Thomas Heaton talks to the CGFA-win­ning Otago chef who’s wow­ing din­ers

Cuisine - - CONTENTS - Recipe & food styling Vaughan Mabee Pho­tog­ra­phy Benn Jae

THE SNOW IS LIN­GER­ING longer than Vaughan Mabee cares for. The air is frigid over Lake Hayes and Cen­tral Otago’s peaks are still capped. Mabee is tir­ing of win­ter – he’s look­ing for­ward to find what spring and sum­mer will bring to his ever-chang­ing menu.

The hy­per-sea­sonal food that goes into Mabee’s kitchen at Am­is­field, a two-hat­ted win­ery bistro lo­cated just out­side of Queen­stown, is limited to a rel­a­tively lean list of wild and win­try in­gre­di­ents. Win­ter’s menus have been based largely on meat and fish, along­side pick­led or fer­mented veg­eta­bles from last sea­son. The an­i­mals are sourced by lo­cal fish­er­men, hunters and divers, and the meat is of­ten aged in Am­is­field’s down­stairs cel­lar.

While th­ese dishes cer­tainly have been pop­u­lar, spring and sum­mer her­ald to­tally new cre­ations. Some in­gre­di­ents will be ex­cit­ing and new to the chef, oth­ers he knows will sprout where he last saw them. A lot will come from the res­tau­rant’s gar­den too.

Mabee is hanker­ing for some as­para­gus, and he’s anx­ious to see what the over­due sea­son brings. “They’ll be cook­ing as­para­gus up north, but we’ve still got snow on the moun­tains,” he la­ments.

Not long af­ter we chat, his wait is ex­tended by a fresh dump of snow. It’ll be a bit longer now un­til as­para­gus can ap­pear on Mabee’s menu, but that’s all part of the bistro’s sea­sonal and lo­cal ethos.

For­ag­ing may not be a new trend, but Am­is­field’s whole­hearted com­mit­ment to it is im­pres­sive. Mabee en­lists the help of for­ag­ing ex­pert Peter Lang­lands, so the res­tau­rant has a con­stant flow of in­gre­di­ents not found in su­per­mar­kets or grown by lo­cal sup­pli­ers. The team keeps a data­base and a map ded­i­cated to their for­ag­ing, so last year’s ex­ploits have been tagged and they know where to re­turn to. But some­times they don’t even need to.

“We’ll go for­age a whole heap of stuff we want and ac­tu­ally plant it in our gar­den,” Mabee ex­plains. “We’re con­stantly find­ing new

things. We’ve only re­ally been do­ing ex­ten­sive for­ag­ing for a year now. We GPS ev­ery­thing.

“You can’t just spend a day look­ing for stuff,” he con­tin­ues. “We can plan ahead. You’ve got to be kind of or­gan­ised if you’re try­ing to use in­gre­di­ents from around here.”

Mabee’s 14-strong team are just as en­thu­si­as­tic about for­ag­ing. Staff of­ten ar­rive with hand­fuls of some­thing wild they’ve stum­bled upon be­fore their shifts. One day it could be wood sor­rel or sheep sor­rel, in au­tumn they struck all kinds of mush­rooms, and who knows what the sum­mer will bring – pos­si­bly some wild as­para­gus.

Mabee’s in­fec­tious en­thu­si­asm was cer­tainly part of the rea­son he nabbed the In­no­va­tion Award at this year’s

Cui­sine Good Food Awards, with the judges not­ing a “passion that’s al­most tan­gi­ble” in his thought­ful, ter­roir­driven food. The 36-year-old chef beams with pride when speak­ing of his team of in­ter­na­tional chefs, to whom he at­tributes much of his suc­cess.

Mabee, who grew up be­tween Auck­land and Kerik­eri, be­gan for­ag­ing, fish­ing and hunt­ing early in life. With his mother and younger brother he picked mush­rooms in au­tumn, fill­ing bags to take home, with the bounty des­tined to lie be­tween chunks of blue cheese and slices of toasted Vo­gel’s bread. His mother was a great cook, he says. Hail­ing from Rhode Is­land, she cooked a lot of Amer­i­can-Ital­ian dishes like ragù and lasagne. She was a keen baker too, and cor­ralled the mis­chievous young Mabee into the kitchen early.

“She would get me in the kitchen to let my younger brother play with the toys. I didn’t hear that un­til the other day,” he laughs.

It all rubbed off on him though, as did his hunter-fish­er­man fa­ther’s in­flu­ence. In early win­ter they shot ducks, in sum­mer they fished.

At the fam­ily’s bach in Taupō Bay north of Kerik­eri, Mabee’s fa­ther had him catch­ing and gath­er­ing all kinds of kaimoana. Now Mabee says he looks for­ward to in­tro­duc­ing his one-year-old son, Mil­ton, to the won­ders of North­land this year too.

“We were get­ting mus­sels and tu­atua and catch­ing all the fish every day, hav­ing feasts usu­ally on top of the bar­be­cue. We spent a lot of time in the ocean.”

The Christ­mas recipe for pāua and eggs he shares overleaf is in­spired by those times, al­though it was a less-re­fined ver­sion back then.

“It’s de­vel­oped over the years, but we used to do it when we were teenagers,” says Mabee. “It wasn’t al­ways pāua, it would be other things as well. It was left­over seafood that we’d use in break­fast or brunch, kind of like a frit­tata.

“But there was al­ways pāua around. Dad used to make a mas­sive lot of it. It was prob­a­bly a bit chewier than I do it th­ese days,” he laughs.

As a teen, Mabee washed dishes in restau­rants and ad­mired the “cool” chefs. It was a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion into cook­ing, some­thing he says he “ended up fall­ing into”. He fell hard. By 21 he was head chef at Praxis on Auck­land’s North Shore, fol­lowed by a stint at Kil­lar­ney St Brasserie, be­fore head­ing to Cal­i­for­nia.

Af­ter work­ing in var­i­ous restau­rants and ho­tels across the state, Mabee car­ried on to Europe, where he cooked at Res­tau­rante Martín Berasategui in San Se­bastián, Spain, and at four­time World Top 50 best res­tau­rant Noma in Copen­hagen – he was on René Redzepi’s team when Noma first nabbed the top spot in 2010. Mabee never went to culi­nary school, but makes the most of ev­ery­thing he ab­sorbed from those ex­pe­ri­ences.

His re­turn to New Zealand, and start at Am­is­field, was about two years ago. Since then, things have changed – pos­si­bly come full cir­cle. He’s back for­ag­ing, like he did when he was

young, and hunt­ing dur­ing his time off. “I’ve been get­ting way more into hunt­ing in my later life, be­cause I was al­ways liv­ing in San Diego or Copen­hagen or San Se­bastián. On your days off, you were just try­ing to catch some Zs.

“Now, I think be­ing down here and liv­ing in the moun­tains and stuff, it just turns into part of your life­style.”

ABOVE Vaughan Mabee with Julie Milne from Ne­vis Gar­dens, one of Am­is­field’s sup­pli­ers

LEFT Mabee walks the talk when it comes to for­ag­ing

Snow lin­ger­ing on the peaks above Lake Hayes OP­PO­SITE PAGE Mabee’s Christ­mas break­fast (pāua & egg), recipe overleaf

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