Hutt chef whips up Ambassador's feast
It's Thanksgiving, one of the most important celebrations on the American calendar, and USA's Ambassador to New Zealand David Huebner has invited more than 40 guests.
As well as more than two dozen Fullbright Scholars currently studying in New Zealand, Camperdown, the impressive and sprawling Ambassadorial residence in Woburn Rd, is also playing host to visiting family members of Mr Huebner's spouse of more than two decades, Dr Duane McWaine.
The menu features a feast in anyone's terms.
The 20 dishes include turkey (of course!), beef and glazed ham, corn chowder, candied yams, sweet potato pie, pound and red velvet cakes. There are a couple of dishes unfamiliar to most Kiwis, such a Monkey Bread (a butter infused, thrice-proofed and plaited loaf made with plenty of eggs) and Chess Pie, a very sweet dessert.
In the kitchen is Hutt 22-year-old Thomas Maathuis, the ambassador's personal chef.
Despite the pressure of the occasion and only having one other person to help him plate up on the big day, Thomas feels in control and relaxed - or at least he was the day before when we spoke to him.
He's learned to handle stress.
Thomas says school ''wasn't my thing'' and he left at age 16 to wash dishes at the Upper Hutt Cossie Club.
After graduating WelTec's chef course, it was back to washing dishes - but this time at prestigious Wellington restaurant Logan Brown. They liked his enthusiasm and willingness to put in long hours, and soon he'd move up into vegetable ''prep'', then the larder section (salads, cold garnishes) and finally a role as a saute chef, tackling ''rissotos, starches...everything excluding meats''.
After soaking up knowledge from head chef Sean Clouston, Thomas took a job as chef at Capitol restaurant and then Ambeli.
It was at Ambeli, alongside fellow Upper Hutt chef Josh Evans, that Thomas says he ''really discovered the passion, the fire and the will.
''In a place not much bigger than the average townhouse, I learned that if you put the effort in and go hard you're rewarded for it.''
In the 2011 Cuisine Awards, Ambeli was runner-up 'best smart dining' restaurant of the year to much better capitalised and larger Auckland outfit Meredith's.
It was while Thomas was at Capitol that he was first approached by the Ambassdor's staff. He'd helped the former chef at the 2010 Thanksgiving. He turned down their offer.
''I said I didn't have enough experience and didn't want the responsibility. They were quite surprised with that.''
But when the role came again 13 months ago, he was ready. Of 14 applicants, three were short-listed for a trial - cooking a four-course meal showcasing their signature dishes.
Thomas remembers his menu included smoked beetroot with haloumi, a homemade pasta dish with exotic mushrooms, white chocolate and cranberries - ''a little bit different but they were impressed'' - and a main featuring crispy-skinned snapper.
After security checks, the job was his.
Fast forward 13 months, and Thomas is well settled and enjoying a role he says is as much a lifestyle as a job.
Ambassador Huebner's and Dr McWaine's favourites are Mexican dishes - they enjoy super-hot and spicey food - and pizzas. They're also ''very big'' on salads and whenever possible they like Thomas to pick the produce, herbs and fruit fresh from Camperdown's gardens. The ambassador likes to give visitors a gift featuring Camperdown produce, so Thomas also makes a lot of preserves and jams, particularly from the ''supermarket bag full of feijoas'' he gets just about daily during fruiting season.
To shake things up, Ambassador Huebner introduced ''theme weeks'' - a run of meals featuring cuisine from a particular country. Thomas had a head start with experience of French influences (Logan Brown), Italian (Capitol) and Greek/Meditterranean (Ambeli) but the theme weeks travel much wider than that.
He enjoys it. ''It keeps you on your toes; you have to do your research.''
Adding to the challenge, Mr Huebner doesn't eat meat from anything with four legs. For the regular formal dinners involving invited guests Thomas still cooks beef, lamb and pork dishes but he still needs to conjure up things for the ambassador's particular tastes. Fortunately, he's a major fan of seafood, and is getting a taste for Thomas' paua dishes in particular.
All this is not to forget American cuisine, which Thomas has learned not to dismiss as limited. ''Each state, and each major city in a state is famous for seasonings and the style they do things.''
While a Kiwi kitchen might have garlic salt and a few other variations, ''they have a pantry full of them''. One that sticks in his mind is Lawry seasoning, which reminds him of KFC. ''It's definitely something different'', as is the chocolate the Ambassdor brings in, and some of the products the Americans put in spray cans.
The role is mostly more relaxed than being chef in a restaurant, he says, ''but the mental pressure is higher.
''You're coming up with your own recipes, doing your own food costings. They like to know how many calories they're eating and what's going into their food, so I document all that.
''I'm getting exposure to a lot of different foods, being pushed and motivated to learn things. In this job you can't rely on the head chef telling you what to cook each day. You have to research, find interesting dishes and produce them well because if you're not cooking to a good standard every day, you're not going to have this job for much longer.''
And back to Thanksgiving. Thomas says the key is planning and a lot of prep before the big day - he started making the gravies the week before.
Dr McWaine's relatives have been wandering in and out of the kitchen to say hello and tell him about family favourites or dishes from their part of America.
''One of them says they'd love something like this for Thanksgiving, and another will say 'better to do it like this'. So I'm getting a few variations.''
Dr McWaine shoo'd them away, but Thomas says it's interesting finding out where the visitors hail from and different ways of doing things.
''It's priceless teaching...you can't buy that kind of teaching over here.''