Fine dining is set to go to a new level when The Chef's Table opens at Blue Duck Station, writes Shona Cobham
On the ridgeline of Ruapehu District's Blue Duck Station, where the views to the volcanoes and the night skies are sensational, young British chef Jack Cashmore is planning a new high point in a career that's already seen a few.
With his 30th birthday in sight, Cashmore is working on the final stages of a remote build that will see the opening of The Chef's Table at Blue Duck Station in time for summer - a project that has him swapping Michelin stars in top European restaurants for a place under the Milky Way.
Cashmore's exclusive new establishment sits on the station's highest point, at 495m above sea level, in the hinterlands bordering Whanganui National Park, somewhere between Taumarunui and National Park and about as far away as you could get from any glittering lights.
To get to the top of the farm, it's a thrilling 8km farm track ride by ATV or on horseback from the end of the road at Whakahoro, but guests will first have to get themselves to Blue Duck Station — 42km inland from Ōwhango, north of National Park on SH4.
The intimate 10-seat restaurant, a simple cedar-clad structure with big windows looking to the three snow-capped cones of Tongariro National Park, is nearing completion. There have been a few challenges along the way, including the need to bring most of the materials in by helicopter and the inevitable lockdown delays, but the kitchen installation is underway and the first bits of interior decor, old pieces of wood and found relics from early farming days, are finding their way up the hill from the farm below.
Along with the main building, there are three cosy eco cabins with ensuites, king beds, sofas and uninterrupted views. The cabins are set into the hillside just below the main building so overnight guests will be able to enjoy the brilliance of the stars by night and wake up the next morning with the world at their feet. Eventually there will also be private hot tubs.
The restaurant project is a collaboration between Cashmore and the Blue Duck Station owner, farmer and conservationist, Dan Steele. The pair first met about 11 years ago when an 18-year-old Cashmore visited Blue Duck Station as he travelled through New Zealand. He loved the land, the conservation ethic that he saw in action and stayed on to work for a while.
Since then, he's established himself as a top chef with stints at two Michelin-starred restaurants, Sat Bains in Nottingham, In de Wulf in Belgium and as head chef at Anglo in London, but says he could never quite get the wild beauty of Blue Duck Station out of mind.
Three years ago, Cashmore came back to New Zealand with the idea of setting up his own restaurant. His vision was to create a rustic, fine-dining experience that was self-sufficient, based on ethical production and delivered in a sustainable way so the food, farm and way of life all came together.
Blue Duck Station was that perfect location. Steele agreed to a trial on the spot they call "the top of the world" and the first pop-up restaurant was a simple canvas and mānuka construction, where Cashmore spent weekends over summer 2018 in a makeshift kitchen, cooking up a storm with a degustation menu for groups of 10.
He's now well into the process of developing the latest menu, degustation-style again, with 10 or 11 courses which he describes as "eating the station — the story of this place, the ethos, the natural beauty and the passion rolled into a menu".
Says Cashmore: "We let nature and the seasons dictate an evolving, ever-changing, seasonal menu. Ingredients will be grown, farmed, produced, foraged, sourced — as much as possible — on the station. I'm working on ideas to produce our own dairy, cheese, ferments, charcuterie.
"We'll start with a long selection of amuse-bouches to introduce this place through flavours and ingredients, vegetable, meat and fish, cheese, pre-dessert and several desserts."
One of the dishes is called Rosemary's Garden, a colourful medley of beautiful ingredients — delicate leaves, flowers and miniature vegetables collected from a family garden further down the valley.
With an open kitchen — arranged like a kitchen-diner in a home — and just himself and two staff on the job at a time, Cashmore says guests could expect a dynamic interactive dining experience during the three-to-four-hour dinner service. The small team is together now and over the next couple of months, they will be immersed in the final stages of cuisine design and fine tuning delivery of the dining experience.
The full experience will include a guided ATV bush safari tour from the arrival point at Blue Duck Station, through the farm and the conservation programme where regenerating bush and pest control is helping to save endangered whio — the whitewater-surfing blue duck seen on our $10 banknote — North Island brown kiwi and native bats, among others. Guests will have the option of a kayak to a waterfall to view whio and a mānuka honey tasting before arriving at the restaurant for pre-dinner drinks on the deck or in their private cabin.
The Chef's Table at Blue Duck Station launches in late January and reservations are open now. The full experience, including dinner, bed, breakfast and an ATV tour is $650 per person. Dinner and the ATV tour start at $340 per person. See thechefstable.co.nz for more.