Chefs see food as much more than a commodity

There's a new movement gaining momentum in the New Zealand food industry. ConversatioNZ, aiming to ''inspire and empower'' by creating a strong sense of pride and respect for the country's natural, edible resources, is a not-for-profit movement created to share the story of New Zealand food and push culinary boundaries. North Otago reporter Rebecca Ryan talks to North Otago chefs and ConversatioNZ advisory board members Bevan Smith and Fleur Sullivan about it.

Fleur Sullivan and executive chef Paul McDougal stand outside her Moeraki restaurant Fleur's...
Fleur Sullivan and executive chef Paul McDougal stand outside her Moeraki restaurant Fleur's Place. PHOTO: REBECCA RYAN
Thirteen years ago, Fleur Sullivan saw waste and an opportunity for people to enjoy ''beautiful, fresh fish'' straight off the boats in Moeraki.

Her restaurant Fleur's Place, she says, was formed after she saw the byproduct - the fish brains, the heads, the livers - being thrown overboard from fishing boats and she knew she could use what was being thrown away.

A hawker's caravan on the foreshore expanded to become Fleur's Place and, in 13 years, the restaurant has gained an enviable reputation, attracting international culinary celebrities like Rick Stein to visit.

Ms Sullivan is licensed to receive fresh fish off the boats and seafood has formed the basis of all the dishes at the restaurant.

She and her staff forage for wild foods and her abiding principle as a restaurant owner has always been to promote local produce.

''That's a lot of hard work ... but I'm part of a very exciting life, every day,'' she said.

''We don't get our fish in cardboard boxes, we get it in big tubs - we get the guts, the scales, the gills, the lot.''

Many of the guests are like-minded and the locals, too, have taken her and the restaurant to their heart.

Ms Sullivan established a good relationship with British chef Rick Stein, who has sent some of his chefs to experience life in the Moeraki restaurant.

''By the time they leave here, they don't know whether they want to be chefs or not,'' she said.

''Because they realise the difference between getting tubs of wriggling fish, to having orders delivered by a fish-monger all fully prepped.''

Her determination and vision, and her connection to heritage and landscape and the food it produces, is what ConversatioNZ is all about.

Sourcing fresh, local product and not being wasteful was ''real'' and ''normal'' - ''it is how it used to be [and] it is the difference between naturally good food and easy food'', Ms Sullivan said.

The concept of ConversatioNZ and the ''smart, enthusiastic and vibrant'' people driving it was exciting, she said.

She initially declined her invitation to the inaugural event earlier this year, unable to get to Christchurch because she was too busy.

But as it happened, it tied in with the Christchurch Food Show, which she had planned to be at with her executive chef Paul McDougal.

''We're very isolated here in North Otago and it is difficult,'' she said.

''Apart from my involvement with the Restaurant Association [of New Zealand] and their monthly magazine, I have very little involvement with other people in the industry.''

When Ms Sullivan started out in the industry, she was driven only by her own self-belief.

''So to have a group being formed by these vibrant young people and wanting to spread the word was pretty refreshing,'' she said.

''I felt some envy and very tired at their pure, honest enthusiasm.''

At The South Cook Up, Ms Sullivan and executive chef Paul McDougal will team up with Darren Lovell, of Queenstown restaurant Fishbone.

Ms Sullivan is also part of the Slow Food movement - an international movement opposing fast food, and promoting the heritage, traditions and culture of food.

Bevan Smith in the orchard by his Oamaru restaurant Riverstone Kitchen. PHOTO: REBECCA RYAN
Bevan Smith in the orchard by his Oamaru restaurant Riverstone Kitchen. PHOTO: REBECCA RYAN
Bevan Smith believes the same high standards recognised in first-class restaurants can, and should, be replicated anywhere in the world.

He lives by the concept that everyone can and should eat well and his passion for using local product and ethically produced food has been instrumental in the success of his restaurant, Riverstone Kitchen.

He draws his culinary inspiration from the changing seasons.

Menus focus on what produce is ready in the extensive gardens and orchards, filled with vegetables, fruits and herbs, that surround the restaurant.

In the past nine years, the gardens at Riverstone Kitchen have developed into something quite special and have given him more control over the supply chain.

When Mr Smith returned with wife Monique to New Zealand in 2004 to plan and build the restaurant, they imagined an idyllic country lifestyle, where suppliers would come running to them and they would be flooded with ''amazing'' product.

The reality was very different - in fact, ''the silence was quite deafening'', Mr Smith said.

There were plenty of good, local growers and suppliers, but they could not source what they had taken for granted overseas - Jerusalem artichokes, cavolo nero (black kale), celeriac, kohlrabi, or fennel.

So, they developed their own garden to supply the kitchen, never imagining it would take on such a life of its own.

They were able to grow more than they thought possible - it was ''actually pretty easy''.

Being able to grow better produce than was available at the supermarket was invigorating.

''You realise what's real and what's contrived, you start making your own rules and connecting your own dots.''

The ConversatioNZ Food Manifesto is in line with Mr Smith's philosophy - thinking about where food came from and what happened to it before it hit the dinner table, getting back to basics and eating seasonally.

For most New Zealanders, the decisions about how their food was grown, sourced and eaten were no longer in their control, he said.

''I, personally, think that we are at a bit of a crossroads ... and we really need to think about how we want to craft the future - do we want to be a commodity-based market and only value that?''As a country, New Zealand was obsessed with trends and new directions for food, he said.

For him, it did not matter whether a dish was complicated or simple, it was all about the experience.

He is now part of the ConversatioNZ advisory board and he wants people to think harder about their food.

''Taking a deeper look at `what are we doing?', `how are we doing it?' and `how can we do it better' and in a more ethical sense.

''We don't want to end up with a society that's polarised into commodity.''

Being based in North Otago, it was very easy to get ''quite insular and get stuck in your own little world''.

At The South Cook Up on November 2, Mr Smith is teaming up with Jonny Schwass, from the Harlequin Public House in Christchurch. They will spit roast two lambs and serve vegetables from their gardens for the main course.

''[Jonny] is bringing a lamb from his farm and I'm bringing a lamb from our supplier, so it's like North Otago versus South Canterbury,'' he said.

''It'll be interesting to see how his rates, because I really rate ours.''


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