World Top 100 Chef Vaughan Mabee On The Year That Made Him Laugh, Cry & Shave His Head

By Jo Elwin
It’s been an incredible year for chef Vaughan Mabee, who is sporting a new mohawk and a refreshed outlook. Photo / Sam Stewart

Writer Jo Elwin says it’s been a cracking good year for ambitious Queenstown-based chef Vaughan Mabee, including a wedding, being named one the world’s best chefs, and Amisfield being named restaurant of the year.

‘Tis the season of year-end lists. Newspaper editors love them, commissioning listicles of the best and

I wondered, partying recently with Vaughan Mabee at Queenstown’s Ayrburn (a best-of 2023 itself), if a New Zealand chef had ever featured in a best-of-business list because standing in front of me was someone of success and influence.

Beginning with January nuptials, 2023 has been a great year for Mabee who is still pinching himself about his marriage to Julia Yamamoto-Evans. “I can’t believe this gorgeous girl married me; some people get lucky … I must have cooked her some good eggs.”

Vaughan Mabee on his wedding day with Julia Yamamoto-Evans and his son Milton.
Vaughan Mabee on his wedding day with Julia Yamamoto-Evans and his son Milton.

He has also cooked good eggs for esteemed peers judging the World’s Best Chef Awards because not only has Mabee made the Top 100 list — something no other New Zealand-based chef has managed — he debuted at number 44.

As a nominee last year Mabee attended the awards in Spain but didn’t make the list. The good times with “all the famous chefs” meant he was keen to attend this year’s in Mexico. “And I love my tacos and tequila, so I said, ‘S*** let’s go!’”

In Merida in Yucatan, Mabee had butterflies in his stomach as they announced the awards from 100 up.

“I didn’t think I was going to make the list again because big names like Gaggan Anand appeared at number 66 and then Heston Blumenthal at 49 and Alain Passard at 47 and I thought ‘Oh well’, then my big head appeared on the screen at 44 and I cried like a child. Then I went outside and vomited.”

Honoured just to be nominated, making the list at number 44 was a big moment and Mabee gushes over an “out of control” time in Merida where he found himself in a bar talking to Ferran Adria whom he had met “as a kid” working in Spain.

“Then I was on boats with him and a bunch of famous three-star chefs catching octopus off the coast of Mexico, thinking ‘What is going on right now, how am I even here?’ Then we all went out for dinner.” (Antonio Bachour’s Habibi for the inquisitive.) Starstruck, Mabee namedrops Andoni Aduriz, Rasmus Munk, Albert Adria and Diego Guerrero, saying he didn’t feel like one of them, but they were treating him like he was. “It was quite humbling.”

Amisfield, Queenstown. Photo / Sam Stewart
Amisfield, Queenstown. Photo / Sam Stewart

This year’s accolades also include Amisfield making it to the 50 Best Discovery list, which means the restaurant is on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ radar. The restaurant retained its three-hat status in New Zealand’s Cuisine Good Food Awards and was once again named Restaurant of the Year.

On a planet bulging with restaurants, these awards are a huge deal for chefs and restaurateurs for the growth of their businesses. Like a snowball, once acknowledged somewhere, everyone else starts paying attention and making reservations — Michelin-starred chefs, awards judges and destination diners. Mabee notes that these are people who have never been to New Zealand. “They are travelling here to dine at Amisfield to see if it tastes as good as all the photos. We are excited by that, and I have said to my team that now is the time to improve and elevate Amisfield. We have to make everything perfect; everyone must have the same great experience.”

This loveable larrikin is extremely ambitious. Since he started cooking, he wanted to be number one and laughs that he still does and won’t stop until he gets there. Acknowledging that he already works 70 hours a week and feels he could do more, he won’t have a bar of concerns for his health and how he might go about taking a step back.

“I have that argument every week with Julia, but she’s a good supporter of mine and knows that it isn’t ending any time soon. I have been a chef for 27 years and I am only 42.”

He talks of constant stresses, hunger for improvement and thinking that never stops. He has an unfailing drive that will see him get to number one, but it won’t end there. “You get to number one, and it gets worse because everyone wants to see what number one is like,” he deadpans.

Mabee acknowledges that the year’s achievements have been a team effort, and they are feeling the effects of recognition with full sittings of diners who understand the high prices that this level of dining requires. They have had to do it without Tony Stewart, who is slowly easing back to Amisfield following a traumatic brain injury. Mabee says, “Tony is my best friend and best front-of-house in New Zealand. Managing without that suave bastard’s eye for detail has been stressful.”

He doesn’t have to stress about chefs, they are knocking at his door, and he points out one who has come from the two Michelin-starred Harbour House in California. The chef, in sunhat and shades, is plating up outside by the fire over which meat is cooking. Mabee laughs, “The sun is intense but look at him loving what he’s doin’ out there — it’s so cool and so Kiwi.”

Boar cooking over the open fire outside Amisfield restaurant, Queenstown. Photo / Sam Stewart
Boar cooking over the open fire outside Amisfield restaurant, Queenstown. Photo / Sam Stewart

A lot of the menu is cooked outside on the barbecue, which differentiates Amisfield from other fine-dining restaurants who “borify” things to achieve Michelin stars. Mabee says, “You can’t cook an animal on the fire and fit within the Michelin realm. Here, you go outside for course 17 and sit at a table on a red carpet in front of the fire where a whole animal is cooking. We welcome you to the Kiwi hospitality of the fire, slice the juiciest, crispiest piece off and plate it right there.”

Diners move around throughout the three-hour dining experience because Mabee understands how hard it is to sit in one place too long.

Like the fire, the dessert course under the elm tree on a table of living moss and ferns — smells and sounds of the New Zealand forest filling the room — gives an immersive, sensory, New Zealand experience. For the charcuterie course you are seated upstairs in the private dining room where a chef takes a duck down from the curing meats hanging overhead, chops its head off and serves it to you on buttered bread. This edible head is a rillette of duck with truffles and raspberry jam, elaborately crafted to look completely real. Cultured butter melts on the fluffy black truffle bread and, in Mabee’s words, “it’s so f***ing delicious all the saliva starts dripping out of your mouth.” This is the trippy stuff that floats Mabee’s boat and makes him stand out. The dishes can be confronting and so Kiwi that they are almost comic, and the world loves it.

Unique produce from local fishers, hunters, foragers and growers shines. Blue cod and New Zealand king crabs that can weigh nine-and-a-half kilos are delivered live for the restaurant’s tanks and lambs tails come down the hill from Nadia Lim and Carlos Bagrie’s Royalburn Station.

Through Mabee’s friendship with Nadia and Carlos and their decision to not cut the tails off Royalburn lambs, he has access to a product that no one else has and The Lamb’s Tale is another dish that brings out the mad scientist. Braised tail meat is formed back into the shape of a tail and covered in a ‘wool’, made of lamb fat and isomalt, which is burned in front of the guests to caramelise. Mabee describes it as the yummiest piece of lamb you will ever have in your life and says the inspiration comes from eating hot, fatty lamb tail meat in Tip Top bread on tailing days as a child. “To this day it is one of my fondest food memories because it was f***king delicious — lamb juices dripping everywhere — I would eat that over a rack of lamb any time.”

Dish after dish is formed from such memories and appreciation of endemic produce to achieve the chef’s goal of giving diners the best experience of their life in a restaurant representing New Zealand through food.

Amisfield’s Giant Kiwi King Crab dish. Photo / Sam Stewart
Amisfield’s Giant Kiwi King Crab dish. Photo / Sam Stewart

In his mind, New Zealand is going to be the new food destination because “we are a young country still discovering amazing things. We need to harness that as a team — chefs, farmers, horticulturists, fishermen … in a cool act of honour to portray New Zealand in a new way where you are not just coming here to catch a Hobbit and see the view, you are coming to eat some of the most incredible food in the world.

“These awards are good for New Zealand because we are rubbing shoulders with the rest of the world and it’s a way of showing young New Zealand chefs what you can do here. Yes, you can go overseas and work under great chefs but come back and do it in your own country.”

International media are on to it. Jill Dupleix wrote in the Australian Financial Review that “dining at Amisfield still haunts me, each dish etched on my brain. I’m struck with the same seismic tremors I felt when dining at Noma in 2004, long before it won all its Best Restaurant In The World plaudits. The depth of thinking, the height of craft, the emotional theatricality, the symbiotic connection with wine, and the guaranteed return on investment are destined to make it a global dining destination.”

The review brought tears to Mabee’s eyes, “she totally understood what I am trying to do.”

He completely won over the tasting-menu-adverse British restaurant critic William Sitwell earlier this year with an enforced dinner for one in a closed restaurant on a Monday evening. Sitwell described it as one of the greatest dining moments of his life. Mabee describes it as “scary as f*** — cooking for a man who has annihilated huge-calibre chefs.”

Photo / Sam Stewart
Photo / Sam Stewart

He doesn’t hate being the cover boy for magazines such as Saber y Sabor and credits the Forbes article naming Amisfield one of the coolest places to eat at in 2024, for his new look.

Shrugging the shaving of his long hair off as no big deal, he says, “My head was hot and I was about to shave it all off when a friend pointed out that Forbes were describing me as having ‘a beard and hair reminiscent of the Nordic god of thunder,’ so I said, ‘Well, I’ll get a Viking mohawk then’.”

The big man wears it well. It takes years off him and somehow lightens him up. Julia agrees, saying she now feels like she’s out with her husband rather than her security detail.

To conclude, I have a word that I am not qualified to use, which sums up the haircut, the man, his restaurant, the level at which he operates and the year that he has had: Bussin!

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