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Two Dunedin chefs have beaten tough selection criteria to achieve top roles in New Zealand’s culinary world, Rebecca Fox discovers.
Dunedin chef Greg Piner has been selected to join the New Zealand Chefs new high-performance squad.
Considered the ''creme de la creme'' of New Zealand's culinary scene, the eight-strong squad will compete in competitions around the world with the aim of competing in the next Culinary Olympics in 2020.
''It's so cool. I'm super lucky,'' he said.
NZChefs president Graham Hawkes, of Invercargill, said the squad comprises some of the country's elite and emerging chefs such as Blake Haines, Darren Wright and Eric Lim, of Chillingworth Rd in Christchurch, Ganesh Khedekar, of LSG Skychefs in Auckland, Marc Soper, of Wharekauhau Lodge in the Wairarapa, Mark Sycamore, of ARA Institute in Canterbury, MacLean Fraser, of Wellington's Bolton Hotel and Piner, who is group executive chef for Vault 21 and Prohibition Smokehouse.
The squad was selected based on a range of criteria, such as previous competition work, having being identified as an emerging culinary talent and a demonstrated commitment to meeting the challenges ahead.
Piner was part of ''Team Otago'' which won the Battle of the Pacific culinary competition at the Fine Food Australia trade exhibition in Melbourne last year and won best venison dish at the Silver Fern Farms Premier Selection awards also last year.
He puts his selection down to a passion for competing, encouraging new talent and promoting Dunedin.
Piner and ''Team Otago'', which includes Bracken's Ken O'Connell, plan to defend their Battle of the Pacific title this year.
The competitions all helped to show Dunedin and Otago had some amazing talent. The make-up of the high-performance squad, with five southerners in it, showed this, he said.
''You always see stories about the Auckland guys but we have some really talented people here.''
Piner had wanted to represent his country ever since he was a young chef and had the olympic team logo etched on his knife.
Wright and Khedekar were part of of the New Zealand team that competed last year in Germany, winning a medal. It was the first time the team had competed in 10 years.
''Creating a high-performance squad will go a long way towards ensuring that we have the right skills and people to achieve gold next time.''
The high performance squad will compete in the New Zealand Hospitality Championships in July and after that selected members of the squad will head to Guam, where they will competed in the Hans Beuschkens World Junior Chefs Challenge, Global Chefs Challenge and Global Pastry Chef Challenge.
Some of the other events being considered are the Battle of the Lion and the Asia Pastry Cup in Singapore.
''They'll be battling against the world's top chefs, who have huge financial backing at their disposal. Our squad will be doing it purely for the love of it and the opportunity of showcasing New Zealand's culinary prowess,'' Hawkes said.
It was hoped the competitions would promote the country as a must-visit destination for great cuisine, he said.
Piner believed part of his success was keeping informed about new trends in the food industry in New Zealand and overseas.
''You have to think outside the square, otherwise you get overtaken. It takes really hard work, massive hours and huge commitment. But you do it because you love it.''
He is a keen follower of Renee Redzepi from Noma, who has been running a ''pop-up'' restaurant in Mexico following the closure of his famous Copenhagen restaurant.
With inspiration from top chefs such as Redzepi and his travels in Asia, Piner brought locusts to the Dunedin dining scene, to great enthusiasm from some diners.
The idea behind the Prohibition Smokehouse restaurant also came from his keenness to capitalise on the latest trends of smoking and pickling foods.
People often want to know the methods behind the smoked and pickled food his team produces.
''Smoking is an art.''
Basically it came down to the wood used. While many people thought manuka was the best wood to use. It was full of resin which tainted the food yellow, he said.
His advice was to use light fruit woods when smoking as they don't have resin and produce a nice subtle smoke.
However Piner, like other chefs who smoke food, will not give away his secret smoking mix which has taken him at ''least six months and some disasters to get right''.
Another trick was to cure the meat before smoking it in a salt bath to help the meat relax and the fibres break down.
''We wash it off and rub on our special rubs and spices.''
Once he and his team had perfected the recipes they were loaded on to a memory stick which was loaded into a ''very expensive'' combi oven which does the smoking and low cooking.
''It gives us precision. People expect consistency when they come back for a dish.''
While that is not so important for home cooks, he advised thinking of the type of meat to be smoked as well.
''Cuts that move are a lot tougher,'' but also a lot tastier after being smoked and slow cooked, allowing the proteins to break down and be tenderised. There were cuts such as skirt, rump or brisket.
''We go through 200kg a week of brisket.''
Pickling is something he has picked up, again following a worldwide trend, and he hopes to start selling some of the pickles they produce, including onions, cauliflower or carrots, at the Otago Farmers Market.
''They just taste good. Adding vinegar, sugar, spices you get this crunch, the acidity the sweetness.''
Another idea was making salmon gravalax - curing it in salt, brown sugar and Cardrona Valley gin.
''Just to do something different.''