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Playing with fire at James Pask’s folkloric Wellington restaurant, Cinderella

Chef James Pask delivers inventive flavours and a nose-to-tail approach in his new ‘fairytale’ restaurant.

Playing with fire at James Pask’s folkloric Wellington restaurant, Cinderella

When James Pask first came up with the name for his new restaurant, he didn’t actually think it would stick. But the more he thought about it, the more it made sense to him. “Cinderella is more about cinders. All the cooking is done over wood, working with fire and among the ashes,” he explains.

The award-winning executive chef behind Wellington’s fine-dining restaurant Atlas opened its sister restaurant, Cinderella, in February of this year. Located in the former Bresolin restaurant space, ‘Cinders’, as Pask calls it, reflects his desire for a freer cooking style. Here, he’s doing what he does best: inventive flavours and refined techniques with a ‘nose-to-tail’ approach.

A step away from the precision and measured approach you’ll find at Atlas, Cinderella is all about playing with fire. “We’ve got a big open fire grill and a wood-fired oven. Everything is generally cooked on the bone and the vegetables are buried in the ash. It’s a lot more challenging in the way it’s cooked, but it’s very rewarding.”

Pask sourced tableware and decor from vintage stores and painted the walls black to enhance the restaurant’s moody, folkloric feel.

Directly inspired by his time at Wellington’s beloved Matterhorn and Whitebait restaurants, everything follows the ‘nose-to-tail’ approach, using as much of the animal as possible and pairing modern flavours with traditional, French driven techniques.

The ever-changing menu ranges from house-made charcuterie and preserves, like pickled walnuts and pig’s head terrine, to hero dishes such as grass-fed wagyu Florentine steak, aged for four months in its own fat, and stout-brined and roasted pork that’s “like an old-school country ham”. In winter, expect hearty, flavoursome dishes, like braised beef served in the pot and whole steamed fish cut and presented at the table.

Signature dishes such as this Catalan style fish and Cloudy Bay clams utilise the open fire grill and wood-fired oven.

Working in this untethered yet well-practiced style gives Pask the flexibility to play with fresh, seasonal and foraged ingredients. “Part of the foundation of our menu is what we can actually get ourselves,” he explains. “We’ve got a couple of spots where we go and pick our porcini mushrooms, sometimes every day if the weather’s right.” It also allows him to try techniques that wouldn’t normally work in fine-dining kitchens. “We do a Basque cheesecake that’s baked an hour before service … it’s almost like custard.”

Like Atlas, wine is just as important as the food, designed to “wrap around the menu with contrast and interesting pairings”, featuring 200 predominantly organic and natural varieties that rotate as the menu changes. Pask says the old Bresolin space was the jumping-off point for the design of the restaurant, from the menu, to the interior design, even down to the types of plates.

“I love the deco and the age of the building. It’s very sleek and old-school, going back to eras like the 1920s,” he says. Digging through vintage shops, Pask found plates, silver cutlery and glass vessels from the 1920s and 1930s and painted the walls black to create the moody, folkloric feel.

Hands-on throughout the whole process, he even stripped back The Bresolin’s old tables himself, using the Japanese burning technique of ‘shou sugi ban’ to char and waterproof the wood. The opening of Cinderella marks another successful step in Pask’s career, a chef who, over two decades ago, went “from the sink to a pastry chef in a month” and has never looked back.

Now with two restaurants to run and a two-year-old daughter keeping him busy, you’d think he would have enough on his plate to keep himself occupied. But he’s already stuck into a new restaurant project – his biggest yet. “We’re about 70 percent there on the design, and it’s due to open in November,” he says.

Yet to land on a name, Pask and his team have stripped back an old restaurant in the Wellington CBD to turn it into a 150-seat all-day eatery in the style of modern New Zealand cuisine that’s steeped in Italian history. “We’ll have all handmade pasta using New Zealand flours. During the day, we’ll have Neapolitan pizza dough muffaletta sandwiches made to order, and pizza in the evening.”

Chef James Pask at work in the Cinderella kitchen.

Pask says he still gets the most fulfilment in the kitchen. “I’m in a position now where I have multiple venues so it’s not always about the cooking all the time. When I get to cook, I really enjoy it. I can forget about everything else, be it working in the wood-fire in Cinderella or the meat station at Atlas. That’s what I take enjoyment out of.”

Story originally published in STYLE Winter 2021. 

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