One part of cooking that stimulates me the most is education, the discovery of new things, and passing on that knowledge.
I’m very fortunate in what I do, through my books and TV shows, that I travel a lot and I’m exposed to a lot of micro producers.
My position as a chef these days is more about the producer relationship than spending a lot of time in the kitchen. Depot chef Kyle Street is brilliant and I let him do his thing. Our relationship is symbiotic. I’m continually feeding him interesting products because he has to spend so much time in the kitchen that he can’t do what I do, which is learning about different products and giving micro producers a window to sell to us.
It’s stimulating for the kitchen too, being able to work with fruit and vegetables that have come directly to us from the farm gate and haven’t driven in trucks and sat in a cool store.
Friends of ours, Tim Rose and Helen Smyth, of Kaipara Fruit Co., are one of our micro suppliers. They recently relocated from Wellington to the north, and are now based in Henderson where they’ve purchased a 15-acre edible forest of exotic fruit trees and vines. I love that as you move north the produce becomes so much more tropical. Tim and Helen’s property provides a bounty of fruits and vegetables from Buddha’s hand citron to quince, cape gooseberries, and even bananas.
When Tim and Helen were our neighbours in Lyall Bay, Wellington there was always food going back and forth over the fence. Happily stuff is still coming “over the fence” from Henderson into Depot.
The flavour of fruit that is sun-ripened and from established trees is unbeatable. And having a new taste in your mouth is what makes that eating experience so wonderful, exciting and memorable. At Depot we always keep raw product on hand to continue the story. If you’ve never seen a quince before and we have it on the menu, we’ll bring out a beautiful basket of quinces to show you. It makes the experience so much richer.
A lot of it is about learning what is new and what’s in season. Most of the time we are creatures of habit, but there is a wow factor to discovering something new. An example is our rutabaga slaw which is a play on words because it is actually swede, but I can give you as much pleasure with a swede as asparagus. It’s how you cook them.
If you want to get access to this kind of stuff and are unable to grow it yourself, farmers’ markets or roadside stalls are your best bet. The great thing about the resurgence of gardening and farmers’ markets is that people are beginning to realise there is still the possibility of eating how we should be, food at its best and crunchiest and with the most flavour. Nothing beats the extraordinary taste of potatoes dug fresh from the garden. It comes as a shock and memory wave of what something should taste like, rather than something that tastes bland, that’s been modified for the eye not the flavour and spent too much time in a fridge. It’s sad we have to talk like that now but it’s an impetus to grow and seek out fresh produce.
It is also bringing fruit to the table that previously might have been left to rot – so often a tree full of fruit never gets to anyone because there is only so much one can consume, and these days life is much more complicated and faster, and preserving, bottling and using that fruit seems to have become a thing of the past. It’s about seeking out that fruit and utilising it and sharing. The more you share food, the more it comes back. When we lived in Lyall Bay there was fish going over the fence, eggs and lemons coming back. Helen had bees so there was honey. There was a great sense of community and giving and that’s what food does – it is the ultimate gift.