Rising from the ashes

The fire damage at Ode was extensive but not structural. Photos: Supplied
The fire damage at Ode was extensive but not structural. Photos: Supplied
Eleven Otago restaurants made the cut for New Zealand’s top restaurant awards including, for the first time, three in Wanaka. Rebecca Fox discovers the challenges faced by first-time scorer Ode Conscious Dining.

Just last month Wanaka chef Lucas Parkinson and his team were on top of the world.

Their 18-month-old restaurant Ode Conscious Dining had just been given the thumbs up from influential food writer and Cuisine editor Kelli Brett.

''We were jumping for joy,'' Parkinson said.

The next night Ode was gutted by fire. ''It was crazy timing.''

Lucas Parkinson works at Arbour Restaurant, in Blenheim, during his tour.
Lucas Parkinson works at Arbour Restaurant, in Blenheim, during his tour.

Parkinson said everyone was on a huge high after a positive Cuisine magazine review of the restaurant and then having the editor to dinner and receiving great feedback.

So the fire, believed to be caused by tea towels fresh out of the dryer combusting in a laundry bag, was even more devastating for the team.

Luckily, the fire did not damage the structure of the building, only the interior, but it has closed the restaurant and required an entirely new fit out.

Parkinson was in shock. The restaurant he had been working hard to build was gone.

But instead of sinking into depression and anxiety, he decided the best thing to do was turn it into a positive.

As he is obsessed with music culture and how musicians incorporate that into everyday life, he decided why not go on tour just as they do.

''Chefs do collaborations all the time. I've done collaborations, so why don't I cook at friends' restaurants around the country?''

He checked in with wife Larrissa, who was knee-deep in redesigning the dining room.

''She's way better at that than me, so I thought I'd get out of the way.''

After a call went out to friends in the industry and on social media, the offers flowed in.

Mario Rodrigues
Mario Rodrigues
Parkinson has already cooked at Dunedin's Moiety, Roots in Lyttelton, Cucina in Oamaru and Arbour Restaurant in Blenheim, and has eight more dates booked in Wellington, Feilding, Napier and Auckland.

Getting to cook in restaurants such as Pacifica in Napier - last year's Restaurant of the Year - and Roots, a three ''hat'' restaurant, is mind-blowing for the chef, even though he has worked in top restaurants in the past.

''It feels like I've been accepted in New Zealand after 12 years 'behind the line' in kitchens. It's nice to know people like my food.''

The finale of his tour is a ''pop-up'' in top Auckland restaurant Clooney, where they have provided its 21-seat private dining room for a night.

''It's been surreal and overwhelming in both good and bad ways.''

James Stapley
James Stapley
One of the biggest things he has taken out of the tour so far is lessons on how to juggle a young family and the restaurant business.

''I'm 29 with my own restaurant and a young family; it's hard to balance it all. There is no book for this.''

Many chefs have imploded trying to find the balance - Parkinson himself once almost died from a heart attack from working himself too hard as a line chef - so he wanted to find a way past that and keep his family together.

Parkinson has tried other jobs but found hospitality suited his nature and a body clock that saw him up until 2am with ''heaps of energy''.

''I just don't like it. I become a resentful, depressed person.''

After spending a few days with Guilio and Christy Sturla, of Roots, and his family, he has learned it can be possible to have both.

''Finally it is giving me some sort of example, a guideline so that I don't have to destroy my family.''

This time with industry leaders has proved to be a ''huge learning curve'' for the chef.

''I'm a constant fish out of water. I get a lot of help from their teams, learning different layouts and gadgets.''

Parkinson believes the tour will make him a stronger chef and create a stronger team once Ode reopens late next month or early November.

''We have a clear vision and are steadfast in our beliefs and integrity that nothing enters the restaurant that is not organic.''

The new restaurant will look different but the message and the food will be the same, he says. His passion for the environment and doing something to help save it the only way he knows how, through food.

''I've only lately begun to attach that message through my food.''

Lucas Parkinson, with his partner Larrissa and daughter Tiger-Lily.
Lucas Parkinson, with his partner Larrissa and daughter Tiger-Lily.
An example is a dessert made to look like a scene from Pixar movie Wall-E of a devastated earth, for which meringue is mixed with edible ash and dehydrated to look like concrete and a pea shoot is added popping through it.

''It looks just like the scene from the movie.''

His messages might not be well received by some in his local farming community but he is steadfast in ensuring his daughter is not left a legacy of starvation and soil depletion.

''I'm shouting loud through my food.''

Cuisine editor Kelli Brett said there were a few high scoring restaurants considered for the magazine's Top 100 that were undergoing changes at the time of judging but it was decided not to substitute lower scoring restaurants in place of them.

''It would not have given a true representation of what we believe to be the best in New Zealand.''

Instead, they have created a small category called ''Ones to watch'' to give credit for delivering well to those high scorers who were undergoing changes at the end of the judging period.

''Cuisine still has high expectations for these restaurants.''

Those restaurants will not be in the running for awards or ''hats''.

The other two Wanaka restaurants listed are Bistro Gentil and Kika.

Lucas Parkinson’s Wall-E-inspired dessert.
Lucas Parkinson’s Wall-E-inspired dessert.
In an interesting twist, all three of the chefs that run these restaurants have worked together in the past; the common denominator Bistro Gentil.

Bistro Gentil chef and owner Mario Rodrigues said the trio - Parkinson, James Stapley from Kika and he - all worked together in various chef roles in the restaurant.

Then, last year, Rodrigues took ownership of the Bistro, which opened in 2013, while Parkinson took on the space vacated by Botswana Butchery after its closure, to start Ode. James Stapley opened Kika about a year before that.

For Rodrigues it is a return to the Top 100 listing. In 2016 the Bistro received one ''hat'' but last year did not make the finals.

''It is good to have three restaurants from Wanaka in the top 100 as it's such a small town - a holiday town, really. And given we've all worked together.''

The three restaurants all have different styles but have in common a passion for showcasing the region's produce and ''treating it properly''.

''It's great to have a place to go eat on my day off,'' Rodrigues said.

He describes the Bistro's style as a twist on continental European cuisine with the added influence of his South African culture.

''I love my meat so it'll always be prominent.''

Stapley's Kika concentrates on sharing-style plates with a global influence.

Kika last year got its first listing on the Cuisine Top 100 and won the Hospitality New Zealand Awards best restaurant award.

NZ’s top restaurant

Top Otago restaurants:

• CENTRAL OTAGO: Amisfield Bistro, Bistro Gentil, Botswana Butchery - Queenstown, Fishbone, Kika, Ode Conscious Dining, Rata, Sherwood

• DUNEDIN: Bracken.

• NORTH OTAGO: Riverstone Kitchen, Fleur's Place.


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