Chasing Flavour: Top Chefs On Their First Times & Why Every Menu Reads The Same

By Kim Knight
Not your usual fish of the day — fried Chatham Island blue cod wings from Auckland restaurant kingi. Photo / Supplied

Snapper-cucumber-repeat. Kim Knight asks, when was the last time you ordered anything truly new?

Somewhere in Christchurch, sometime in the 1990s. There is a mango on the table but I don’t actually know it is a mango until someone tells me.

Do you bite it? Like an apple?

No, he

The cheeks drip sunshine. I swallow a far-off summer with rough edges that kind of stick to my tongue. The fruit slips down like a beach resort cocktail and I lick my fingers. It is a tsunami of flavour; the best brand-new thing I have ever tasted.

Humans will eat just about anything. Some of those things are delicious — and some of them will kill us. Psychologists call it the “omnivore’s paradox”, the idea that we crave the new, even though we know it could be dangerous. Dinner is an electric fence that we touch over and over again.

At least it used to be. Once, we went to Italy for pasta and Korea for bulgogi. Today, the specials board at a pub in Greymouth features both butter chicken and pork bao (you’ll find the deep-fried camembert on the permanent menu). In the global village kitchen, it is increasingly impossible to be surprised by food. Can you honestly recall the last time you tasted something for the first time?

When Viva asked chefs for food-related “firsts”, they struggled. Perhaps, said one, it’s because they’ve been eating curiously their entire life. Maybe, another suggested more ominously, it’s a symptom of cultural homogenisation.

Former fine dining chef Robert Richardson, now a lecturer at Auckland University of Technology’s school of hospitality and tourism, says it’s really hard to find a genuinely new food product.

“Thanks to reality TV, print media and social media, we have never been as culinarily educated or more open to trying new foods — but walk into any supermarket in New Zealand and the range of products, both fresh and dry, will be almost identical with little seasonal variation.”

Richardson cites figures from the Dan Saladino book Eating to Extinction: “Most of the world’s seed comes from just four companies. Half of all the world’s cheeses are produced with bacteria and enzymes produced by just one company. One in four beers worldwide are made by one beer company and most of the global pork production is based around the genetics of a single breed of pig. Our food knowledge is broader, but our food products are becoming more and more ‘mono’ and homogenous. Perhaps this is our new paradox?”

At Auckland restaurants, if you order the fish it will inevitably be snapper. Every menu contains a curl of octopus (pretty AND cheap) and if it can be done to a cucumber then every chef has already done it — twice.

Some of that sameness is driven by economics. The ever-increasing price of raw ingredients (likely to worsen as weather-related produce shortages kick in) requires chefs to be pragmatic. Some dishes will always be on a menu because they always sell - and if customers find the selection overwhelmingly challenging, they’ll go somewhere else. “There’s got to be an ‘out’ for the tricky or plain eaters,” says Richardson. But, he also observes, the homogenisation of food has also made it harder for chefs to find a point of difference.

“It’s why we see so much of the same-same when it comes to ingredients on menus. But chefs are also faced with diners who are so much more knowledgeable now about food. And that’s part of the reason we’re seeing the trend of foraging for ingredients and restaurants with kitchen gardens — to create that difference.”

Richardson has to dredge his childhood memories for his own food “first”. He grew up in West Auckland, a white kid from a non-foodie family who lived in a cul-de-sac that, every Sunday, filled with Tongan families who gathered to eat from the umu laid down before church.

“I’d watch them cooking it and be like, ‘Yuk, they’re cooking it in the dirt.’ I’d always get offered some food. The gateway was the sticky buns. They were good. And, eventually, I tried the suckling pig . . .

“Seeing a whole pig being cooked was very full on and intense for a kid who really only knew processed meat like mince and sausages. A whole pig, with a head on? It smelled good, but it was confronting. I don’t actually remember when I very first had it, but I remember liking it — and I’ve had it a lot since!”

Chef Zennon Wijlens. Photo / Jarod Donkin
Chef Zennon Wijlens. Photo / Jarod Donkin

Scientists say our initial exposure to a flavour sets the tone for every encounter thereafter. Zennon Wijlens, head chef at Auckland’s Paris Butter, was just a teenager the first time he tasted truffle oil.

“I thought it was disgusting! I was working in my first kitchen, a little cafe out in Titirangi and the chefs got me to try it. I thought they were trying to punk me. To a 16-year-old who grew up on meat and three veges and very basic Kiwi family meals, truffle oil was completely left field — and I didn’t enjoy it very much.

“Now, because of the type of restaurant I’m in, the places I’ve worked and eaten at, I’ve been exposed to the best of the best. Once you’ve tasted real truffles, white Alba truffles, and the cream of the crop . . . I can appreciate truffle oil but there is no substitute for the real thing.”

Wijlens describes the palate as a muscle and says “the more you train it, the better it’s going to get”.

In 2019, the chef and his fiance took a sabbatical and dined at 34 of the restaurants on the World’s Best 50 list. Europe was great but, he says, he already knew what a morel mushroom would taste like.

“When we got to South America though … like, 50 different types of corn just at the supermarket!”

Also, piranha. Wijlens sampled the toothy predators at Central Restaurante in Lima, Peru. The fish heads were set in ice, the skin was a crisp cracker and the flesh, he recalls, was served raw. “It almost reminded me a little bit of barramundi. That quite distinctive, earthy, almost muddy taste.”

Not your usual market fish — piranha from the menu at Central Restaurante in Lima, Peru. Photo / Supplied
Not your usual market fish — piranha from the menu at Central Restaurante in Lima, Peru. Photo / Supplied

Can there ever be anything new under the culinary sun?

“As far as food goes, everything has kind of been done before,” says Wijlens. “But, as individuals, we have memories and experiences and we can translate that on to the plate. Take 10 chefs and give them the same ingredients and you are going to get 10 different dishes. Give 10 musicians a guitar and say I want a 30-second song — you’re going to get different songs.”

The five basic tastes are sour, salty, sweet, bitter and umami (discovered by a Japanese researcher in 1908). When we describe food we use many other descriptors, but according to Professor Charles Spence, words like fruity, citrusy or meaty are, strictly speaking, “flavours”. To determine the taste of something, writes Spence in his book Gastrophysics, you should hold your nose — “and what is left is taste”.

If there is a hierarchy of taste, it’s a safe bet umami sits at the top. Everyone’s chasing it, even if they can’t fully define it. Translated pragmatically as “pleasant savoury taste” or, more poetically, as “essence of deliciousness” it’s found in foods that contain high levels of the amino acid glutamate — miso, parmesan cheese, mushrooms, breast milk, et al. Writes Professor Spence: “A pure umami solution has a mouth-filling quality to it that none of the other tastes can quite match.”

Tom Hishon, chef and co-founder of kingi and Orphans Kitchen restaurants, was a 14-year-old living in Invercargill when he experienced his first, formative flavour bomb.

“It was a restaurant called Saffron in Arrowtown. It was probably the first time I’d been somewhere that had ambience, beautiful lighting, candles and music. I ordered braised oxtail on a truffled mashed potato. It was so simple, but it was my first encounter with truffle and probably the oxtail as well. It wasn’t a eureka moment, but it was . . . yeah, it was A Moment.”

Chef and restaurateur Tom Hishon. Photo / Supplied
Chef and restaurateur Tom Hishon. Photo / Supplied

Hishon says chefs strive to develop a “flavour library” they then draw on to create new dishes.

“To unlock umami as a flavour, you need to activate the whole palate. One analogy might be a video game. To get to ‘umami level’ you first need to tick off sweet, sour, salty and bitter, to then unlock ‘savouriness’.”

Sometimes, you crack the code. One of the (many) extraordinary dishes from the kingi menu pairs old-school Colman’s Mustard with dry-aged kahawai. It’s a combination that Hishon says was born out of a trip to Waiheke when he caught fish and wanted to do sashimi for dinner but couldn’t find wasabi at his friend’s house.

“Restaurants have a huge role to play, in terms of diversifying people’s flavours and tastes . . . the broader your flavour library, and the more you’re intentionally thinking about what you’re tasting, the more you are going to crave foods that light up those receptors in your brain.”

In the past decade, says Hishon, diners’ expectations have gone through the roof.

“These days, I’m a lot more comfortable with doing a lot less, because I think it speaks volumes.

When we opened Orphans, I was quite young. I had some great dishes there but I also had some shockers. I really wanted them to work, but I was still finding out who I was as a chef and I was probably using the dining room as more of a test kitchen than I should have been.”

Sample calamity? “Maybe when I had some cured kahawai and I paired it with some sauerkraut we’d made in-house. There might have been some apple in there. It looked beautiful on the plate, but sauerkraut and cured kahawai — they’re not friends!”

According to the so-called “omnivore’s paradox”, humans exist on an appetite spectrum. At one end, the food neophobics who actively avoid (or even fear) new foods; at the other, the food neophiliacs — your friends who definitely sampled the guinea pig with potatoes when they went to Peru.

We crave variety because we have to. Unlike koalas (eucalyptus), panda bears (bamboo) or pen-tailed tree shrews (naturally fermented bertam palm nectar) the human animal can’t subsist on a single type of food.

But developing a “taste” for one thing over another is about much more than survival. Food is an identity marker. What we eat can define who we are, where we come from — and where we want to go next. “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster,” said author Jonathan Swift. In 2023, it is also, inevitably, a wealthy one.

For some people, embracing the novel is as much about social status as genuine curiosity and, every year, food journalists race to produce lists that feed the appetites of those who want to be ahead of the pack.

In 2023, for example, commentators have said we will eat more seaweed, wildflowers and tinned fish. Mushrooms will continue to be hot; croissants will be cubed. West African cuisine will be huge and restaurants will not stop trying to convince us to eat stems and rinds. But how much of this will be truly new to our palates?

Bradley Hornby, head chef and co-owner of Blenheim restaurant Arbour. Photo / Richard Briggs
Bradley Hornby, head chef and co-owner of Blenheim restaurant Arbour. Photo / Richard Briggs

“I spend a lot of my career kind of wishing I had the opportunity and ability to taste something for the first time again,” says Bradley Hornby, chef and co-owner of Blenheim’s Arbour restaurant.

“So many of those ‘first’ instances are from your childhood and they’re based in many ways, on naivety. You have nothing to gauge it against. So the first time you taste something that is incredibly umami-rich and flavour-packed . . . that’s a cool thing that you try and do for a guest in the restaurant. You try and surprise and delight with those flavour bombs.”

Hornby grew up in Reefton, on the South Island’s West Coast. A childhood memory: “I was walking home from school, and it had been raining and the sun had come out. I remember the smell of the road and it was humid. My grandmother was from Yorkshire and she was cooking smoked ham hocks in the pressure cooker. I remember the whistle of the cooker as I came around the corner and the smell of that smokey ham hock which we would later eat with cabbage and salad cream and Branston pickle . . . "

He was 8 years old when that salty-sweet-sour flavour profile was imprinted.

“And now it’s so deeply rooted in me as a person. The fundamentals of what made that delicious are something I reach for over and over again in menus.”

Hornby can remember the first time he tasted a wild strawberry and the moment a really good vinegar forever changed his perception of vinegar but he says, increasingly, he has become less obsessed about finding the new and more interested in nailing the nuance.

“Our restaurant is focused mostly on the food of our region and we have a finite amount of resources. If you’re trying to become better every single time you cook something, you become really in tune with the way things change as seasons, or the life cycles of an animal, progress.”

Fisherman Troy's hāpuka with locally grown white beans and flowering alliums, from the menu at Blenheim restaurant Arbour. Photo / Liz Buttimore
Fisherman Troy's hāpuka with locally grown white beans and flowering alliums, from the menu at Blenheim restaurant Arbour. Photo / Liz Buttimore

It’s mid-February when Hornby speaks to Viva. He’s standing in front of a pile of butter beans, grown two kilometres from Arbour. Last week, that product was super crunchy and sweet. This week, towards the end of their season, he says the beans have developed a slight salinity. He’ll serve them later tonight with hāpuka, line-caught by Troy, a local fisherman.

That hāpuka, says Hornby, is the foie gras of his restaurant (“the rarity, the luxury”) and, in the beginning, he served it as simply as possible with minimal intervention.

“Over time, I realised this product will be the best fish I ever see in my life, but I needed to give it a helping hand and draw a tiny bit of moisture out of it. I wanted it to be a little more dense. I brine it in the same percentage of salt as its seawater. I steam it until it is 52 degrees internally. I slice it and just very, very, very lightly smoke it with the canes of the vines of the vineyard out the side of the restaurant and then I serve it with corn and the butter beans, with a dressing of wild onion buds and, next to it, a veloute or soup, of smoked corn cobs and the bones of the fish.”

It may be nothing you haven’t eaten before. But it will also taste like nothing you have ever tasted.

Unlock this article and all our Viva Premium content by subscribing to 

Share this article: