Top chef a foodie at heart

MARITIME MAGIC: Mark Limacher.
MARITIME MAGIC: Mark Limacher.

Chef Mark Limacher has made his mark on many restaurant kitchens around Wellington and beyond. The affable chef who launched his career cooking for politicians back in the 1970s has transformed Majoribanks St with three restaurants over the years. His latest one, Ortega Fish Shack, has just taken out a top accolade in the Cuisine Good Food Guide 2014 - the only national restaurant awards, in their 10th year.

While Auckland's Italian restaurant, Baduzzi was crowned American Express Best Specialist Restaurant, Ortega, famous for its delectable seafood dishes, came runner-up. Ortega also got a chef's hat - Cuisine's rigorous rating system also awarded to eight other Wellington eateries. Auckland fine-diner Sidart was named Cuisine's Restaurant of the Year.

Says Limacher: "It's more than a job - it's a passion. I'm a person who likes dining out. I'm a foodie at heart."

ORTEGA FISH SHACK: Co-owner Davey McDonald.
ORTEGA FISH SHACK: Co-owner Davey McDonald.

He's also an influential chef who doesn't chase any celebrity status. Invited to write a cookbook more than a year ago, he shunned the idea.

"I'm an ordinary guy trying to do my job," he says.

Limacher is no stranger to awards, though. His first restaurant, Roxburgh Bistro, next door to Ortega, won the Corban Food and Wine Awards twice in its 14-year history. He also won the local Felix Award for outstanding Wellington chef, and the Des Britten Dominion Newspaper Restaurant of the Year award for the top Wellington restaurant twice. His second restaurant, the rustic French bistro, Cafe Bastille, won the inaugural Cuisine Restaurant of the Year award.

But these days you won't find the father of four daughters and grandfather spending a lot of time at an Ortega Fish Shack stove top. Each night, his kitchen is run by head chef Regnar Christensen. Limacher is "the spare parts man - I do the prep during the day and the shopping. People think we turn up at 6pm and turn the ovens on. In reality, we're all here at 11am getting ready for the night."

On Saturday night, Limacher spent the evening in the kitchen, and he laughs: "It was a shock to the system. It's a young man's game."

In fact, Limacher had all but retired from restaurant kitchens when his daughter, Anna, and her husband, Davey McDonald, wanted to set up a restaurant and urged him to join them. Both had worked at Cafe Bastille on the same site, which Limacher had sold and passed through two other hands before they bought it back off the former owners.

The new owners, including his wife, Helen, decided on a seafood theme, agreeing there was a gap in the market.

"We didn't think that Wellington was that well-catered for with seafood, especially in the relaxed middle part of the market. We didn't want a stiff corporate feel either. Our menu is inspired by the produce."

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That was five years ago, when they set about redecorating the former Cafe Bastille eatery into a casual, eclectic space with a maritime theme that wouldn't look out of place in a European fishing village.

The recycled wooden bar came from the former TAB in Otaki, while the maritime pictures and photographs wallpapering the walls have been picked up in op shops or donated by customers and fans. Limacher wanders over to a wooden fish attached to the wall and says: "A lady came in and said it deserved a good home and didn't look right in her place. We get a lot of that here."

The chefs change the menu regularly, depending on what's in season.

Right now, creations like chickpea and coriander fritter, roasted tarakihi, chargrilled salmon, and gruyere souffle are on the menu.

Some of the dishes hark back to Limacher's past - starting with his first overseas job when he worked in fine dining restaurants around Switzerland, where his father came from. He was part of kitchens brimming with 20 chefs feeding 60 customers.

"It was a great training ground for me. There was a lot of silver service, cooking at the table, that kind of thing," he says.

But when he returned home, he couldn't find a job he wanted so he spent time as a waiter at Bacchus, on Courtenay Place, eventually becoming head chef. "That time waiting was a real eye-opener for me, and it helped me understand that you really need to care about your customer."

Scattered around Wellington, New Zealand and beyond are chefs who learned under Limacher, and restaurant menus he has inadvertently shaped.

Over in Melbourne, Ben Shewry, of Attica restaurant, Australasia's top restaurant, spent his years working under him at the Roxburgh Bistro. So did Daniel Wilson, another chef making his mark in Melbourne.

Here, Peter Collins, who cooks at Astoria Cafe, worked with Limacher at Roxburgh Bistro and then Cafe Bastille. So did Nick Huffman, formerly of Huka Lodge.

With more than 40 years in restaurant kitchens behind him, Limacher has been around long enough to observe trends. In the 1990s, it was cheaper cuts of meat. Today, it's the increasing casualisation of the restaurant scene, and an abdundance of new herbs and vegetables. Craft beer is hot, as are new wine varieties.

"Today, the chef is the hero too. But some chefs put too many things on the plate. Sometimes less is more. You can lose the integrity of the dish. Instead, your star products should be shining."

"Here we try to deliver what we promise and that's key. It's about building long-term relationships, too.

"We're a small town and we need people to come back and see us."

WHAT THEY SAY

Ortega Fish Shack, from the Cuisine Good Food Guide 2014: 

With its relaxed and cosy ambience, Ortega Fish Shack is deservedly popular. The witty maritime theme of its decor continues in the seafood-focused menu, though meat lovers and vegetarians are well catered for.

The food is sophisticated and technically accomplished. Supremely fresh John Dory with a crayfish, saffron potato and roasted red pepper broth and rouille – effectively a refined version of bouillabaisse – is topped with finely shaved fennel.

Jerk salmon with a salad of beetroot, chickpeas, spiced cashews and pineapple chutney is a clever Caribbean-Indian fusion, with a balance of spice and textures. Nothing is irrelevant and spicing is wine-friendly.

The carefully chosen wine and beer lists are both approachable and appealing, with an extensive selection of excellent options available by the glass. Service is professional and personable, with staff ready to suggest daring but successful matches.

Ortega Fish Shack & Bar 15.5/20.

We love... The seafood selection – from smoked warehou to monkfish dumplings – from renowned chef-co-owner Mark Limacher and head chef Regnar Christensen. Young co-owner-sommelier Davey McDonald runs the floor with a laidback warmth and immense knowledge.

The vibe... Fish-shack chic, a soft blue wash on the walls, fish nets and oars. A scattering of memorabilia gives the feeling it has been there forever.

A food highlight... Spice-coated jerk salmon on a bed of cashews, beetroot and carrot with pineapple chutney. 

The Dominion Post