Jesse Mulligan: Hospo’s Finest Are Migrating To Glenorchy To Be Part Of Headwaters Eco Lodge

By Jesse Mulligan
The mushroom tart at Headwaters Eco Lodge. Photo / Sam Stewart

For many years the best Queenstown eating has been found beyond the city limits, and ironically, Peter Gawron, the chef whose restaurant Saffron for years had hungry gourmands driving south to Arrowtown, is now responsible for a shift in gravity towards the top of the lake at Glenorchy.

Peter sold

Having mentally consigned himself to a happy retirement cooking feasts for his family and autographing the occasional cookbook, he got an unexpected request from American philanthropists Debbi and Paul Brainerd to launch a first-class food offering at their Headwaters Eco Lodge, a multimillion-dollar sustainable accommodation project they opened in 2018, with profits channelled through local trustees to the Glenorchy community.

Chef Peter Gawron. Photo / Aaron McLean
Chef Peter Gawron. Photo / Aaron McLean

With an open brief and long-term commitment, their new chef was free to create the restaurant of his dreams — serving a nightly tasting menu matched with fine Central Otago wine, themed each evening to one of his numerous ethnic and international specialities.

A committed traveller and hard-core researcher of ingredients and techniques, Peter decided he would serve, for example, Moroccan one night, French bistro food the next and then, just as guests thought they had him pigeonholed, create a Thai banquet that would hold up in any Bangkok hotel.

Each meal is served with delight and generosity — a team of professional wait staff ferrying multiple courses from kitchen to table. The lodge’s guests gather for drinks in a luxurious common area before sitting down to eat at 6.30pm, the final sweet course finishing up sometime after 9pm when the only remaining job is to find one’s way home to bed.

I visited with my family in March when there was still some heat in the sun but you were glad to get under a blanket once night fell. The lodge sits on an expanse of land at the foot of a mountain range — well, everything is at the foot of a mountain range when you’re staying in the Wakatipu Basin — which has the effect of creating an epic, photogenic backdrop at every turn.

Simply walking from reception to your chalet involves much stopping, oohing and aahing, followed by several minutes of trying to fit yourself and a 3000-metre mountain peak into the same selfie frame.

Solar panels on the roof at Headwaters Eco Lodge. Photo / Supplied
Solar panels on the roof at Headwaters Eco Lodge. Photo / Supplied

“Eco” is an appealing prefix for tourism marketers to drop in, but Headwaters walks the walk — if anything it could perhaps do more of talking the talk. Many of its most impressive environmental initiatives are literally hidden from guests, in a subterranean engineering bunker which acts as brain and engine room for the whole resort.

There is more green technology beneath every toilet than you’d normally find in a whole hotel, along with some gobsmacking energy generation and conservation initiatives — cold water, for example, is sent 75 metres down into the earth and back up again in order that it picks up some residual warmth, so that less electricity is required to heat it for showers; each cabin has, predictably, solar panels, but also a complex water heating system that was explained several times to me by the resident engineer but about which I had to eventually bluff a nod of comprehension then niftily change the subject.

We stayed for two nights and on the middle day took one of Headwaters’ guided tours on to the Routeburn Track, one of the greatest of Great Walks. New Zealanders tend to shy away from using a guide — we were the first Kiwis our guy Adam had come across all season — but once you’ve experienced the difference it makes, from looking after transport and snacks to pointing out mountains and rivers of interest, to giving you a little encouragement just when you need it most, you might well decide it’s worth the extra investment.

The cioppino at Headquarters Eco Lodge. Photo / Sam Stewart
The cioppino at Headquarters Eco Lodge. Photo / Sam Stewart

Headwaters is very close to the beginning of the Routeburn and you can do a great day trip walking in with a packed lunch and then out again, but if your time and budget allow, the lodge can set you up with a range of more expansive activities, from jetboating to heli hiking.

You can pick up lunch at Mrs Woolly’s, a charming general store and cafe which forms part of the Headwaters ecosystem. After a Fairlie Bakehouse pie, a poke bowl and a perfect oat flat white, we browsed the store and wandered home with a couple of branded camping cups, a perfect memento of our time at “Camp Glenorchy”.

It was almost time for day-two dinner and, after happily stuffing ourselves with lamb tagine and crayfish the night before, we arrived with great anticipation right as the bar opened at 6pm, taking two flutes of Quartz Reef methode outside to toast the setting sun.

Over the next few hours, we were served dishes that made sense of the incredible smells that had been coming from the kitchen all day — a chicken-duck consomme, stuffed quail, rabbit roulade and individual cassoulets arrived one by one, then a wedge of Brie de Meaux with truffled honey and, finally, a homemade tarte au citron, served with raspberry sorbet and coulis.

Many of the ingredients are sourced locally or grown in the Headwaters garden — though Peter is still patiently nurturing the lemongrass, trying to recreate tropical conditions with a glasshouse in the deep south.

The Headwaters Eco Lodge at Camp Glenorchy. Photo / Supplied
The Headwaters Eco Lodge at Camp Glenorchy. Photo / Supplied

Though Queenstown, like the rest of the world, is dealing with a staffing crisis, Headwaters has a floor crew of senior professionals to make any Auckland restaurateur jealous: a manager from the Langham Hong Kong, a sous chef trained at Le Gavroche, Peter’s longtime maitre d’ from Saffron and wait staff each of whom had their own unique CV and reason for choosing Headwaters to further their careers.

Word is getting around, both among potential staff (the Lodge is starting to get emails from hospo workers asking if they can come to be part of the new buzz) and diners (when we visited, the famous Felton Road winery had booked two consecutive nights in the restaurant’s private room to treat their staff and stakeholders).

Though Glenorchy is a little further to travel from Queenstown than Arrowtown is, the prospect of this much incredible food for $85 a head is bound to eventually become too compelling to resist.

There is some talk of a water taxi in the future — imagine finishing that tarte and then climbing aboard a fast boat back to your hotel — but for now the best plan might be to book one or more nights at the lodge, enjoy the gentle pace of Glenorchy and woozily stroll back to your warm room after dinner, the soft glow of the Milky Way guiding your path.

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