Josh Emett at Rata in Queenstown

A Decorated New Zealand Chef Is Glad to Be Home

Home : Eats By Photo by Sung Han and Jack Seemer

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f some chefs are known for wearing many hats, Josh Emett is best known for one. With four Michelin stars to his CV, he is perhaps New Zealand’s most internationally renowned chef. Born in Hamilton, just south of Auckland, Emett rose to culinary prominence in London under the wing of restaurant titan Gordon Ramsay.

In 2000, he joined the staff at Ramsay’s decorated restaurant in Chelsea. At the time it had only two stars; today, it carries three. “I wanted to do something creative,” says Emett, recalling his first leap into one of the world’s top kitchens. “I wasn’t interested in money. I was interested in a job and hard work. And that’s exactly what I got.”

This work paid off. And quickly. When Ramsay opened Claridge’s, just over a year after Emett’s arrival in the United Kingdom, he was promptly promoted to senior sous chef. He then went on to open Ramsay’s famed 1920s-inspired Savoy Grill as the restaurant’s head chef. “It was sort of rock and roll” after that, he says. “I still look back on Claridge’s and the Savoy as some of my most fun years in the kitchen.”

Emett found himself returning south to New Zealand, but not without extended layovers in the States, still cooking for Ramsay in both New York and Los Angeles. Today, however, he’s since returned home, overseeing his own string of newly opened restaurants: Seafarers in Auckland, along with Rata and Madam Woo, both in Queenstown.

We meet him at Rata, one afternoon in the late summer, where he’s sitting in the back of the house with Rata’s head chef, Chris Scott, going over the day’s menu. Emett stands to welcome us. He’s handsome and tan — an avid golfer, his time spent outdoors evident — dressed in his chef’s whites, which contrast against his face. He wears a brass bracelet around his wrist. He’s easygoing and calm, but carries himself with poise. When he speaks he’s articulate; when he doesn’t, he looks focused.

Though his craft in the kitchen is as good as they come, his role as a restauranteur, creating the experience, is what really gets him going. “I love the food part of it,” he says. “But when people come out to dine, it’s not just about the food or the service. They want to be taken somewhere else. Sometimes they want to be left alone, but they are here for a reason and all for different reasons, not just because they are hungry.” Over one superbly cooked dish of the day’s local catch coupled with Cloudy Bay clams, it was easy to see that there are many reasons that make Rata special, but one more than most: Central Otago.

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Q.
Tell me about your bracelet.
A.
I got this in L.A. I went into this little back alley on Abbot Kinney, and a girl was making them there under the brand Howl — Handle Only with Love, I think it is. I had been looking for someone to make something for a while, and she literally batted it out and put my name on the inside and all that.

Q.
Do you get back to L.A. often?
A.
Whenever I come back to New Zealand, the logical route is through L.A. It’s not the best airport. But I started to get in this habit of staying a few days in L.A. I love L.A. I think it’s a good town, a great food town.

Q.
What makes food there special?
A.
I just think that California gets the best produce of almost of anywhere in the world. It’s bloody good. They are very lucky. America is like that, like a big food bowl — you’ve got multiple seasons going on in the same country at the same time.

Q.
When’s the last time you went?
A.
My business partner here, Fleur, the head chef Chris, and I went up before Rata opened — just to eat. I wanted to sort of pinpoint ideas and inspiration. Not just from a food perspective, but also a design, service, you know, décor, functionality perspective as well. Everything.

Q.
What are your favorite restaurants there?
A.
There’s so many good places. There’s a place called Animal that we really enjoyed. Another place called Manhattan Beach Post. And Gjelina — which is in Abbot Kinney. It’s one of the coolest restaurants around. They do a lot of cooking on char-grillers and over fire and that sort of thing. The food is very simple, but very pure. I really like that.

“When people come out to dine, it’s not just about the food or the service. It’s about the whole experience. They want to be taken somewhere else.”

Q.
You have several restaurants to your name now. What’s it like opening a restaurant?
A.
The exciting part for me about a opening a restaurant is thinking about a package. It’s about the whole package. I love the food part of it. That’s the part I’m good at and that I am trained at. I do day in and day out. But when people come out to dine, it’s not just about the food or the service. It’s about the whole experience. They want to be taken somewhere else. Sometimes they want to be left alone, but they are here for a reason and all for different reasons, not just because they are hungry.

Q.
What do you value in a good restaurant?
A.
Fresh produce done well. Not so much theater and presentation and that sort of thing; some really nice, simple, but unusual presentation. A good scallop is a good scallop, you know? Leave it alone and let it speak for itself. So yeah, really simple presentation, and a focus on flavor is a good thing.

Q.
You’ve worked in some of the top kitchens around the world. From your point of view, how is the current culinary scene of New Zealand?
A.
I think the New Zealand culinary scene is pretty amazing right now. The food is great. Service is really getting better, and I think people are more aware of what good service is. We have outstanding produce and I think there are some great chefs who are doing really good things with it. There’s also lots of options. There’s more restaurants opening all the time, and always a few that drop off the bottom. But it creates a little bit of hype, and a reason to go out. There are options, there’s more going on. So the food scene is bloody good, and the food in New Zealand is, I think on the whole, I think very solid, you know? You have to work pretty hard to have a really bad meal.

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Q.
Speaking of produce, what’s in season right now?
A.
Sweet corn is still here. We’ve just been through asparagus. Tomato season is just coming to the end. Cromwell, which is a town 45 minutes from Queenstown is the stone fruit sort of capital of New Zealand — cherries, apricots, nectarines, peaches, all outstanding.

Q.
How does your upbringing play into your style of cooking?
A.
My upbringing is represented in my cooking through my love of rabbits, pigeons, ducks. I grew up on a farm shooting rabbits and ducks, all that sort of thing. Quails. I also love working with fish. I absolutely love working with those products, and that is a direct result of my upbringing. Wanting to do stuff with them and that sort of thing. They are good products, and they are nice to work with.

Q.
How did you get into cooking?
A.
I started with baking and that sort of thing. I was really into baking cakes. I did a lot of that when I was a kid, and I always cooked my own breakfast. It was not necessarily, you know, making the Sunday roast, but always in the kitchen making myself food. So when I left school, I definitely wanted to do something creative. I didn’t want to work 9 to 5, and cheffing is sort of the complete opposite of that, isn’t it? It’s a bit of a dog’s life — bad hours and hard work, for no money. I did sort of dig myself a hole there, didn’t I?

Q.
You made a name for yourself working alongside Gordon Ramsay. When did that start?
A.
I was age 26 and started working with Gordon then and spent my almost 11 and a half years with him — mostly in London, New York and L.A. At first, I didn’t even ask about a position. I wasn’t interested in money. I was there to learn. I was interested in a job and hard work. And that’s exactly what I got. But as long as I had enough money to pay my rent and have a few beers, I was pretty happy. And he actually paid me well anyway. I left in a very high position and went straight into a sous chef role.

Q.
Where was he in his career when you started cooking for him?
A.
When I started with Gordon, he had two Michelin stars in Chelsea. I think I started there in November, December, and I think it was January or February he got his third star. Then a year after that, he opened Claridge’s, which I went to as a senior sous chef — the number two — with a friend of mine who was the head chef. Then 18 months after that, I opened the Savoy Grill as head chef for Gordon. So it was sort of rock and roll. That was good fun. I still look back on Claridge’s and the Savoy as some of my most fun years in the kitchen.

“There’s nothing that defines fine dining anymore. The idea that fine dining is defined by white tablecloths, waiters in bow ties, the price of the cutlery and the glasses, you know, doesn’t really exist.”

Q.
That was a pretty high level of cooking you were doing. Do you think fine dining has a place in New Zealand?
A.
I think fine dining has a place everywhere. It’s just a percentage thing. I don’t think fine dining dies, I think it just moves. There’s nothing that defines fine dining anymore. The idea that fine dining is defined by white tablecloths, waiters in bow ties, the price of the cutlery and the glasses, you know, doesn’t really exist. There’s arguably restaurants serving better food with better service on tables with no table cloth on concrete floors. The whole game has changed. I don’t think there’s any definition, but the food just keeps getting better anyway. Fine dining is something that’s elegant and refined and all those sorts of things. So there is great places doing that sort of thing in New Zealand, but it’s always a percentage.

Q.
Is Rata fine dining?
A.
I would call it contemporary. I think the food is refined. It is elegant. I think what we try and do is make it fun. It has to be fun. It has to be relaxed. It has to be generous. Those things come before fine dining — you know, the term at least. There’s a lot of words that define what we’re about a lot more than a term like fine dining. But contemporary upmarket? Yeah, definitely.

Q.
What’s up with your other Queenstown restaurant, Madam Woo?
A.
The first port of call was that there was a girl called Jane, Jane Leung, who I worked with in Australia. She’s Malaysian-born from about an hour north of Kuala Lumpur. She’s an amazing cook, and her and I talked together, and I said, you know, we’ve got to do a project together. That’s how it sort of started. Then she actually moved down to New Zealand, spent a year at Rata, and while we were sort of talking ideas, we cooked a few dishes and talked about style. We talked about everything from a hole in the wall to a bigger restaurant. I think what happened in the end was just that a perfect site got put in our laps, and represented what we were all thinking. It really clicked, and away we went. From the first time her and I talked about doing something together, it was probably three years later that we opened Madam Woo. It wasn’t overnight. We had the right idea but we were prepared to wait to make sure that we got all the basics right.

Q.
Tell me about the cuisine.
A.
We talked about all sorts of food and she just started rattling off dishes. She started cooking us things, which were just — they were unbelievable. She cooks her family food that she knows, and it’s just so good.

Q.
If you were eating there for dinner, what would you order?
A.
You’d probably have to share a hawker roll, and the squid dish [Honey & Soy Tossed Squid] which is outstanding. You’d have to have probably either the Beef Rengdang or the Nyonya Chicken Curry. The Beef Rendang is served with Nasi Lemak, which is just magic on a plate. You’ll love that coconut rice and sambal cucumber, with a little dried anchovies and peanuts. And fried egg on top. Ah, it’s magic.

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Q.
So if Madam Woo is staying true to its roots of old-school, family-style cooking, what does Rata stay true to?
A.
Rata stays true to the region. When we decided on Rata and what Rata was about, we literally went out into the hills about three hours from here. It’s like Mars out there. There is a place called Pokolbin. When you go up there and look around, that’s what it should feel like in here. It should stay really pure to that. The food should stay as local as possible, and that sort of works because freight in New Zealand is horribly expensive and an absolute joke, so that actually works in our favor. Just keep it local, keep it seasonal and keep the food interesting. But it has to be comforting and it has to be generous. And consistent.

Q.
Where did you get the name?
A.
Rata is a tree. It’s like the iron-hearted tree of the South, and it’s just an amazing tree that grows up through the forests. In late February, it blossoms in red flowers through the forests. It’s amazing, especially if you go up there in the right weather. It is deep, deep forest green, and it’s literally like sprayed with blood — the rata red, you know? It’s very cool. Most of the stuff we plant around the outside here is all native, so there is some rata and all sorts of other trees, which are native as well. I think we were about six weeks out from opening and still didn’t have a name. So we just said, you know what, why don’t we just call it Rata?