Fresh faces of food

Wooing Wellington palates

DIANA DEKKER AND BESS MANSON
Last updated 13:23 06/08/2014
Joel Humphreys
MAARTEN HOLL/Fairfax NZ

WILD STUFF: Joel Humphreys at Duke Carvell's.

Samuel North
CAMERON BURNELL/Fairfax NZ
SAMUEL NORTH: "I like to take old-fashioned dishes and put my own twist on them."
Jack O'Donnell
KEVIN STENT/Fairfax NZ
BREAKING BOUNDARIES: Jack O'Donnell, of WBC, has an eclectic approach.

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Foodies are bracing themselves for an avalanche of great fare as Wellington On a Plate lays the table for two weeks of gastronomic adventure. Diana Dekker and Bess Manson profile three up-and-coming chefs who will be wooing Wellingtonian palates during the event.

JOEL HUMPHREYS, HEAD CHEF AT DUKE CARVELL'S

Food has always been on Joel Humphreys' radar.

As a kid he hunted, foraged and cooked with his family and eating and cooking formed a huge part of his upbringing, the 31- year-old says.

"I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, who were market gardeners, and as a child I remember going to their place and helping them harvest their own big garden, then cook with the produce.

"Some of those early memories resonate a lot with what I do today in my cooking career."

His father also farmed so the young Joel spent a lot of time helping out.

He gained a real knowledge of where food comes from and learned to give it the respect it was due.

"I was always told when foraging to only take what I needed, not to be greedy and only leave my footprints behind."

Every year, he and his dad, uncle and 'Gramps' went to the family bach near Whanganui for the start of duckshooting season.

"We had no power in our bach, just a coal oven. I have this memory of waking up to the smell of freshly-baked bread that my Gramps had made. A potent memory."

Food would have seemed the obvious career choice for him but he was encouraged by a friend who went to study cooking. Joel thought he'd give it a crack.

Once he started it all seemed to click. His mother thought he was cheating in his exams because he was getting As for the first time in his life.

"I'd never been very academic at school. But cooking was something that just made sense to me when it came to ingredients and putting them together, " he says.

"And it's one of those careers where you never stop learning and adding to your knowledge. I find I learn things from the most unlikely of people or situations and I love that."

Joel started out washing dishes and working as a kitchen hand at Fiebig's Cafe in Thorndon. Renowned chef Glenn Cooper was at the helm.

"He was my first inspiration in the industry. He really made me question and think about the food I was cooking."

Joel's career has taken him from Boulot in Wellington to Rockpool and Bodega in Sydney to St John's Bread and Wine, and Koya, in London.

After six years in Australia and two in the UK, he is back working as head chef at Duke Carvell's with old pals Lorenzo and Leonardo Bresolin.

He is still foraging for fresh local ingredients to serve up to his customers - watercress, mushrooms, rosemary, chickweed, borage. His foraging grounds are a secret, though he'll admit to Mt Victoria being a hotspot.

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Foraging is no fad, he says. With so much on our doorstep it makes sense to use what nature has given us.

SAMUEL NORTH, OWNER AND HEAD CHEF AT MUSE ON ALLEN

Samuel North was just 21 when he opened his own restaurant, Muse on Allen in 2012. By that time he'd already chalked up six years behind the stoves of a whole bunch of kitchens from Wairarapa to Hunter Valley.

"I think I may have been the youngest chef to open a restaurant in town. There was this big hype when I opened it because I was so young and a lot of people thought I'd fail, " he says.

Two years on and Muse on Allen is doing 40 to 80 covers a night.

They started out with a trickle of clients but business steadily grew. And when he won the Wellington On a Plate best menu last year they came in their droves to eat his fare.

North, now 23, describes his cooking style as modern New Zealand.

"I like to take old-fashioned dishes and put my own twist on them, like my lamb Wellington or my Vichyssoise with oysters and black pudding."

North, who grew up on the Kapiti Coast, says his grandmother has always been a huge inspiration to him when it comes to food.

"She has a huge vegetable garden and she is always baking. Whenever I pass her place in Featherston she has some home baking ready for me."

By his own admission, home economics was the only subject he was any good at during his school years.

It came easily to him. Food, he understood.

His first foray into cooking was a stint at Bellamy's restaurant in Parliament. He doesn't mince words when trying to sum up that particular experience.

"I hated it . . . it was just awful."

But he knew he liked cooking. It was the right career for him; it was just a matter of being in the right kitchen.

He worked his way around a number of Wellington restaurants, including Plate at the former Holiday Inn before scoring a job at Wharekauhau Lodge, where he worked under Anthony North (no relation).

"I was really inspired by the way he presented food and his flavour combinations. He really instilled into me my passion for food." North took himself off to Australia for some overseas experience and worked at the Crowne Plaza Resort in the Hunter Valley.

He reckons Wellington could do with a bit more influence from abroad.

"Wellington is a bit stuck at the moment.

"There are all these places offering shared platters and tapas, so many mid-range restaurants, but not many modern fine dining places. I think we need young chefs to get out there and learn more overseas so we can introduce more modern dining here."

JACK O'DONNELL, HEAD CHEF AT WBC

Jack O'Donnell, 29, was a teenager in Nelson when his dad literally gave him food for thought.

"He was a good cook. He'd review what he'd done, what he could have done better, more of an intellectual process. He grew his own vegetables and it was garden-to-plate.

"It opened my eyes to what cooking could be when I was a teenager and it was the main influence on me wanting to become a chef. My interest in cooking took over from studies at 16."

He did a diploma in cooking at Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology and worked at The Cut restaurant for two years - "a major influence.

A really good experience of how far cooking can be taken. Howard Morris was a great cook with an interesting style of fine dining. Being a young chef, he was quite hard on me but a mentor who kept me going and wanting to aspire to something, too."

O'Donnell was born in Scotland "and I yearned to go back".

He worked in the Vermillion restaurant in the Scotsman Hotel in Edinburgh for a year - "even more fine dining, quite precise and technical" - and then in restaurants in Bristol. He left Bristol six years ago for home, traded Nelson for Wellington and studied sociology and anthropology at Victoria University, "partly because I was interested in world cuisine and the social and cultural facts behind it."

He returned to fulltime restaurant work after he finished his degree. His first head chef job was at Scopa Cucina and a few months ago he shifted to WBC. There, he says, he can channel his experience of anthropology and sociology and his passion for world cuisine.

"Before there were strict borders. I can really break out here."

His approach to food is "rustic and interesting, " but with a refinement that takes it away from home cooking. He aims for "very eclectic, not one particular cuisine, borrowing from world cuisine with refinements so it's all personal, so it's all under the WBC umbrella."

Wellington On a Plate, he says, "is a really exciting time, a very busy time. You can do more and you know people will be around".

Wellington On a Plate runs from August 15 to 30. For tickets, go to wellingtononaplate.com.

- The Dominion Post

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