Q. Speaking of produce, what’s in season right now?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.