Max Gordy has a skateboarding accident to thank for kick starting his career as a chef. At 22, he was living in Vancouver and spending his days as a semi-professional skateboard racer. But during a race, he flew through a farm fence and broke both his legs, cutting short his skateboarding career and sending him back to his first love, cooking. “I was working at some really good restaurants at the time, so I had cheffing to fall back on. I poured my passion into cooking and it just grew from there.”
Almost 10 years on, Gordy and his wife, Stina Persen, have opened their first restaurant, Graze Wine Bar, situated in Kelburn, a suburb in central Wellington. “It’s a lovely neighbourhood,” says Gordy. “I used to live there about six years ago and the fish and chip lady next door still remembered me.”
The tight-knit community feel goes well with the vision the chef has for Graze, which champions all things local, ethical and seasonal. “I’m excited to come in and build a repertoire with the community around us. Having people come in two, three times a week and just having chats is probably the best part of having a community-focused restaurant.”
Persen heads up the business side of the restaurant. “She has the brains and the business certificate, whereas I’m the executive chef, focusing on the suppliers, cuisine and ethos,” says Gordy. “She plays a vital role in running the business that allows me to focus on the food.”
While the Graze atmosphere is designed to be relaxed and low-key, Gordy’s culinary credentials are sure to make this neighbourhood spot a new gem in the Wellington dining landscape.
Born in Chicago, Gordy moved to New Zealand at age 15. Enrolling in culinary school, he was soon cutting his teeth in the kitchens of Wellington institutions such as Martin Bosley’s and Logan Brown, but never actually finished his studies because he was “working too much”.
His career has taken him around the world, including a stint at Chicago’s Michelin-starred Naha restaurant, Matterhorn in Wellington, Napier’s Bistronomy and, most recently, Asher Boote’s acclaimed vegetarian eatery, Hillside Kitchen.
Gordy says it was the two years he spent travelling around South America that proved some of the most influential. “It was an amazing experience cooking in South America. A lot of my friends went to Europe for their [cooking], but I wanted something different to set me apart. South American cuisine is so diverse. I picked up so many techniques,” he says.
“Some delicacies challenged what I would usually eat, like banana leaves encasing a crazy dish made of rice, offal and blood. Then there’s the staples of the west coast [like] ceviches, which had a drastic change to them at every town up the coast of the fantastic continent.”
Gordy now uses these South American staples in a way that’s rooted in the terroir of Aotearoa. “Chimichurris are huge components to meats in Argentina. It’s usually with oregano, but I’ve used kawakawa which can be put on barbecued lettuce. I’ve made tacos made from popcorn kernels grown in Hawke’s Bay, and a mole (sauce) with Manuka honey walnuts, hazelnuts, kakakawa and seaweed, which is really fantastic. There’s so much you can do and the more I cook, the more I figure it out. Eventually it grows into something that I didn’t even intend it to.”
In the past few years, Gordy has become a fixture on the pop-up dining scene, where he’s been able to test out dishes and shape the menu for Graze. Seafood has found its way into the restaurant’s evolution, as he’s forged relationships with local suppliers, such as Gravity Fishing and Tora Collective.
“I really love the ethos of vegetarianism, but New Zealand’s such an island nation, we should appreciate our kaimoana and celebrate those people that are harvesting it ethically and looking after the ocean. When I worked at Naha in Chicago, they were getting heaps of seafood all the way from New Zealand, which was kind of crazy. It led me to rethink what kind of fish I would want and where and how it’s harvested.”
Spear fisherman Sam Wild from Ocean Speared in Nelson is another supplier that Gordy admires, and one who has introduced him to some unusual ingredients. “Sea tulips are these little molluscs that grow on the seafloor. It has a long stem, and looks like an ugly tulip, but when you get into the middle, it’s like this gelatinous oyster, almost, with a really strong flavour,” he says. “It’s great to highlight those lesser-known species and use them in a way that you can make so delicious. I feel like there are more and more fishermen having more thought about how they’re harvesting and looking after the land.”
Plants play a big role at Graze. The vision is for the menu to be 80 per cent vegetables and 20 per cent seafood. “The goal of Graze is to be as zero-waste as we can be. So when we order something, we’ve got to think about what we’re doing with every part. I’m quite big into foraging.
“Wellington’s such a green city with green belts all around, it’s really easy to go out and get fresh herbs and other ingredients you wouldn’t normally see in restaurants. At the moment I’m loving all the flowering trees (elderflower, hawthorn, cherry blossoms) with so many possibilities of preparations.”