Bites for Blokes
It's a sight that would make many a bloke excited and one you don't typically see in today's restaurant world.
A truck parked outside the El Matador restaurant on Cuba St is jam-packed with cuts of wood. The restaurateur and head chef, Mike Maarsland, is in El Matador's open-plan kitchen, preparing to fire up the barbecue for the day.
The truck outside is packed with wood that will be carted in later: cuts of hardwoods like macrocarpa, apple, gum, and all the good woods that turn any meal into a smoky, delicious feast.
If anyone is in a prime place to talk about dude food in this year's Wellington On a Plate, then 52-year-old Maarsland is it. The former owner of cafes Krazy Lounge and later Ernesto, the trained chef took a risk when he opened up an Argentinian restaurant up the road on Cuba St two years ago. More so when you consider that he had never visited Argentina (and still hasn't) and his background is in French-style cooking. "It was quite ballsy to do what we've done," he says.
"Our food is based on cooking with fire and wood. All barbecues today are gas but I've always used a wood barbecue at home because you just can't compare the flavours."
Today, though, he's preparing to cook an Argentinian feast to serve during Wellington On a Plate. With 45 diners at each lunch sitting, the event was a quick sellout. And the idea of two and a half hours of meaty dishes got many a man excited.
"There's such a Kiwi connection with the primitive man and the barbecue thing. Blokes love a good barbecue feast. Men immediately clicked with this idea of wood-fired cooking of steak and when you taste it, it's just so juicy and lovely."
"Half of our food is dude food. We do beautiful beef ribs that have been steamed for two hours," he says as he chops spinach and red onion to make a chimichurri dressing that will accompany the dishes that night.
Having said that, women also love his restaurant, and once they realise that most of the tapas are vegetarian or seafood, they're often converted. The setting alone is eclectic and romantic - vintage pictures of bullfighters and tango dancers on the walls and seats covered in cowhide.
The Asado (Argentinian barbeque) will be based on El Matador's Parradilla dish - chicken, morcilla, chorizo, mollejas, beef and lamb, all barbecued. As diners eat, they'll be entertained by tango dancers. "In Argentina, the Asado is a celebration with friends and family. The Argentinians use all the meat of an animal and that's something that New Zealanders aren't used to, so there are things we can't do here.
"The average Argentinian eats about eight times the meat that a Kiwi does."
Meat will also be celebrated out in Miramar, where Jacob Brown will continue to push boundaries in the kitchen at his restaurant, The Larder. Brown is known for creating dishes from the fifth quarter - kidneys, livers, brains and guts - and always has a few on his restaurant menu.
He's also renowned for challenging tastebuds and being creative in the kitchen, and his Wellington On a Plate event, Tripe, Trotters and Testicles, will be based around different types of offal.
He says: "I just think it's really important that we use all the bits and pieces from an animal, not just the prime cuts. We owe it to the animal if it's going to sacrifice it's life for us."
Pointing to a plate of uncooked sheep brains and kidneys, he says they're considered cheap cuts here but they're expensive delicacies in Germany and other European countries. "These are the organs which are so vital to it being alive, and if you haven't tried it before, you should give it a go."
Brown has created another blokey event, Eat an Elk, where he'll be serving up an elk from tail to nose. "Each course will be different, we'll start with a shank broth and a wapiti (New Zealand name for elk) heart tartare served with slow-cooked bone marrow, we'll have an elk shoulder kibbeh, and finish it off with some slow-cooked rib and cheek."
"The idea will be that nothing will be left of the animal, apart from bones."
If no-one brings anything, they won't get fed, laughs James Pask, executive chef at Matterhorn, of his Wellington On a Plate event.
Pask raised a few eyebrows among local chefs when he unveiled his Hunter and Gatherer event.
The chef will cook up whatever guests hunt, gather or farm and bring along to the restaurant - 10 to 12 guests are paying $120 for the privilege of seeing what Pask and Matterhorn head chef Adam Rickett can whip up. His first event is this Sunday, and he is relieved to hear what some guests will bring - paua, wild rabbits, wild duck, sorrel, apples, celeriac, and, hopefully, fish.
And while he thought most of the tucker would be brought by the blokes, two women are at the forefront of the Sunday feast: one is bringing herbs and apples from her garden, while another one will arrive with paua.
All arranged by email, Pask has also been promised fish from a bloke's fishing trip on Friday, while a group coming from Queenstown are hoping to come with game.
He has already created the first couple of courses: braised paua paired with oyster and served in a paua shell, followed by black truffle with celeriac and a duck egg.
"The rest of the night is open to debate, and it depends what happens between now and then."
The genesis of the Hunters and Gatherers feast harks back to Pask's own childhood.
Growing up in the United Kingdom, his family had a bach at a beach in Norfolk, and each year they would get together with family and friends for a similar feast.
Everyone would bring what they hunted, gathered, fished or foraged, each cooking up a dish.
"The difference this time is that we're in the kitchen creating the dish, but the difference is that it puts the onus on people to gather their own food and share it."
"This idea has been part of our culture for such a long time. As a kid, my uncle had his own sheep and home kill, and I did a lot of fishing when I was younger too. Nowadays I go off and search for sea vegetables around Wellington.
"A couple of my chefs from the Matterhorn forage a lot - one goes out every day and comes back with wild strawberries and violets. It's really fashionable to hunt and forage, and food is becoming increasingly related to nature and the environment," he says.
Matterhorn's burger on the menu for Wellington On a Plate's Burger Wellington is also "a game changer", says Pask, who adds: "It's a venison blood pudding with cured duck ham. You couldn't get more dudey than that."
- Wellington On a Plate runs from August 15-31. See wellingtononaplate.com
The Dominion Post