People, place inspire plates

Ashley Knudsen cooks her finals dish. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
Ashley Knudsen cooks her finals dish. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
Two young Otago chefs made it to the national finals in the Beef + Lamb Young Ambassador Chef Awards and are more inspired than ever, they tell Rebecca Fox.

No pressure. Just cook four dishes in a live cook-off in front of some of New Zealand’s best chefs and your friends and family.

It was no surprise there were a few nerves for first-time competitors Ashley Knudsen from No.7 Balmac in Dunedin and Lyall Minhinnick from Fleur’s Place in Moeraki as they cooked in the final of the Beef + Lamb Young Ambassador Chef Awards at Peter Gordon’s Homeland recently.

Lyall Minhinnick puts the finishing touches on his finals dish.
Lyall Minhinnick puts the finishing touches on his finals dish.
The pair, along with Sam Heaven from The Park Hyatt Hotel in Auckland, beat out 16 others to be finalists.

Heaven went on to win the competition, judged by chefs Tejas Nikam from Paddock to Plate in Hamilton, Norka Mella Munoz from Mangapapa Hotel in Hawke’s Bay, Jack Crosti from Mela Restaurant in Auckland and Phil Clark from Phil’s Kitchen in Auckland.

Each finalist had 90 minutes to cook and plate two beef and two lamb dishes.

Minhinnick’s beef dish.
Minhinnick’s beef dish.
Days after the competition, Minhinnick, who is South Auckland-raised, was still buzzing about the experience of cooking alongside his fellow finalists — not to mention the judges and Peter Gordon.

"That was a big buzz for me as he’s been a massive inspiration to me ... he’s doing massive things for Maori and Pacific Islanders."

That is something Minhinnick, who left school at 14 and worked at a service station until he was old enough to go to Manukau Polytechnic to study hospitality, is also keen to do: inspire Maori and Pacifica youth.

Knudsen’s beef dish.
Knudsen’s beef dish.
He was not to know how his life would change when he embarked on a trip south with family about two years ago for a Six60 concert in Dunedin.

"We wanted to eat some nice seafood and landed at Fleur’s for dinner."

The Moeraki restaurant was advertising for wait staff and a chef, and while his girlfriend got front of house work, he had to convince owner Fleur Sullivan to take him on.

After continuing to "nag" Sullivan every time he walked his girlfriend to work, he finally got a start.

"I started on dishes and worked my way up — now I run the kitchen with the executive chef."

Minhinnick’s lamb dish.
Minhinnick’s lamb dish.
Minhinnick says he has always had a passion for food, ever since he was a child watching his nana.

The job at Fleur’s was a change of pace for him, having come from a job in a pub.

"Fleur’s been absolutely amazing; she’s always pushing me to do better and I’m very grateful."

He likes to let his food tell a story and reflect the place he works, so he pickled and smoked herbs he foraged for his dishes.

His beef fillet with smoked beef cheek featured confit Maori potatoes, Maori spinach dust and nori butter, while his lamb rack and belly included pickled cucumber and sea asparagus.

"I think my passion and my love for cooking really showed on the plate and that’s what I wanted to show the chefs ... I hope they enjoyed the flavours and saw the story behind the dish — I loved cooking for them."

Foraging is something Knudsen is also keen on. Having grown up on a West Coast lifestyle block she is more than used to cooking beef and lamb.

It was her father’s roast lamb that inspired her lamb dish for the competition: a herb crusted lamb rack with lamb belly spring roll, beetroot puree, spiced brussels and medley baby carrots.

"It was a bit of a twist on his roast; I wanted to re-create it and bring all those memories of families being together."

She wanted her beef dish to reflect the city she lives in and its close proximity to both the sea and the hills, with the nori-wrapped beef fillet, beef cheek tart with smoked bone marrow crumb, sweet potato fondant, wasabi peas and miso mayo.

Knudsen’s lamb roast.
Knudsen’s lamb roast.
She admits the competition was intense, especially having one of the judges right next to her while she was cooking.

"You had to think on your toes."

Knudsen, who spent two years training in Christchurch, moved to Dunedin when her partner got a job on a farm near Middlemarch. She lives there as well continuing her love of farm life and the inspiration it provides her cooking.

Having her boss Greg Piner supporting her in the competition was important.

"He gave me the confidence in myself to do it."

Despite not winning, Knudsen says the experience and contacts gained during the competition were invaluable. She describes Minhinnick as the most humble person she has met.

"I learnt a lot and met some cook people."

In her job at Balmac she is a bit of a "floater" but really enjoys getting to work on the grill.

"I love the fast-paced environment it brings with it."

Her confidence with cooking protein has grown thanks to her partner’s passion for hunting.

"I’ve always loved food. And I’ve been learning to cook things that you usually don’t get to cook with through him."

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