There’s something different about Des Harris today, and it doesn’t take long to realise what it is. Google him at Logan Brown, Peppers Martinborough Hotel and the Clooney cuisinier, and he wasn’t in anything but an immaculate, starched, monogrammed, chef’s white uniform.
Today, however, Harris is in T-shirt, jeans and sneakers. Look closer and he might not have shaved. He’s kicking back over coffee and cakes – for testing, or should that be tasting, purposes – in the cellar door café at The Hunting Lodge Winery and Restaurant in the rolling farmlands of the Waimauku Valley, west of Auckland.
This is his new gig and this chef, recognised for his mastery of fine dining, is loving the new country style.
Harris spent nine years at Clooney’s ovens, his “exceptional cuisine in a dramatic setting” and “modern approach to classic flavour combinations” winning critical acclaim. Last year he walked away.
“What I’d done was restricting in many ways because fine dining is all-encompassing. That’s all you do,” he explains. “I felt I needed to get out and have lots of new experiences. I thought I’d resign and see what was out there and, thankfully, work came to me.”
Harris consulted on several projects, from inner-city café/wine bar/eatery Pilkington’s to Ponsonby’s favourite new bistro, Augustus, and its parent, SPQR. But he yearned for a kitchen of his own. “There’s only so long I can live off the glory of Clooney,” he admits.
(True: just a few days after we spoke, owner Tony Stewart closed the fine-dining restaurant and announced the venue would re-open in 2018 as a casual eatery.)
Then the Sutton family, who’d bought the historic Hunting Lodge Winery, knocked on Harris’s door with an offer he couldn’t and wouldn’t refuse. They wanted him to oversee the renovation and relaunch of the famous estate.
“Here I can start from the ground up,” Harris says excitedly. “To be connected to the property and the scope of what we can do here is enormous. The Sutton family are very driven; they’ve got a vision and they love the ethos around sustainability.
“We’re going to take baby-steps into eventually having greenhouses and gardens, with the aim of being self-sustainable to a certain point. That’s having our own chickens and ducks for eggs, our own pigs.
“I’ve always been a city chef and I’ve just ordered ingredients in. It’s impossible to get out and about to converse with the growers in the country because you have to maintain the kitchen and the food and the cost and the staff, and then I’ve got to be a dad and a husband,” he says. “Out here, I’m connected.”
It’s not so much a giant leap as a sideways step. “All that pretentious wank, I’m not really that person,” he adds. “I’m not about stuffy food, I’m just about wholesome ingredients prepared correctly, minimal ingredients on the plate, sauced correctly.
“All those words like robust and hearty, those things that you should be serving in the country, will translate on to the menu, but I’ll just do it in a lighter way.”
Pasture to plate, then? “That’s the aim,” Harris confides. “We romanticise about grabbing some milk from up the road and making some ricotta and pulling some beets and radishes from the garden, and there’s a freshness that comes from that. We want to have markets here. We want to grow produce, we want to make provisions and chutneys. We’ll have pizza ovens, barbecues and spits.
“We will gravitate towards a sharing theme in the restaurant – people can have their own principal plates but there will be an emphasis on sharing.
“I want people to get as many flavours into their mouth as they can. The heart of the menu might be pasta, but if we make pasta we’ll ferment honey from our own hives, we’ll fill the pasta with something else that we’ve grown and burn some butter.
“We are going to use the bottling and fermenting and smoking and drying and ageing and making our own charcuterie – all that stuff that up until now I haven’t really been able to do.
“It’s well removed from fine dining but for me there’s no difference. I’m a feeder, that’s what I am, always have been.”
The Lodge itself is also getting a new look and attitude. Harris is overseeing the renovation of the farmhouse, built in 1868, which was used as a family hunting lodge. “We’re opening the rooms up – it was a bit claustrophobic. The restaurant will be accessible, too – it’s not going to be stuffy or fine dining, it will be very casual.”
Harris respects the venue’s place in the hearts of many Aucklanders. “Every second person I talk to, they’ve been here, they’ve been for weddings; they really associate themselves with The Hunting Lodge, so we have to remain true to that history,” he says.
An added bonus is having the vineyard and winery on site. “We get to work with the winemaker, we get to have a collaboration, bounce ideas off each other, get to match wine and food, which I love,” says Harris. “There’s a lot of fresh energy about.”
The Hunting Lodge Opening Hours:
Thursday 11.30am-3pm, 5.30pm-late (kitchen closes 9pm)
Friday 11.30am-3pm, 5.30pm– late (kitchen closes 9pm)
Saturday 10.00am-3pm, 5.00pm– late (kitchen closes 9pm)
Sunday 10.00am – 3pm
For a special dining experience this Valentines Day or to celebrate a special moment with your loved ones, our heli pad is ready and waiting! Heletranz is one of the operators who fly in and have special packages on offer
The restaurant is open for brunch/lunch and dinner, Wednesday to Sunday. Please visit www.thehuntinglodge.com for more information.