Home cooking: A star chef gets back to his New Zealand roots

Internationally renowned New Zealand chef, Josh Emett has come back to where he was born, Hamilton, New Zealand.

Top local produce and a burgeoning city has brought internationally renowned New Zealand chef, Josh Emett, back to where he was born. 

After a globetrotting 10 years racking up Michelin Stars in the UK and the US, Hamilton-born New Zealand chef, Josh Emett, is helping fuel the renaissance of his home city’s central precinct. 

For a decade, chef Josh Emett circled the globe, working with some of the world’s greatest restaurateurs and picking up Michelin Stars at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants in Hollywood and New York and as head chef at London’s legendary Savoy Grill. He’s been back in New Zealand for five years, but with the opening of Madam Woo in the North Island city of Hamilton, there’s finally a sense of returning to his roots. 

“It’s my home town and my mum still lives here,” says Emett, who is one of New Zealand’s best-known chefs and a judge on New Zealand MasterChef. “It’s really nice to be able to go back to Hamilton and open a business there.”

Emett opened the first Madam Woo in 2013 – with restaurateur Fleur Caulton – in a colonial shophouse just back from the lake in the resort town of Queenstown. The restaurant’s signature combination of authentic Malaysian hawker food and a slightly raucous, relaxed environment was an instant success. The Hamilton incarnation is the fourth Madam Woo to open (in as many years), with other outposts in Takapuna on Auckland’s North Shore and Dunedin on the South Island. “Madam Woo is fast and furious,” says Emett. “It’s noisy and chaotic, with a steady stream of people piling in the door. And it runs a little bit loose.”

The Hamilton Madam Woo is tucked down a quiet side street running to the Waikato River, the longest in New Zealand. It’s part of the city’s renaissance, as a raft of new openings, many of them with connections to the river, revitalise the city centre. Madam Woo occupies a 1930s building that used to house a government department, and is all concrete walls, high ceilings and big steel windows to bring in the light. There’s a loosely Singaporean theme to the interiors, with palms and bamboo furniture and Madam Woo’s signature bentwood chairs. 

Malaysian food is not uncommon in New Zealand, thanks to a large immigrant community, but it tends to be seen in humble neighbourhood restaurants. The genius of Madam Woo was taking Malaysian cuisine, pairing it with the best New Zealand produce and putting it into a vibrant environment with great wine lists and friendly service. 

“I think people know and love Malaysian food without actually knowing they know and love it,” Emett says of the cuisine which has its roots in Malay, Indian and Chinese cooking. “So you get these amazing curries and then you get the laksas and then you get the Chinese influence with dumplings and siu mai and wontons. And then there are the satays.”

There’s also Madam Woo’s non-traditional but now cultish hawker rolls, which take a classic roti and wrap it around fillings such as pulled sticky pork with pickled cucumber or percik chicken with toasted coconut. “You wouldn’t find those combinations in Malaysia,” says Emett. “But you would find all the ingredients. I think that’s why Madam Woo works – we just try and do the best versions of Malaysian classics.” 

The first Madam Woo opened a year after Emett launched his more upscale Queenstown restaurant, Rātā. But even there, where the food is brilliant – technically precise, seasonally driven, beautiful in every way – the ambience is considerably more casual than you might expect. At both restaurants, he says, “The expectation is that the service is fantastic, warm, friendly, knowledgeable and fun, and that the food is outstanding. White tablecloths and stiffness have got nothing to do with it for us – I prefer things to be a bit more relaxed than that.” 

If there’s something that unites the restaurants, it’s a respect for local, seasonal ingredients. “Produce comes and goes really fast. Things like tomatoes and sweetcorn or figs just come in to season then they’re out of season. Four or five weeks and they’re gone,” he says. At Rātā, they’ve worked hard to develop relationships with local growers, sending staff out in the middle of the season to fill their car boots with apricots and peaches from the nearby stone-fruit capital, Cromwell. 

At Madam Woo, there’s less seasonality but the same high regard for raw ingredients and to treating them simply, from the noodles they use in the laksa to the free-range pork and chicken. “In simple terms, it just comes back to looking after really good products,” he says. “It’s a very broad cuisine and it ends up having a broad appeal. And that’s one of the things we love about Madam Woo – it gets everyone in there eating.”

And while he’s been busy setting up five restaurants in as many years, Emett is now making sure that, after having come full circle, back to his home town, life isn’t all sound and fury. He’s taking the time to bed down in familiar surrounds. “That’s the point of the next six months,” he says, “We’ve just got to settle. We want to work on the front end, all the polish and how the business runs. It’s all about the quality.”

Josh Emett’s Hamilton picks

  • Volare - “The best bread in Hamilton, hands down: handcrafted sourdough from the bakers who have been supplying the city’s best restaurants since 2009. The ciabatta is a masterclass in fluffy crustiness.”
  • Paddock - “In nearby Cambridge, Paddock does a great coffee and better breakfast in an airy white space with a blackboard menu and industrial stools. It’s very good, with a menu that runs through bagels, mince and a 12-hour pork belly.” 
  • Scotts Epicurean - “The staff at Madam Woo go for coffee at local legend Scotts Epicurean, which has been on the same site by the same owners for 20 years and still serves up some of the city’s best brews.”
  • Over The Moon - “Over The Moon needs no introduction: the award-winning cheese makers started up in the heart of dairy country five years ago and have gone on to win any number of cheese awards. The Galactic Gold, a washed-rind cheese will change how you feel about dairy.”
  • Mavis & Co - “The eclectic interior of Mavis & Co is something to behold, and so is the cabinet, stuffed full with home baking. The coffee is good and strong and the place is always bustling – if it’s a fine day, get a seat outside in the sunny courtyard out front. Go for breakfast.” 
  • Good George Brewing - “On the menu at all Madam Woos – except Hamilton. Everyone else in town has it. The brewery is a great spot, in a former church in a semi-industrial area of Hamilton. The cider is excellent.” 
  • Meyer Cheese - “Meyer Cheese has been making brilliant cheese in Hamilton since the 1980s, when Dutch-born Ben and Fieke Meyer emigrated to the Waikato from the Netherlands. The company is now run by sons Miel and Geert, but the cheese is still the same, made from some of the Waikato’s best milk. They do the most amazing aged gouda which has got crystalised bits in it and it’s just amazing. I’ve got it on the menu at Rata.”

Travel Tips

Hamilton is an easy hour and a half drive from Auckland International Airport – though it also has its own airport with connections around New Zealand. The Waikato region has a mild winter making it an ideal destination year-round. Autumn is particularly pretty, when the leafy suburbs lined with deciduous trees turn red, orange and purple. Madam Woo is a walk-in restaurant that only takes bookings at lunch or if you’re a party of eight or more. It does, however, run an efficient waitlist and there’s a great bar to sit and relax in while you wait. 

What’s Nearby

In the centre of the North Island, Hamilton is close to any number of special New Zealand adventures but for a true Waikato experience, head to Raglan, 45 minutes drive from the city. Traditionally known for its surfer culture – the black-sand beaches have some of the country’s cleanest breaks – it’s been discovered in recent years by international travellers, who come for yoga and the relaxed, laid-back vibe. Solscape – high on the hill above the surf – offers quirky accommodation, daily yoga sessions and a casual menu sourced from the property’s vegetable gardens.