Kiwi chef Peter Gordon is the “godfather” of fusion cuisine, a global mash-up of culinary techniques. Now, a new group of local chefs are taking the idea of fusion to new places using local ingredients.
Fusion food combines ingredients, techniques and ideas from a range of culinary traditions, it is a term that was coined in the late-80s and has recently fallen out of favour, but in New Zealand it is getting a new energy and spirit.
It is fitting that it is New Zealand reviving fusion food, three decades after Kiwi celebrity chef Peter Gordon helped open a new Wellington restaurant known as The Sugar Club. Gordon was just 24 at the time. The young chef had trained in Melbourne and travelled through Asia, and was in thrall to the cuisines and flavours of the countries he travelled through – food that New Zealanders were equally excited to discover. “I was like a kid in a toyshop,” he says. “I was able to do what I wanted, and the public just responded really well to it.”
Gordon was one of the first exponents of modern "fusion" which would end up seeing him labelled as “the godfather” of this cooking style. It’s a global term, but in New Zealand it has taken on a particular hue, as chefs combine the country’s exquisite produce with ingredients that were unheard of a generation ago.
New Zealand has changed radically since Gordon started cooking at the Sugar Club: it’s now one of the most multi-cultural countries in the world, with an extraordinary food scene that ranges from Michelin-style fine dining to casual bar eateries and thousands of cheap-eat restaurants run by recent immigrants.
In Hawke’s Bay, the celebrated Māori chef Jeremy Rameka combines Michelin-quality cooking with a casual New Zealand atmosphere at Pacifica, which you'll find in a weathered wooden bungalow near the coast. Recently he created a dish of pan-seared sesame crusted trevally with squid mince and greenlip mussel sago.
And at Christchurch’s Pescatore, chef Reon Hobson delights in the interplay between contemporary cooking and New Zealand produce – as with his seafood “pho” which consists of noodles, fish “floss” and a Thai-style consommé.
Wellington’s Paul Hoather, owner and executive chef at Whitebait, creates exquisite dishes with local produce and infuses a Kiwi style into all of them. The menu features Māori names for all the dishes like the Fish and shellfish or Ika mātaitai, roasted in a special Josper oven Catalan style with saffron broth and romescada. The seafood is treated with respect and is all sustainably sourced. Finfish are caught by long line and their own fishmonger selects and prepares the fish.
Well down the track now, those early menus of Gordon’s still read well. House-made bread, pickles, cheese and smoked sausages; squid stuffed with black rice, and a watermelon and butternut curry.
One dish – pesto beef – still occasionally appears on the menu at his London restaurant The Providores, and involves marinating eye fillet in soy, vinegar and garlic before cooking it and serving it on a warm beetroot, zucchini and silverbeet salad with black olives and house-made pesto.
“The food was so different and everything was so exciting,” says Gordon. “What we were doing was offering unusual ingredients with lots of punchy flavours to a group of people who were as excited about eating it as we were creating it.”
Gordon had moved from Whanganui to Melbourne aged 18, where he found work as a waiter; he lasted a week before they fired him, and he announced he’d rather be a chef. On days off he ate in tiny, cheap ethnic restaurants – everything from Malaysian to Vietnamese and Italian. But he also discovered ethnic food stores, buying feta from Greek supermarkets, hand-made pasta from Italian food stores along with fish sauce, soy sauce and tofu.
“I was so excited by the flavours,” he says. “I’d go into these shops and buy bottles of things, and I had no idea what they were. They’d all just be in my flat and then when I was cooking I’d think, ‘That’s nice and salty, I’ll add that.’ I didn’t know the ingredients enough not to mix them – so I did, and it worked.”
He took the same approach in Wellington. He bought dry goods from grocery store Moore Wilsons, but also spent time wandering around Asian supermarkets: he’d buy a product and then taste it, and work out what to do with it.
In 1995, The Sugar Club moved to London and Gordon went with it. Gordon now splits his time between London – where he has The Providores and Tapa Room – and Auckland, where he has opened the third Sugar Club, on the top floor of the Sky Tower. It’s a spectacular space, with the best view in the city and a menu of small plates that you combine into a personalised degustation, which might take in such dishes as an exquisitely textured “torched” langoustine, served with yuzu yams, black garlic aioli and “crisps”, or roast heirloom carrots served with liquorice cauliflower, hazelnut crumbs and upland cress.
Now a new wave of young chefs is tweaking what it means to cook fusion. New Zealand is blessed with such an array of local produce – venison and stonefruit in the south, say, or fish in the north – that it lends a distinctly local flavour to the cooking.
Tom Hishon and business partner Josh Helm opened Orphans Kitchen in Ponsonby, Auckland three years ago – serving food that was at once strange and familiar. All the produce in the restaurant comes from New Zealand and much of it from small producers; there are hives on the roof and Hishon forages around Auckland for herbs and seaweed. “When I travelled I saw all these cuisines that are special to the place and the produce and the provenance,” says Hishon. “It comes down to the technique at the end of the day – and that’s the one thing we haven’t had in our food culture.”
Recently for breakfast at Orphans, you could order a bowl of barley congee with seaweed, pickled kahawai fish from Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf and a slow-cooked egg. The stock was made from the fish frames and heads from the restaurant’s dinner service, and the barley came from a biodynamic grower in the South Island. “You could go to China and you’d never experience a congee like that,” he says. “The difference is I try and take the technique, and see what we have here.”
Chef Josh Emett, whose Queenstown eatery Rata combines local ingredients with playful touches, agrees. “You’re doing the same job but with different ingredients,” says. “You’re not hugely turning a dish on its head – it’s just really interesting flavours to enhance it.”
On the menu at Rata, for instance, there’s roasted duck breast with confit leg, brocolini, shitake and black garlic along with seared Wakanui sirloin served with crispy ox tongue, oyster mayonnaise and edamame. “It has to be localised,” Emett says, “and to be honest in New Zealand you are pushed into a corner of localising these dishes and food because of what’s available.”
The difference now is that there are new flavours available to chefs: where once you might have seasoned mushrooms with salt, now you might use mirin, soy and Japanese vinegar. “At Rata we might serve a dish and it’s classic and New Zealand and in season, but you’ll have that punch of something behind,” he says. “The food is comforting – but you want their eyes to light up a little bit.”