THE MAIN INGREDIENT
Kelli Brett meets a legend of the local hospitality scene
OLD COOKBOOKS should be treasured – they are a glimpse of a national history highlighting cultural and ingredient influences and local food pioneers. Since arriving in New Zealand, I’ve been scouring the op shops. I had a score recently with the purchase of The New Zealand Restaurant Cookbook published in 1983. Written by Michael Guy and Digby Law, it provides a great sense of restaurants that have stood the test of time across all of that salmon in aspic, flavoured mousse and souffle grand marnier. Across the “butternut plusone” – lamb sweetbreads and butternut in almond cream sauce; bi cuon – sliced steamed pork, mint and a thin crisp lettuce wrapping; tarte au citron – lemon custard tart; and the awabi no shio mushi – simmered paua with sake and Japanese seasoning.
Hold on! Perhaps everything old is (again) becoming new again? However, a French-themed issue of
Cuisine begs a question: “Who in New Zealand was doing it right back then, and are they still doing it now?”
A restaurant that opened in 1973, which was one of the first classical French restaurants in Auckland and is still holding its own today, has to be a bit of a legend. Antoine’s in Parnell, Auckland still caters to loyal diners and also gathers a steady stream of new clientele. They must be doing something right. Right? Over the last 44 years, Tony and Beth Astle have hosted celebrities, world media and families with high standards and good taste.
For all of this, Tony was awarded a lifetime achievement award at the
Cuisine Restaurant of the Year Awards 2012 (now the Cuisine Good Food Awards). Upon making the mad dash from a full-on service at Antoine’s to the awards, he grabbed his certificate, announced he was not dead yet and challenged every chef and restaurateur in the room as to why they weren’t at work rather than poncing about at the event. Now Tony is the first person to admit that he is his own worst PR nightmare, but there is a lot of valuable knowledge under that chef’s jacket, and anyone who can last over 44 years in the hospitality business anywhere in the world is a bit of a legend in my book.
It’s impressive that Tony presents a nostalgia menu that still delivers Antoine’s bestsellers. Most of the dishes have evolved over the years, as a good dish does, but the onion soup remains a keeper from day one, as is – or was.
Back in 1983, the opening paragraph of The New Zealand Restaurant Cookbook reads: “New Zealand is quickly becoming more sophisticated in its style of eating and in the preparation and presentation of its dishes. In Europe, especially France and Italy, the main meal has long been a ritual – a drawn-out affair that is the hub of social and family life.”
It goes on to tell us that: “Here in New Zealand the traditions are not so pronounced. Meals have been historically divided into a short breakfast, a quick lunch and uninspiring dinners. But slowly, with the advent of so many more restaurants, and the availability of a much wider range of meat, seafood, vegetables and other ingredients, our style of eating is changing. Added to this is the improvement in the standard and the increased consumption of New Zealand wine. All these add up to a greater interest in food, cooking, dining out and making the nightly meal a more social
There is a lot of valuable knowledge under that chef’s jacket, and anyone who can last over 44 years in the hospitality business anywhere in the world is a bit of a legend in my book.
occasion. Perhaps in years to come, New Zealand may move even closer to the French style of eating. In France you can visit a country restaurant and you don’t choose from the menu, the cook has already worked out what will be served and you merely wait for it to arrive.”
Sound familiar? It’s a brave chef who completely removes our freedom of choice and yet it is happening at many restaurants across New Zealand. As we surrender to the chef’s seasonal and local selection, we are thrilled with the textures and tastes of an authentic New Zealand. Pasture, Meredith’s, Roots, Sidart and many more are going down that road.
WE BRING YOU NEWS on page 47 of the much-anticipated opening of chef Alex Davies’ Gatherings in Christchurch. Last year while attending the impressive International Food Design Conference 2016 in Dunedin, I went to a pop-up by Alex and sat down to roasted carrot and hazelnut served with lemon, parsley and thyme. I’m ashamed to admit that the sound of this dish underwhelmed me. Yet the delivered plate paired with the perfect natural wine burned that carrot into my mind as the most amazing carrot I have ever tasted. A carrot that might never be beaten – or eaten – again. Who knew that I could become so emotional over a single carrot? Have I peaked too soon?
The power of food, the combination of our chefs’ imaginations and skills and the intensity of flavour within our ingredients leave us with immense possibilities. Don’t miss the journey. Follow ConversatioNZ, and stay with us here at Cuisine as we help to tell this important New Zealand food story. Listen to Kelli’s full and frank conversation with Tony Astle at cuisine.co.nz