Rex Morgan's culinary career

SARAH CATHERALL
Last updated 05:00 06/11/2013
rex morgan
KEVIN STENT/Fairfax NZ

TAKING A BREAK: Rex Morgan at Boulcott Street Bistro.

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Rex Morgan grew up listening to the whirr of the Kenwood food mixer as his mother made up to 30 pavlovas to take to the family marae for a tangi or celebration.

He and his siblings piled into the family car, squashed between boxes of pavlovas they had to look after enroute to the marae in Awahou, Rotorua.

While Morgan wasn't taught to cook by his mother, the Wellington chef does reflect that those experiences were formative.

Witnessing the marae kitchen, and being there with a teatowel in one hand, the young Morgan learned about the discipline of catering for a large group – an insight he has taken to some of the world's greatest restaurant kitchens.

"Mum was in charge of the pavlovas. That was her thing. There was a system in that kitchen and a regime that had to be followed. I learned from that," he says.

The 45-year-old part-owner and head chef at Boulcott Street Bistro celebrates 25 years-plus in restaurant kitchens this weekend with a culinary tour of his impressive career.

A key event at the annual Hawke's Bay FAWC festival, Rex Morgan – A Celebration of his Best, will be held at Sacred Hill Winery, owned by his friend, the winemaker, Tony Bish.

Diners will be treated to the highlights of Morgan's culinary career, and the menu almost moves backwards, starting with his most recent time at Boulcott Street Bistro, where he has cooked for the past five years.

It not only shows how Morgan has developed and changed over the years, but also how the style of cooking and eating has evolved too.

First up will be an entree of hot smoked karenga salmon, his signature dish at Boulcott Street Bistro. Afterwards, diners will enjoy a muttonbird dish that Morgan first created at Citron, the former degustation restaurant he set up more than a decade ago, with his wife, Wendy.

Moving through the menu, he will serve, and talk about, the main course, Silver Fern Farms braised beef short rib, aged sirloin with confit potato, asparagus and roasted tomatoes. That dish originates from his time cooking at Hotel Berne in Switzerland, his first experience cooking outside of New Zealand.

While other restaurants will be missed off his culinary journey, a key event was when he earned the title of Chef of the Year in 2001, and he'll revive the winning dish – the Kaffir Lime panna cotta and sorbet. "There was a while where I entered a lot of competitions. I wasn't one to move around a lot actually, and in 27 years, I've only worked in 10 places. I was taught to become such an asset that they don't want you to leave. I got job offers all the time," he says without a touch of arrogance.

Growing up in Rotorua, Morgan didn't intend to become a chef, and toyed with being a police officer. He trained in Waikato and "once I started cooking, I was lucky enough to work with some great chefs". One was Steve Morris, formerly of Grosvenor Motor Inn in Hamilton, who now cooks at the Westpac Stadium. He was the only head chef that Morgan has pulled a CV out for.

After stints cooking in Hamilton and Taupo, Morgan headed offshore to the Hotel Berne, a turning point in his career.

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"The Swiss are exact and anal and that was the way it was in the kitchen and it was good for me. It gave me an idea about precision and exactness in cooking. I also got the chance to use truffles and wild mushrooms – ingredients I'd heard about but I'd never had the chance to cook with."

In early 1993, he headed to London to work for Peter Thornley at Blakes Hotel in South Kensington. In that time, Jamie Oliver was still a young chef, and Gordon Ramsey had not yet made it to our television screens. Blakes Hotel was fancy, where even 20 years ago a main dish cost £60 (NZ$115), and London's Who's Who turned up for dinner.

Working as a sous chef, Morgan was paid £75 for a 90 hour week in the hot, crammed restaurant kitchen. "I lost three stone (19kg). It was a year of such pressure, but I always recommend to a chef to work the hard yards for a while. It's a good experience."

When he returned home, Morgan cooked at Huka Lodge – the country's first luxury lodge.

"It was the pinnacle of New Zealand cuisine in those days. Fish was choppered in on the day, and the best of everything was served there."

Taupo was followed by Christchurch, where Morgan ran a restaurant of 17 chefs at Le Bonbolli, a French restaurant. Then he shifted to Wellington to work with Thornley at Te Papa's former Icon restaurant, followed by Bouquet Garni, and then eventually Citron, his first owner-operator restaurant.

"I had always treated restaurants as my own, in terms of my focus on them, anyway, but it was a degustation restaurant at a time when that was a new thing."

In this age of the celebrity chef and reality food TV, Morgan is now at the stage where he's happy to cook, and to mentor and teach younger chefs coming through his kitchen.

While Boulcott Street Bistro is a stalwart on Wellington's culinary scene, it's prepared to move with the times, and despite the need to keep signature dishes so regulars don't protest, Morgan recently introduced a different lunchtime menu which is lighter than the dinner one.

Despite travelling around the world and being aware of the need to promote himself, Morgan doesn't do gimmicky cooking shows, nor does he worry about impressing anyone.

"I'm choosy. I think it can all be a bit too much. People think that Hell's Kitchen is the real world."

"There is a huge pressure to what we do. Good cooking is about doing it once and doing it right. It's not like making a garment and being able to take it back and alter it."

He's had stints on Masterchef – this year, he ran contestants' competition – and also designing Air New Zealand's class menu up until 9 months ago.

Renowned for cooking fine cuts of New Zealand meat, he is also a Beef and Lamb Ambassador, which regularly takes him overseas. "I've got to travel a lot and the industry has given me way more than I could ever give it back."

While he confesses to being easily bored, he sticks to his bread and butter cooking style. "I trained in the French style of cooking, and while I've dabbled in Asian cooking, I'm not good enough. I always think that visitors from those countries should get food as good as they can get back home."

When asked what's coming next, he smiles. Some plans may be under wraps, but he hopes to publish an indigenous cookbook.

While his Maori heritage is important to him, and he relishes the chance to showcase indigenous ingredients like karengo (seaweed) in his kitchen creations, he says: "I don't live it. I'm a mix of all sorts of stuff."

KARENGO (SEAWEED) HOT SMOKED SALMON

10 entree portions

1 T karengo granules

2 T flaky salt

1 T brown sugar

1 T toasted fennel seeds

1 T crushed peppercorns

1.5kg boned salmon fillet

Add the first five ingredients together. Spread evenly over the salmon and leave to sit for 30 minutes.

Smoke fillet gently for 25 minutes. Leave to cool slightly, then scrap off the marinade.

Remove skin and portion. Serve on a potato and tomato salad with vincotto and Lot Eight olive oil.

THE DETAILS

Hawke's Bay Food and Wine Classic – tickets remain for the following events this week and weekend:

Nov 7: Cocktail Masterclass with Frankie Walker. $45.

Saturday Nov 9: Relais and Chateau Long Lunch @ Cape Kidnappers, $150; Wineries ride around Bridge Pa and Gimblett Gravels, $20; Global street food and coffee festival at Deliciosia in Havelock North, free.

Sunday Nov 10: Silver Ferns Carnivore Carnival. $80.

For more information and tickets, go to fawc.co.nz

- The Dominion Post

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