New Zealand Māori chef Charles Royal has come a long way since his days as a field chef in the New Zealand Army when the bush was a means of survival.
Today Charles Royal runs a thriving business based on indigenous treats from New Zealand’s native forests where he has been a leading figure in the rediscovery of the wild herbs and edible ferns - generally overlooked since early Māori settlement - that have now been elevated to contemporary fine food status.
Today horopito (Māori pepper), pikopiko (edible fern fronds) and kawakawa (Māori bush basil) appear on menus in many of New Zealand’s top restaurants, and are causing a stir with international culinary enthusiasts. Not only are the unique flavours of these wild plants adding extra spice to already world-renowned local produce, they’re now also firmly establishing a distinct New Zealand food identity.
Kiwi food identity
Charles Pipi Tukukino Royal, who has been experimenting for years, has played a leading role in establishing the Kiwi food identity.
Now Royal markets wild foods under his Kinaki brand, masterminds the harvest, operates Māori food trails and cooking classes. Promoting New Zealand’s indigenous foods internationally, he has also produced a cook book and launched a range of indigenous infused teas and Piripiri 3 pepper sambal and spices.
It’s been a steady upward career path for the Rotorua cook who was named New Zealand Innovative Chef of the Year in 2003. And, while Royal agrees that he now has a lot on his plate, promoting indigenous foods is a passion and he’s excited about the future. How rewarding is it that his ingredients are now used at both the annual Wellington On a Plate Foodies competition and the Matariki Kai Challenge in the Waikato area.
"I’m always exploring new ideas for innovative products where our herbs add new flavours and natural goodness. Who knows this time next year we could have a ‘kawakawa roll’," he says.
Charles Royal is a chef by trade. His cooking career, spanning 38 years, started as a 15-year-old apprentice chef and field cook in the army.
"Because an army marches on its stomach, they’ll soon tell you if you don’t do a good meal. The training was absolutely the best. It gave me discipline. It set me on the straight and narrow," says Royal.
By the time he left the army a decade later in 1990, Royal could cook for 1000 people, prepare an intimate formal dinner, cater for special diets and cook in the field under any conditions. He also had internationally-recognised London City and Guild 706/1 and 706/2 qualifications.
Royal moved on to Air NZ’s in-flight catering service, becoming chef to business and first-class customers.
"I ended up travelling all over the world and spent a lot of my spare time trying out different cuisines. I fell in love with Cajun Creole in the southern United States - a mix of old and new-world cooking," he says.
On his return home, Royal opened his own Cajun Creole restaurant - ‘Brier Patch’ at Paraparaumu, near Wellington. During this time he also trained and tutored cooking at Whitireia Polytechnic, and started to experiment with indigenous ingredients and food styles.
After three years Royal and his wife Tania, a Royal New Zealand Navy chef, sold ‘Brier Patch’ and moved to Rotorua to open the equally popular ‘Copper Criollo’ restaurant.
Native flora and fauna
Royal’s bid to develop a New Zealand cuisine was supported by growing awareness of the uniqueness, novelty and intrinsic value of New Zealand native flora and fauna.
"I had learned a lot about the bush during my time in the army and have taken that knowledge through the years, developing food tours and cooking classes using what we gather from the wild.
"I love organics and making something out of nothing, but you have to know what you are looking for," says Royal.
Finding wild foods in New Zealand’s native bush isn’t difficult but identifying the edible varieties requires some education. If taking a personal tour with Charles Royal isn’t possible, the wild food chef suggests buying a small handbook with photos to assist in identification.
Royal has a team of family members and helpers who harvest wild foods from family lands - a scheme that he says helps those in underdeveloped communities.
With the developing use of native herbs in kitchens all over New Zealand, the required quantity of wild foods has increased markedly and manufacturers are requesting a ton of dry herbs a year. That requires three times the amount in fresh product so harvesting has to be a well managed business.
Royal says it’s a sustainable process and the crop is carefully picked so re-growth occurs constantly. The whole operation has been based at a Māori settlement on the East Coast, but suppliers now send the fresh herbs to a small processing factory and distribution centre located in Rotorua.
Tours include an indigenous food trail where Royal takes guests on a guided bush walk to forage for wild herbs and other food ingredients, then cooks up a storm in a little shelter beside a lake. The herbs are used in Māori soda bread or takakau, and as the basis of canapés.
How to use indigenous foods is well orchestrated in the Māori chef’s book Charles Royal and his cuisine (2009). The coffee table book contains 50 recipes providing simple combinations of wild herbs and fresh produce.
For more than a decade, first and business class passengers on Air New Zealand have enjoyed foods featuring New Zealand’s indigenous foods as part of menus developed by Charles Royal. The general New Zealand public can also sample Royal’s products served in restaurants all over New Zealand.