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Ryan Henley has his butcher’s knife out and is about to start cutting up a side of wagyu beef that has just arrived.
It is an unusual sight in a hotel kitchen to see a 400kg side of beef lying there.
But Henley would not have it any other way. His new job as executive chef at QT Queenstown means he can call the shots.
That means following his no-wastage, farm-to-plate ethos and dealing direct with producers, preferably as local as possible.
Hence the beast from Black Origin farm south of the Rakaia River.
‘‘The whole animal gets used, the fat gets rendered — we’ll use that to roast potatoes in or make burgers for the bar menu — we’ll get out dry-aged steaks and braise for our super rich pasta dish and the bones and trims will go into a stock for the sauce.
‘‘Nothing gets wasted.’’
It’s the same for the Whiteheart Pork from Fairlie, fed on the same grain as the wagyu.
While he cannot get whole lambs from Leeland Lamb, in Invercargill, he takes their unwanted legs and ribs off them instead.
Henley does the butchery himself to get the cuts he wants and to ensure that no wastage occurs.
‘‘It’s definitely a lot harder, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m self-taught.’’
His sustainable approach has developed over time. As a young chef he worked with the likes of Jonny Schwass and was more into a Heston Blumenthal-style of cooking, but that began to change when he moved to Melbourne.
He got a job at Shannon Bennett’s award-winning, three-hatted Vue de Monde, working with head chef Cory Campbell.
At Vue de Monde the ethos was to know exactly where its produce was coming from.
‘‘I used to love Heston Blumenthal’s crazy science food, but I became more ingredient focused.’’
When he moved back to Christchurch and back to The George’s Park Bistro and then its fine-dining restaurant Pescatore as chef de cuisine he continued to develop his ingredient-focused approach and achieved two hats in the Cuisine Good Food Awards.
He is a huge fan of Nate Smith from Bluff’s Gravity Fishing and the work he does.
‘‘I’ve been out fishing with him. I love there is no wastage and you know where the food is coming from.’’
Henley says a four-day trip fishing with Smith along the Fiordland Sounds and West Coast highlighted the need for chefs to know where their produce originated.
‘‘We caught one kawahi the whole trip. We’d gone for tuna.
‘‘I was like, now you guys can understand how much work goes into a catch. Nate had nothing from those days.’’
As he sees it a chef’s role is to showcase the product producers such as Smith provide and to do it responsibly.
‘‘Hand on my heart I know where all the food here is coming from.’’
In the kitchen his team makes everything from scratch except the breads and pastries,l instead supporting local artisan makers for those products.
‘‘Having a personal relationship with supplier, the farmer, fisherman or whatever pushes you down the road of respecting and utilising every gram or inch of that animal because it deserves that respect.
‘‘We are using it for our financial gain. We need to make sure we use it in the right way.’’
The wagyu steaks he cut from the beast will be dry-aged for three months before served in the restaurant.
‘‘That’ll be the best you’ve ever eaten — that makes a huge difference, that matches the effort and work put in at this end.
‘‘You get that food on the plate at the other end...’’
Having such quality produce also changes the way chefs cook, he says.
‘‘You treat it well, cook it well, keep it simple, in season.’’
Following seasonal availability, the team will ferment and preserve produce to use at a later date.
‘‘It’s old-school kind of style.’’
His approach was a big change for The George and also for QT where he oversees Bazaar Marketplace, Reds Bar, and new pop-up restaurant Lil Red.
‘‘It’s a beast. It’s a lot bigger and busier than I expected. It’s a huge balancing act.’’
He admits having a large kitchen, a ‘‘pretty good’’ budget and very supportive bosses has made the approach easier although he still has to meet his targets.
Henley finds by buying a whole animal he can create the cuts he wants at a vastly cheaper price than buying it by the kilogram.
‘‘It’s how we keep the margins good, by utilising every gram of it.’’
Henley is also across the pastry side of the kitchen, having made it his goal as a young chef to master the art after he was let down in a competition by his pastry work.
He went on to win gold medals for his pastry work with the help of mentorship by Corey Hume, who is now executive chef at The Rees in Queenstown.
Pastry needed to be approached like any dish and required balancing of the sweet, salty and sour with texture.
These days Henley likes to use vegetables, less sugar and fermentation in his pastry work.
One of his latest desserts uses artichokes. He’s made beetroot pavlovas and a cheesecake that looks like a wheel of cheese and is served on a cheese board.
Although tied to restaurant menus for functions and events, they are able to have fun and be more creative and he has done an overhaul of the breakfast menu as well.
‘‘We’re tracking pretty good.’’
It has all been a massive learning curve for Henley who lost his job due to Covid.
‘‘It forced me to step back and take some time out. I did some collab events.’’
He also took fulltime custody of his 8-year-old daughter so decided to spend some time hanging out with her to ensure the move went smoothly.
‘‘It was time well spent. It gave me time to re-think a lot of stuff.’’
At the back of his mind was a lifestyle change, getting away from Christchurch where he is well-known, and starting afresh.
He had always wanted to live in Queenstown, declaring when he first visited it many years ago that it was where he would retire.
‘‘It’s a beautiful place.’’
So when the job at QT was advertised in Queenstown he decided to give it a go.
Despite having sworn not to work in a hotel kitchen again as he was over hotel politics, he liked the ‘‘quirky’’ approach of the brand and attitude of his employers so said yes to a job offer and within weeks was working at the hotel.
‘‘It was a no-brainer.’’
The first couple of months were difficult as his fiance and daughter did not move down straight away and he was working long hours getting to grips with the new environment.
‘‘It’s a hard slog but I’ve never been an executive chef before so it’s a big change.’’
He also has had to develop new skills in computing, finances and employment issues such as visas — of the 13 people in his kitchen only two are not on a visa.
‘‘You can imagine the work that goes into that. I’ve had to pretty quickly learn.’’
Being able to retain their staff during Covid had meant the kitchen is about to keep up its high standards.
Henley, who was inspired by his mother’s wedding cake-making and started out in a takeaway shop washing dishes, is a believer in treating staff well and supporting them to perform as he can remember being treated badly and food being thrown at him, swearing and even punching.
‘‘Screaming and yelling at someone because they haven’t seasoned a piece of meat right... I just don’t see the point anymore. There are easier ways to get your point across.’’
The industry itself is changing with less acceptance of the old behaviours.
His aim is to build a strong team and he feels he is on his way to doing that.
‘‘I had the week off and I don’t think they even noticed I was gone. The kitchen is spotless and the paperwork is done. It’s wicked.
‘‘But these guys are the best group of chefs I’ve had. Having a bit of respect for each other.’’
Life is starting to settle into more of a routine. They have found a house at Jacks Point and the family is enjoying the outdoor lifestyle living in Queenstown affords them.
‘‘It’s just stunning.’’
QT Spanish eggs
8 organic eggs (we use Green Henz)
2 ea good quality chorizo, sliced half cm thick
2 small tins Mutti cherry tomatoes
1 red onion, sliced half cm thick
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
½ tsp coriander seeds
½ tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tbsp brown sugar
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp olive oil
½ bunch flat-leaf parsley, sliced
freshly ground black pepper
Good quality sour dough
1. Pre-heat oven to 160degC
2. Over a medium heat place sliced chorizo in a wide-based pot and cook for about 10 minutes until it renders its fat and starts to caramelise
3. Add the red onion and garlic and cook for a further 5 minutes
4. Add the spices and let cook until they become fragrant. It should take about 3 minutes
5. Once the spices are ready add the brown sugar and red wine vinegar and reduce until it reaches a jam consistency
6. Add the tomatoes, lightly season with salt and pepper
7. Turn the heat down to low and cook until the tomatoes start to break down and liquid reduces
8. Once the base is ready transfer to a nice baking dish, spread out nice and even
9. Put 8 small cavities in the mix to allow the eggs to sit in once you have cracked them in
10. Dress the top of the eggs with olive oil and salt and place in the oven for about 5 minutes or until the eggs have just set
11. You want them nice and soft
12. Garnish with sliced parsley and sour dough toast