Native ingredients, fresh seafood and a traditional meat and dairy industry give New Zealand an edge on the culinary front. Where better to try the results than Auckland and the capital Wellington?
I always say I’m a cross between a Scottish whaler and a Maori princess. I used to go to the beach with my great grandmother, who lived to be 101; we’d get a milk bottle full of ocean water for her to warm up and drink all day – she always attributed her longevity to that.
There’s no culinary influence in my family, but I always wanted to be a chef. I worked in Melbourne for almost five years, which was incredibly multi-cultural, then back-packed around Asia for a year; that’s where the fusion thing came from, really. It’s nothing new, though. The British drink tea from Chinese camellia bushes and eat potatoes from South America - have done for centuries.
When I first moved to London, kitchens were a nightmare. There was this huge war between front-of-house and the kitchen, the wages were awful, the conditions were worse. But I used to sit on the Tube and listen to people from all over the world, not speaking English. I loved it. I found it really inspiring.
If you’re in Auckland, get out to Avondale Market (Ash Street, Avondale; +64 09 818 4931) early on Sundays. It’s about 40 minutes out, on a racecourse, but I always say make the effort; there are ladies with boil-ups - big pots of pork bones, potatoes and puha (wild dandelion) - and Cambodian, Vietnamese and Thai food, and veggies from the Pacific Islands or people’s allotments. There’s lots of bric-a-brac and a really easygoing atmosphere. The Parnell Farmers’ Market (545 Parnell Road; www.parnell.org.nz) is much more French-influenced, with wonderful sausages and coffee – New Zealanders are obsessed with coffee - and croissants. Some of the traders wear berets!
If I want to get out of the city, the black sand beach where they shot The Piano is only an hour away, but I really prefer Takapuna Beach with its view of Rangitoto, an extinct volcano, like a round island with a summit and birds on top. If you get a property with a Rangitoto view, its value doubles instantly.
Wellington is a big arts city. I like Downstage (www.downstage.co.nz), which is the theatre near Te Papa Museum. There’s a weekend market in the nearby car park; a fishing boat brings fish straight from the harbour; for $2 or so they’ll fillet it for you and you can buy veggies and cook it at home. For shops, I always go to Moore Wilson (www.moorewilson.co.nz), which sells fish and meat from the best producers; it’s right opposite the wonderful Café L’Affare (www.cafelaffare.co.nz), which does things like avocados and tomatoes on toast for brunch or breakfast and really good coffee. I love a shop called Avid (www.avidgallery.co.nz), near the library; it sells ceramics, glass and jewellery.
On the waterfront you can walk for miles, going from café to café. On a sunny day it’s the most beautiful city in the world. Driving in from the north, you come down through the Ngauranga Gorge and suddenly there’s the most amazing view of Wellington and the harbour. Beyond that it’s the South Island and beyond that is the South Pole. That view always takes my breath away.
Where to stay in Auckland
Well, of course I’m going to say SKYCITY Grand Hotel Auckland in Federal Street, because my restaurant, dine by Peter Gordon (+64 9 363 7030, from NZ$85), is there! I always stay in a suite with great views of the harbour bridge and there’s a Lobby Bar with delicious pastries, great for meetings. My tapas bar, Bellota, is just over the road; it’s not fusion, though – it’s the most authentic Spanish food in New Zealand.
Mollies is a really chic and intimate place to stay – and to eat. They’ve got a musical background and students from the opera house come in to sing. There are 13 suites and the food and the grounds are lovely. It’s so private but it has an air of celebration about it; you feel like dressing up, almost as if you’re in Europe somewhere.
Where to eat in Auckland
Merediths (+64 09 623 3140), 365 Dominion Road, Mt Eden. This is run by Michael Meredith and it used to be three shop fronts. It’s dark and cosy, though it’s probably not the smartest bit of Auckland. The flavours are just exceptional, with a tiny, tiny bit of molecular gastronomy. His menu changes quite often, but last time I had scallop and langoustine with a liquorice emulsion and green pea jelly. Not that sweet black liquorice, but the root, which has a warming effect, like ground ginger without the astringent high notes. It’s lovely food.
Clooney (+64 09 358 1702, www.clooney.co.nz), 33 Sale Street. This is near Victoria Park and it’s painted black with high ceilings and low lighting. There are these walls of hanging tassels, so it’s got a bit of a decadent feel. The food is refined but robust; gorgeous lamb and pureed potato with a little parmesan run through it.
The Ponsonby Road Bistro (+64 9 360 1611), 165 Ponsonby Road, Ponsonby. It has a British chef, Sarah Conway; she does duck shepherd’s pie or chunky soups with lardons and chickpeas and spinach. She loves a bit of Middle Eastern influence, too. From NZ$ 59.
My favourite café is Dizengoff (+64 9 360 0108), 256 Ponsonby Road, Ponsonby. They do the best flat whites and friandes (little French-style cakes) and madeleines and pound cake. I get off the plane, check into my hotel and go straight there for breakfast. By the time you’ve been there an hour you’ve seen everyone in town!
Where to stay and eat in Wellington
I like Bolton Hotel Wellington (The), on the corner of Bolton & Mowbray Streets. It’s a big boutique hotel up on The Terrace. It’s not particularly New Zealand in terms of its looks, but the rooms and location are great and it has fantastic harbour views.
Logan Brown (+64 4 801 5114, www.loganbrown.co.nz), 192 Cuba Street. It’s owned by Steve Logan and Al Brown - Al’s a bit of a TV personality; he’s just released a fish book, eating everything from gills to tail. The restaurant is posh but it’s not chi-chi; they do lovely seafood and game and things like paua ravioli – paua is black abalone – with a really earthy, grunty taste, looks muddy but tastes delicious. They have a great New Zealand wine list.
Capitol Dining Room & Bar (+64 4 384 2855, www.capitolrestaurant.co.nz), Embassy Theatre, Kent Terrace. Capitol’s a small brasserie, really, and Tom Hutchison, the head chef, worked with me in London. It’s simple cooking with clean flavours; grilled snapper with a salad of faro (an ancient wheat), salsa and lemon, or slow-braised shoulder of lamb with kumara and mustard sauce.
Boulcott Street Bistro (+94 4 499 4199, www.boulcottstreetbistro.co.nz), 99 Boulcott Street. It’s a modern bistro in an old Victorian house near Wellington’s financial district. Rex Morgan, the chef/partner, is this big Maori fella who does such delicate food; he uses kawa kawa, which is one of our indigenous herbs, dusted onto New Zealand venison with, say, a pea puree. From NZ$ 70.