The couple behind new Auckland restaurant Pasture talk to Alice Neville
“We want Pasture to be fun. It’s an honour for us that someone would like to come here and spend that money on a meal, but we don’t want it to be the place you go to once a year, when you’re like, ‘Oh well, it’s our anniversary.’”
JARS FILLED WITH mysterious substances line the shelves of a small space tucked down an alleyway off Parnell’s main drag, their handwritten labels hinting at what lies within – from umeboshi to spruce, shio koji to kawakawa, all preserved in various manners. These are the fruits of the labours of chef Ed Verner, ready to be used in dishes he creates at Pasture, the restaurant he’s opened with wife Laura.
“Last summer I went crazy with weird ingredients,” Ed explains. Inspiration came from the pickle-mad chefs with whom he worked at Michelin-starred Danish restaurants Relae and Kadeau, during an eye-opening Scandinavian sojourn the couple embarked on a couple of years ago. Experiencing the way these proponents of the celebrated New Nordic movement operated was a game-changer, Ed says.
“It completely changed my view – my cooking style, techniques, the appreciation of different things. It was exactly what I needed.”
Applying what they learnt on the other side of the world to New Zealand ingredients has been a fascinating process of trial and error. Ed says it’s more than preserving – it’s creating new flavours. Often they’ve found the preserve itself is far from pleasant but the liquid it’s floating in is delicious.
“You’ll taste it and be like, ‘Oh my God, that’s terrible, but then you’ll taste the liquid and be like ‘wow’,” says Ed. “I get a real kick out of that.” “It’s our library of flavours,” adds Laura. “It tells a story of the seasons – we’ve gone through this journey with the land, and we’re constantly inspired by what we see around us.”
In addition to the weird and wonderful pickle pantry are rows of nondescript brown bottles filled with homemade vinegars – lemon myrtle, lovage and lemon verbena vinegars to name a few. “When we’re making a sauce we can pull one down and use it,” explains Ed. “It gives the restaurant our own unique flavour.”
There’s nothing else quite like Pasture in New Zealand, and defining the restaurant has been a bit of a struggle, the pair told Cuisine when we visited soon before it opened. “We’re very specific,” says Laura. “We’re not fine dining, we’re not a bistro. The quality, the technique is fine-dining level, but we want Pasture to be fun. It’s an honour for us that someone would like to come here and spend that money on a meal, but we don’t want it to be the place you go to once a year, when you’re like, ‘Oh, well, it’s our anniversary.’
“It’s meant to be a place that you can just come to and feel welcome, and there’s no right way to put your fork.”
During the day Pasture will open as a bakery/coffee shop of sorts, with a few seats and Kokako coffee – soft brew (plunger, in this instance) only. People can pop in for a coffee and take home a loaf, with baked treats a possibility for the future. Bread is one of Ed’s passions, and a large bread oven takes up much of the kitchen at Pasture. “There is no better feeling than pulling a perfect loaf of bread out of the oven,” he says. He has a few sourdough starters bubbling away and will be grinding much of the flour himself.
In the evening, Pasture will offer a six-course menu only. “It’s mainly because of food wastage,” says Ed. “It’s not sustainable to have à la carte. And it’s also because it’s easier for us – we can give you a better experience if I know exactly what I have to supply.”
Most of the dishes will be plantbased, with probably one out of the six featuring meat and one fish, and interesting desserts will be a big focus. Ed will always have extra dishes up his sleeve if you have specific dietary requirements, though. “Tell us when you book and you’ll get six courses of whatever you like to eat.”
His food is simple, with a maximum of three or four components in each dish. “I think often there’s too many frills, food gets too busy – lots of little crunchy things and layers and garnishes. We want to simplify it.”
But often the simplicity belies the technique behind it, points out Laura. Ed agrees: “It may look really simple but those components might take two or three days to make.”
Interestingly, there is no gas in the kitchen at Pasture – just electric
“I get a kick out of people taking an interest in what I do; it gives me motivation to be better. I get satisfaction out of making people happy, so actually seeing that is great.”
induction, the aforementioned bread oven and an impressive open fire that will be a big focus of the menu. The 1.5-metre long wood-fired pit is fitted with a metal grate suspended by chains that can be lowered and raised – vegetables can be rested on top, and meat suspended on meat hooks dangled from below. “We’re going to use it for so many things,” Ed says, giving the example of a carrot puree. “I’ll roast the carrots over the fire and blitz them up.”
The brackets can be removed and whole animals roasted over the fire, then carved to order. Ed is big on taking whole cuts and has made a dry-curing fridge out the back of the restaurant.
“It’s about using what’s plentiful on the farm that week,” he explains. “I’m working closely with a pig farmer and she will sell a shoulder to someone for sausages, then will end up with a whole neck. I said to her, give it to me and I’ll put it on the menu that week. The next week I might take a midsection of a pig – I’ll take the loin and cook it on the fire, take the belly and make pancetta, take the fat and make lardo.”
Pasture is small, seating just 25-30 diners, and the kitchen is very much open. “You’re kind of stepping into our front room,” says Ed. “I can say hi to you as you walk in the door. The experience isn’t the same if you can’t see the chef, there’s a real disconnect.”
The aim is for the chefs to bring dishes out to the diners – a trend that has been adopted by some of the world’s top restaurants in recent years. “The goal is you come in, sit at the bar, and I want the chefs to take control and hand you the menu,” says Ed. “I get a kick out of people taking an interest in what I do; it gives me motivation to be better. I get satisfaction out of making people happy, so actually seeing that is great.
“I’m not sure we’re going to pull it off 100 per cent, because I don’t know how busy we’re going to get,” he adds, “but I really want that to happen here.”
Irishman Michael Sinclair, whose background is in bars and cafes, has been brought on board as restaurant manager. “We’re tending towards natural, organic and biodynamic wines from lovely small producers, many of whom Michael has been fostering direct relationships with,” says Laura.
Non-alcoholic drinks will be just as much of a focus, with vegetable-based juices and naturally fermented sodas.
“If you choose not to drink alcohol, you’re going to be able to have a match with the same complexity and body and flavour,” says Laura.
“That kind of excites me more than the wine list, to be honest,” adds Ed. “It means as a chef I can have more fun with what matches with the food – there’s no limit to what you can do.”
Pasture has been a couple of years in the planning and was first envisaged as a country eatery. “We were trying to set up something that was a rural destination, because that’s our happy place – we love being in the country – and the food is so inspired by nature,” says Laura.
They found a location in Clevedon, but ended up walking away from it due to various issues with the site. The Parnell spot, which came up in November last year, is a kind of “Pasture 2.0”. “With this iteration of Pasture, the challenge is bringing that sense of the country into the city,” says Laura.
But they still have a soft spot for the rural pocket south of Auckland and have kept their home in nearby Maraetai, even though they have moved to the city to be close to Pasture. “It’s a really special place for us,” says Laura. “It’s quite hard to not be there full-time any more but we kept our home because if we’re not going out there and not doing the same walks in the forest and the beach with our dog, then we’ll lose touch with the subtle changes every week. We walk around picking things and tasting things and that’s what sparks so many of these ideas.”
The couple, now both 33, first met in 2012 when Ed was working at Sidart. Sid Sahrawat (our 2016 Chef of the Year, see page 40) was a great mentor to the young chef, and is still his “go-to guy”. “He always encouraged me – he let me put my ideas on the plate at Sidart and gave me the motivation I needed. I think it’s fair to say I wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t been for him pushing me.”
Laura is a photographer who has a background in horticulture, and she was shooting an event at Sidart when she first met Ed. They crossed paths again a few months later when they found themselves washing dishes together at another industry event. Ed commented on the bouquet on the windowsill, Laura told him she had made it from what was growing in her garden and they got chatting about plants. “He quite confidently invited himself over to see my garden and the rest was history.”
Both the Verners had a semi-rural upbringing – Laura (nee Forest) is from a South African winemaking family and moved here in 2003, while Ed, originally from Dorset, came to New Zealand six years ago. Running a restaurant together is a way for them to see each other, they explain. “We knew that we wanted a future together, so the only way was ‘let’s just do something together, let’s jump in the deep end’,” says Laura.
Laura has relished the creative aspects of opening the restaurant, she says. “It’s highly visual and tactile.” She’s excited about documenting the life of Pasture photographically for its website, and enjoyed working with illustrator Erin Ellis on the restaurant logo, a depiction of wild carrot (Queen Anne’s lace).
“When we came back to New Zealand we were living in Clevedon and it was just everywhere,” says Laura. “It’s this really misunderstood plant – it is edible, but it’s treated as a weed – and it’s also a beautiful part of our landscape.”
Pasture, 235 Parnell Rd, Parnell, Auckland, pastureakl.com
CELERIAC & BUFFALO MOZZARELLA