A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS
Thomas Heaton talks to the CGFA-winning Otago chef who’s wowing diners
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