep's yoghurt from down south".
He makes it sound simple. It's not. By fresh peas, he means he's using peas three ways: fresh peas, pea shoots, and dried peas ground into a fine dust. That chicken skin has been slow-baked into a thin, crisp crackling. And the sheep's yoghurt has been thickening overnight.
Then there's the salmon. Curing that is Weekend's job. "She's a beauty," he says, slicing into it carefully. "We just want this part here, the belly," he points with his knife. We're instructed to grate grapefruit, lemon and lime skins. Why three citrus zests? Stewart looks annoyed. "There should be orange in there too," he replies.
We start grating, and make our first mistake. "You don't want the pith," he warns. It's too bitter. He pulls out the white bits while we add crushed star anise, juniper berries, and piles of salt. It gets rubbed over the perfectly sliced salmon, which sits, soaking in the flavours, for 15 minutes.
While we wait, we chat. The former MasterChef New Zealand judge isn't easy to please, but he seems impressed when we say our go-to dish is slow-cooked chilli brisket. "Oh, nice," he declares. At home, where he cooks at least twice a week, Stewart makes anything that fills his hungry boys up. One loves fish, the other hates it, which their dad, a major seafood fan, finds frustrating. They both love meatballs though.
When the salmon's ready, we wash the cure off and cut it into thin cubes. Stewart concentrates, leans close to the plate and delicately places them, squeezing little circles of yoghurt into the gaps. Then comes a scattering of those pea shoots and foraged onion flowers. Finally, the chicken skin is angled in there.
Yes, you'll want to Instagram this dish before you eat it. But when you do, you'll find it's delicious, those soft, delicate flavours combining with the sea breeze coming in the doors like you're feasting on a plate full of spring.
But Stewart doesn't have time to eat. He has lunch to prepare for. And he's got other things on his mind, like those morning meatballs at home. They didn't last: his kids ate them for breakfast.
"It's like, f*** me, give me a break," Stewart says, a wry smile on his face. It's another day, and he has another food problem to solve. But if anyone has the solution, it's Stewart.
Man Mohan, head chef at 1947
Back home in India, Man Mohan perfected his skills in a fine dining restaurant attached to a five-star hotel.
But when Mohan moved to New Zealand two years ago, his first job was at a New Lynn takeaway joint serving $12 curries.
Did he enjoy that? "No way," Mohan tells Weekend through an interpreter. "I was very upset. It wasn't really my thing."
He'd been enticed by the lifestyle, but soon found his five-star chef skills weren't being utilised. He also struggled to find anyone making the kind of Indian food he liked.
That changed when he was approached by the team putting together 1947, the inner-city eatery serving Indian food inspired by old-fashioned ways.
He quickly agreed to a job change. Now, in just a year, despite at 31 being the youngest chef in the kitchen, he's risen to become 1947's head chef, one who prioritises authenticity over shortcuts.
In Mohan's kitchen, they make their own garam masala, a combination of nearly 20 ground spices. They make their own cheese, which hangs in a muslin cloth over a sink every night.
Preparation is key: to show Weekend how to cook his masterclass dish, Mohan's arrived early to get everything ready in the eatery's spotless kitchen. He's showing us how to make nawabi aloo, potatoes filled with spiced cheese. When done right, looks like an artist painted a flamboyant boiled egg that was then cut in half.
Mohan starts by stirring potatoes that have been sliced with the insides scooped out, boiling in turmeric-infused water. Those scoops aren't going to waste: they're crisping up in a pan of oil beside the pot of water.
Over at the bench, Mohan's placed three types of dairy - cottage cheese, cream cheese and yoghurt, all made in-house - in a stainless steel bowl, which he rolls by hand with 1947's garam masala, the crispy fried potato, and fresh chilli. Scoops of it are placed inside the potato, which are topped with onion seeds and baked, very briefly.
It's a 40-minute process, and the results are powerful. A zingy chilli hit is soon replaced by a smooth burn, tapered by the soft potato. It's addictive food and, half an hour later, the flavours still linger on Weekend's tongue, calm, refreshing.
Clearly, Mohan has found a place that lets him deliver lasting reminders of home.
Nobu Lee, head chef at Clooney
You'll feel the heat when you walk into Nobu Lee's kitchen in Clooney. The oven is blasting like a furnace, and an extraction fan's noise pummelling all who enter.
The benches are spotless, but there are things happening all over the place. Jars of things that have been dried or fermented line the shelves. Fresh fruit and vegetables keep landing from suppliers through the gaps in Clooney's open kitchen. Then there's the chillers, which are full of things labelled and dated, marinating and ageing, ready for use when Clooney opens later tonight.
Lee, from Christchurch, was wooed to Auckland from Australia and he's been enjoying using New Zealand's seasonal produce again - but it's keeping him on his toes. He has to change the menu every couple of weeks. "The hard part is you need to be thinking constantly. What's coming? What's next?" he says.
What's next is hapuku with winter radish and butter sauce, the dish Lee will showcase with his masterclass session. To him, this is a simple dish. When Weekend scoffs, he says: "When you see it, you'll know why."
But there's nothing simple about anything that he's doing. Lee has multiple pots on the stove, one for the grape juice reduction that will be mixed with gelatine to create the dish's sweet layer of jelly, and another for the daikon mash, which is simmering with giant chunks of butter.
Then there's the hapuku. As Lee carefully slices into the belly, he tells Weekend he once thought his destiny was to become a sushi chef. He's done some training, and it shows: every time he slices his fish, he pauses, lining up precise, deft cuts. Why? "It has to be straight," he says. "Otherwise you ruin it."
Thankfully, Lee is the kind of chef who loves to whip out something he prepared earlier. Which is just as well: he goes through so many stages to make his dish, Weekend's notes quickly stop making sense.
He's already got the jelly chilling in the fridge. He pulls his vacuum-packed serve of hapuku where it's been cooking in a sous vide spa bath of 60 degrees. He thinly slices radishes, then, with the mash, plates up his dish, which looks so futuristic I feel like I'm dining in a Blade Runner movie.
As head chef at Clooney's, one of Auckland best-known fine dining establishments, Lee cooks like this for 13 hours a day, up to six days a week. Cooking detailed food at this level is an addiction, he admits.
But when he's at home, he does things simply. His go-to lunch is avocado mashed on to toast, with a squeeze of lemon and a shake of salt. "After that," he says, pointing at Clooney's kitchen, "I just want to close my eyes and not think about it."
• Gareth Stewart, Man Mahon and Nobu Lee are part of the Electrolux Chefs' Secrets hands-on masterclasses at Taste of Auckland. For tickets and more information, visit tasteofauckland.co.nz/electrolux-chefs-secrets.