In the service of flavour

Chef Marcus Verberne is enjoying being home in Dunedin. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Chef Marcus Verberne is enjoying being home in Dunedin. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Chef Marcus Verberne has returned to the place he calls home after more than 20 years cooking in some of London’s best restaurants. Rebecca Fox asks what drew him back to Dunedin.

Why did you come back to New Zealand?

I brought my family back to New Zealand for a better quality of life. I have a big family in Dunedin and I wanted to share that with my wife Masha and 5-year-old son Antony. It’s always been a big sacrifice to be away for so long, and it just felt like time to come home and best to make the move while our son was young.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Christchurch, then moved to Thames when I was 5, but it’s Dunedin I call home. I lived here for 10 years from age 11.

Why did you become a chef?

As a young teenager I wanted to join the police force, but that idea waned as I grew older. I was a bit lost for what to do when I left school so moved to Wellington where my brother was at the time. I was walking round with a fistful of CVs, dropping them into various places, when I bumped into a friend (Jenny Downs) whom I’d been to school with at Logan Park. She was waitressing at a restaurant called The Beacon which had just opened a month prior. They needed a kitchen hand, so I went in for a trial that evening. The atmosphere in the kitchen was electric and I knew on my first night, like having an epiphany, that this was for me. I spent my first couple of months at Beacon in the sink desperate to get out when a position came up on the larder/pastry section. I jumped at the chance and didn’t look back. It was like an obsession. I used to spend my spare time at the library reading old cookbooks!

What was your London experience like?

I planned to be in London for two to three years but that turned into over 20! When I arrived in 2001 I organised a few trials, The River Cafe, Petrus (Marcus Waring), The Square (Phil Howard), City Rhodes (Gary Rhodes) and Le Caprice (Mark Hix). It was important to have a good look around before I made a decision. I ended up at Le Caprice and in my five years with the Caprice Holdings group I worked not just at Le Caprice, but at The Ivy and J Sheekey, the company’s seafood restaurant. It was a special time working for one of London’s most successful restaurant groups of the time.

Following the Caprice group, I moved out of London to Colchester. I took on my first head chef role at the White Hart Inn in Nayland, Suffolk. Nayland was a picturesque but sleepy little village, and I quickly became bored having come from a background working high volume. After a few months, I got a call from Mark Hix who had left the Caprice Holdings group to set up independently. He was consulting at the five-star Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair. My good friend Lee Streeton, who over the years had also worked extensively with Mark, was executive chef at the time. I went in as head chef at The Albemarle (Brown’s Hotel’s main restaurant). After about 18 months, Lee left and I took on his role as executive chef overseeing the whole food and beverage operation for the hotel. It was a great experience at Brown’s, boosting my confidence running multiple food outlets under one roof.

After four years at Brown’s I went back into a restaurant, accepting a position at Roast. Roast was in a dream location. It was perched above Borough Market, London’s iconic food market. It had been open six years and had a great reputation for serving the best of British produce, something I was experienced in having spent so many years with Mark.

I was at Roast for four years when a very interesting role came up. There was a new private members’ club opening up for wine lovers. I had never done an opening before and really liked the club’s concept. The members were able to store six cases from their own cellar on site, so could drink their own wine or choose from our extensive list of over 9000 wines. I started as head chef at 67 Pall Mall, as a member of the opening team in 2015. It quickly became regarded as one of the world’s leading wine clubs. In my six years at the club, working very closely with Ronan Sayburn MS and his outstanding team of 18 sommeliers, I increased my understanding of the relationship between food and wine.

My menus at the club had no cultural boundaries, which was a breath of fresh air. Forty-two countries were represented on the wine list, so the menus needed to reflect this.

What is the most impressive dish you have cooked?

Beef Wellington is a real show-stopper for any dinner party and a dish I cooked often in London at Brown’s, Roast and 67 Pall Mall. It’s a lot of work, but well worth the effort.

What is the most memorable meal you have eaten, why?

A few years ago, Masha and I went to Cornwall for a long weekend to try a few restaurants. One that really stood out was Nathan Outlaw’s restaurant. It sits above Port Isaac, looking out over the ocean. He serves the best seafood on offer in Cornwall. We had a tasting menu and everything was exquisite. After the meal we walked out onto the headland and saw dolphins porpoising past. The whole experience was memorable.

How did you come to write cookbooks?

While at Roast, I was asked by the owners to write a cookbook for the restaurant. Now, Roast was a busy high-volume restaurant. On a Saturday (the busiest market day) we’d do 750 covers. I was worried I wouldn’t find the time, and the book became my Everest. As I got into it though I realised how much I enjoyed writing — something that really took me by surprise. It became a really enjoyable project. Roast was a produce-driven restaurant so the book had to be a testament to the producers as much as the restaurant. This involved trips all over the UK, scallop-diving, grouse-shooting, foraging and experiencing first-hand where the bounty of ingredients I had the privilege of working with came from

In 2020, Ronan Sayburn MS and I had our first book published, Wine and Food, The Perfect Match. It is a guide to the wines of the world and how to pair them with food. The first half of the book, written by Ronan, covers the wines, their regions and terroir, and how to serve them. In the second half I have created 100 dishes paired with 100 iconic wines.

Ronan and I have written a second book together that should be out near the end of the year. This book focuses on the wines and food of Bordeaux and the southwest of France.

What was your lifestyle like as a top chef in the UK compared to here working at Nova in Dunedin?

It was busy but manageable. It’s always been important to me to have a good work/life balance. I had larger brigades in London — 25-30 chefs — so I had a lot of support.

What is your food philosophy?

Keep it simple but execute it well. I like to cook internationally rather than be restricted to a certain culture. I don’t like too many components and flavours on a plate ... I find this can get confusing, especially when pairing with wine. I suppose I’m a bit of a traditionalist. Nothing too fancy or contrived. Food must look natural on the plate and flavour is most important.

Beef Wellington. Photo: supplied
Beef Wellington. Photo: supplied

Have you had to adapt to what is available here?

I haven’t really had to adapt my style as such ... I am still finding my feet when it comes to ingredient availability. In London I had everything at my fingertips. Spoilt for choice. It’s a little more challenging here in that sense.

What is your favourite food to cook?

I’m an enthusiastic forager and can’t wait to see what New Zealand has to offer there. I love fishing and was lucky enough in the UK to get involved in a bit of hunting, whether it was deer stalking or birds like grouse, pheasant or wild ducks. So, I love my wild food. There isn’t a better feeling than preparing food you’ve shot, caught or foraged.

What food are you craving to eat?

Chinese ... I’ve heard great things about Impression Manor restaurant in Manor Place. I’m looking forward to a meal there.

Who inspires you food wise?

I’ve always liked Rick Stein. I have loads of his books and really enjoy watching his various TV series travelling round the world. He’s very passionate and his food is simple and authentic.

What is your favourite dish to cook at home?

I like to cook for friends at home. For our last dinner party, I cooked a whole lamb shoulder slowly overnight. It was submerged in duck fat with loads of aromats [sic]. The meat was falling off the bone and delicious.

What must you have in your kitchen?

A good spice selection is important. I love a good curry ... I always have capers, anchovies, preserved lemons and good oils and vinegars. I’m a real fan of extra virgin rapeseed oil. I found a really good one from the The Good Oil company. It’s a beautiful thick golden oil with a subtle nutty flavour. Great for dressings and has a high smoking point, so lovely to cook with too. Roast potatoes are awesome cooked in it!

What type of food do you cook for your family?

We eat fairly simply at home. My wife Masha and I share the cooking. We try to keep it healthy. Fish is often on the table.

What is your favourite comfort/winter food?

Masha cooks the most divine hearty soups. Borscht is a favourite. It’s wholesome, not too heavy and even better the next day. Our son Antony loves it!

What won't we find in your fridge, and why?

Chillies, but only because they’re $170 a kilo at the moment! Unbelievable!

Is there a food you hate?

Nothing really springs to mind ... I’m not a fan of tripe, but hate is a strong word. I had it at an Italian restaurant once. It was braised in a rich sticky veal stock that made it palatable.

When not working, what will we find you doing?

Hanging out with my wife and son.

How have you found Dunedin's hospitality scene?

Dunedin has some great restaurants, and the cafe scene is really strong. I like that about New Zealand. Lots of independently-run quality cafes serving really good coffee, rather than chains. Recruitment is the biggest challenge.

 

Photo: supplied
Photo: supplied

Roasted fillet of brill, cockles, hamhock and celery hearts

From Wine & Food, I have selected a roasted fillet of brill, cockles, ham hock and celery hearts. It’s a recipe showcasing ingredients readily available in Dunedin. In the book we paired it with a Sancerre but because of the rich buttery sauce would also work well with an oaky Chardonnay. 

Serves 8 starter portions

Brill, in many opinions, is considered an inferior fish to turbot. I beg to differ. Traditionally turbot has always been held high on a pedestal, but I much prefer the slightly lighter, more delicate brill. The two species are very similar in appearance and are closely related.

In the UK, brill is in season and at its best from October-March. During the late spring and summer months brill are spawning and should be avoided so they can get on and procreate.

We have chosen Sancerre to pair with this dish. Ideally one that has developed complexity with age, not one too young and fresh. Some time in oak is also important so it can handle the rich buttery sauce. The celery hearts in this dish complement the vegetal notes typical of Sauvignon blanc.

Ingredients

6 160g portions brill fillet (skinless)

50ml sunflower oil

30 plump live cockles (tightly closed)

2 heads of celery

100ml dry white wine

100ml ham stock

150g unsalted butter (diced and chilled)

1 green (unsmoked) gammon knuckle, soaked overnight in cold water to desalinate

1 carrot, peeled and cut into 4

1 onion, peeled and halved

1 leek, white part only

1 bay leaf

5 sprigs of thyme

1 Tbsp of chopped parsley

sea salt and freshly milled pepper

Method

Place the soaked ham knuckle into a large saucepan with the carrot, onion, leek, two chopped celery sticks, bay leaf and thyme. Cover with cold water and bring to the boil before lowering to a simmer. Simmer for approximately 2.5 hours topping up with water to keep the knuckle covered. The knuckle will be ready once the meat is falling from the bone.

Lift it out of the stock with a slotted spoon and place to one side to cool enough to be handled. Strain the stock through a fine meshed sieve and using a ladle, skim off any fat from the surface. Allow the stock to cool before refrigerating until required.

Once the ham knuckles are cool, discard any skin and fat from the outside and flake the meat into small pieces; ensure any gristle is removed. Store the flaked ham in the fridge until required.

Place cockles into a container and run them under the cold tap for 10 minutes or so, agitating them regularly to release any sand or grit they may be holding. Cockles should be tightly closed. If any open cockles don’t close when tapped they should be discarded. Drain and store them in the fridge until required.

Remove the light central stems from the heart of your celery. Pick the light coloured leaves and slice the stems into 1cm pieces. Place in the fridge until needed.

Pre-heat a non-stick frying pan over a medium to high heat. Season the brill fillets with seasalt and pepper and shallow fry in the sunflower oil.

Cook the brill until golden and then turn the fillets over and turn the heat down low. Cook for 1 minute on the other side and then turn the heat off altogether.

Pre-heat a large saucepan over a high heat. Drop in the cockles, white wine and ham stock and place the lid on to steam open the cockles. Once the cockles are open add flaked ham, sliced celery heart and the butter. As the butter melts it will emulsify with the liquids to create a light broth.

Finally, stir in the celery leaves and chopped parsley and serve evenly between 6 serving bowls, placing a portion of brill on top.