Flavours of childhood

Growing up in Argentina with Italian family heritage, it is not surprising Pablo Tacchini became a chef. Having just become a Beef + Lamb ambassador chef, he tells Rebecca Fox it has taken a lot of hard work to get to this point.

Weekends were feast times in Pablo Tacchini's childhood home in Argentina.

He would spend his mornings either in the kitchen making pasta with his grandmother or outside helping his father and grandfather barbecue.

Pablo Tacchini puts the finishing touches on his winning dish — 55-day aged rib eye, broccoli and lemon purée, charcoal potatoes, smoked sour cream and smoked red pepper sofrito.
Pablo Tacchini puts the finishing touches on his winning dish — 55-day aged rib eye, broccoli and lemon purée, charcoal potatoes, smoked sour cream and smoked red pepper sofrito.
''I grew up with that. Food is very important for me. It was an easy choice to see what I wanted to do.''

While he now lives and works thousands of kilometres from home, it is those flavours and experiences he seeks to replicate.

''It's basically what I do right now - share with customers the flavours I grew up with.''

After leaving school, Tacchini headed straight to Argentina's top culinary institute, Mausi Sebess, for two and a-half years.

He then worked in various restaurants in his home country. Along the way he met and married wife Yanina - who had a ''Kiwi'' connection.

She came to New Zealand as an exchange student when she was 17 years old, studying at Waitaki Girls' High School and boarding with local couple Ross and Lenore Middlemiss.

Her bond with the Middlemiss' was so strong they came to their wedding in Argentina and, a few years later, the couple, with their first child, decided to visit Oamaru for 3 months.

''I just fell in love with New Zealand, so we stayed.''

Given Oamaru's small size, it was not long before word got out he was a chef and the job offers came in.

''I thought I'd give it a shot. I really liked it.''

During the next few years he worked at restaurants around the Waitaki region including Northstar, Riverstone Kitchen and Fleur's Place in Moeraki.

''For me, working with food is a way to express myself and my creativity.''

Then, two years ago, the couple got the opportunity to buy Cucina 1871 and its neighbouring cafe, Tees St Cafe.

They renamed it Cucina, updated its interior and developed a menu playing to Tacchini's joint passions of Italian food and Argentinian barbecue.

Last week, Tacchini was named as one of five chefs in New Zealand to be named a Beef + Lamb ambassador chef, chosen from 173 Beef and Lamb excellence holders.

He joins some of New Zealand's most celebrated chefs, such as Peter Gordon, Ben Bayley and Sid Sahrawat, in receiving the ambassadorship.

''Our reputation is starting to grow. People are liking what we are doing.''

His ''winning dish'' was a 55-day aged ribeye, with broccoli and lemon puree, charcoal potatoes, smoked sour cream and smoked red pepper sofrito.

It was inspired by his Argentinian heritage, where they love to cook with big bold cuts of beef and lamb over smokey charcoal.

So his ribeye was cooked on a portable charcoal barbecue and finished with a sprinkling of hay ash.

''In Argentina, meat and barbecues are a really important part of our culture and we're lucky to have fantastic quality meat over there. When my wife and I came to New Zealand, there was a space that needed to be filled for us culturally to get really good beef and lamb. I have been amazed at the high standard we can get hold of here in New Zealand.''

He shares his success with his dedicated team and wife who does ''a lot of work'' looking after the cafe, front of house, training and media alongside her own career as a professional photographer.

''Its half and half. It's very important to have a good team and the guys who work here are amazing. Without them there is nothing. No awards.''

Tacchini admits when he first started cooking in New Zealand it was a bit hard to adapt to local produce.

''Basically we have similar produce in vegetables and meat but they are different in way of flavours and textures.''

He had now ''completely adapted'' and embraced local produce, aiming to use it in his dishes wherever possible.

''We support local growers and farmers.''

That he can source local lamb - Provenance from just 45 minutes from Oamaru and beef from Southland - is important to him.

''Customers like to hear the story of gate to plate.''

The range of pastas they serve are all made by hand fresh every day with one staff member dedicated to the job.

''It's our way of doing it. It's hand made. We have extra staff but it's what you have to do if you make everything from scratch.''

This approach also meant he was always on the search for good staff, often being one or two staff down from the levels he would like.

He puts that down to young chefs wanting to head to the cities and not realising there were good restaurants to learn at in the regions.

This meant he often looked to immigrants to fill the gaps but had found with recent changes to immigration law, it was an expensive and time-consuming process for applicants which was often not successful.

''It's very frustrating. I wish there were more Kiwi chefs.''

They also grow herbs and flowers in their kitchen garden, do all their own smoking and, of course, barbecuing.

Tacchini had his barbecues custom made to suit the Argentinian-style of slow barbecue cooking using wood or charcoal.

''While here people cook sausages or steak on the barbecue for a few minutes, in Argentina it is a very slow process - it can take up to five or six hours for a lamb to cook.

''That is what gives it its special flavour and texture.''

Of course, that style of cooking is weather dependent but it also suits large gatherings and fundraisers that Tacchini likes to do and which remind him of Argentina. He likes to rearrange the restaurant so the diners sit together along one long table.

''It's a way of getting family and friends together. It's a good way of enjoying a feast.''

They have a local food and wine festival coming up and will barbecue two whole lambs for the occasion.

Photos: Yanina Tacchini
Photos: Yanina Tacchini

Along the way, Tacchini and his wife have had two more children and settled into the community.

One of the attractions of the place was the community support for the family, highlighted by how it rallied around to help them when his son, then 3, was diagnosed and needed treatment for autism.

''The treatment we chose to follow was very expensive but over the years we have had a lot of support from the community, they've helped a lot.''

So now they wanted to give back to the community which helped them by doing fundraising dinners. They have been able to raise money that way for Riding for the Disabled and the local swimming pool - places that support children with disabilities.

Oamaru has become home for the family, so next month they will affirm that by becoming New Zealand citizens.

''We're very happy. This is home for us. Our children are growing up here and we have friends and family. The [Middlemisses] are like my childrens' grandparents.''

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