Cameron Farmilo shares his favourite things about the Waikato

Cameron Farmilo is the hardworking chef and co-owner of Chim Choo Ree restaurant.
CHRISTEL YARDLEY/FAIRFAX NZ

Cameron Farmilo is the hardworking chef and co-owner of Chim Choo Ree restaurant.

Friends and family drew Cameron Farmilo back to the Waikato; friends and family keep him here.

And, of course, Chim Choo Ree and the icecream parlour, Duck Island Ice Cream, over which he presides.

The clever, innovative chef came by his career via the back door. He learned the hard way, on his feet, in Sydney restaurants.

A bowl of Farmilo's famous Duck Island icecream.
CHRISTEL YARDLEY/FAIRFAX NZ

A bowl of Farmilo's famous Duck Island icecream.

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Cheffing wasn't what he set out to do after finishing high school – three years at St Paul's Collegiate, two at Fairfield College. He fancied business computing at polytech. His brother was doing it and he thought it might be a good idea... "then I decided partying was better".

To keep himself in beer and food, he washed dishes at Hydro Majestic in Hamilton East, slowly worked his way into the kitchen, then helped friends set up a vegetarian restaurant in Victoria St before heading to Sydney.

"I started at Darling Harbour at a big machine that didn't really do anything good but it was good experience. I met friends who were interested in food, and it became a passion. I got a job at a two-hatter [restaurant] and worked my way up, learning on the job under good chefs. It's the best way to learn, on the job. They've still got chef apprenticeships over there."

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His last stint in Sydney was working for a chef who owned a restaurant in Japan, which Cameron was earmarked to work in. But the restaurant fell over before that could happen, so he returned home for a spell, then got his OE out of his system by spending six month in Cambodia and Vietnam.

"It was good, but I decided to base myself somewhere." That was home. "Then Chim Choo Ree opened and you find yourself working all hours and putting all your effort into it."

The restaurant was the brainchild of Morgan Glass and Bardo Ashton, friends since Hydro Majestic days. Kim Higgison joined them during the first year, destined to become Cameron's partner. "We got together in the first year of the old shop. She was over the road in River Kitchen and we spotted each other and it just went from there."

Chim Choo Ree on Victoria St, was a cramped little building. "The tiniest kitchen in the world. We laugh about it now, but it meant I was there every day and I didn't want to live like that. We needed more space, more people and more staff so I could have time off, get a life.

"But as soon as we opened in Anzac Parade, it went crazy. It's only just over the last year I'm getting a lifestyle."

The long search for a new site ended when they took over the lease of the old brewery building three years ago, Kim buying out Bardo when they moved. They renovated the interior to reflect "fine dining in casual surroundings – a bit lively and fun".

Cameron keeps the menu "on trend, but I try to do something different with it. I guess that's staying modern. Trends create interest for everyone, especially the kitchen, which is important".

Next on the trio's expansion scheme was Duck Island Ice Cream. The icecream parlour is modelled on those in the US, Cameron says. "We needed one here – we need a good fine food store too – and Duck Island has caught on really well."

They're planning to extend the operation. An icecream van, an original 1964 Mr Whippy truck, is being restored to do the markets and weddings. "Food truck weddings are becoming very popular these days.

"My goal is to open scoop [icecream] shops all over the country. I'm eyeing up Auckland, Wellington and Queenstown – keeping it urban rather than at the beaches."

Cameron was born and  raised in Waikato. His parents were graziers and the family moved around: Ngahinapouri, Tauhei, Horotiu. "We lived mostly on lifestyle blocks and they grazed stock nearby on their own land or leased pastures."

His mum was a city gal at heart, liked the bright lights of Hamilton, he says. "She'd get in the car and go to town and I liked going to town too – I moved out as soon as I left high school."

"I'm happy back in Hamilton. Friends and family drew me back and that's why I stay. When I first left, there wasn't much here – Palate and Domaine were the two big ones. Now there's a lot of diversity and it's a really cool place, and I guess I just wanted to make it better. We have a good climate here for my industry.

"The culture here is definitely different to other places overseas." Friends overseas are working all hours to keep their heads above water, and can't buy a house, he says.

Kim and Cameron now have an active little daughter, Bonnie, aged 15 months. "We live in Hayes Paddock where there's a really good community of young families. It's very interactive."

Music is another passion. "I try to play the drums. I'm into music and I try to make time for it in my life. I used to be into the hardcore stuff but now its folky sort of stuff. But when it's the drums I like the old metal stuff – you can belt it out."

And life is good for this Waikato boy.

Best of the Waikato

Favourite brunch spot? What would you order?

Milton's Canteen for delicious food and coffee in a super pretty space. Flat white for me, and my daughter loves the salmon hash.

Best park?

Potter Children's Garden at Parana park. Good layout, rides, and birds to point at.

Best watering hole? What's your poison?

Wonder Horse. I don't get there nearly enough. Smokey Rob Roy is a personal fav , but all the drinks are deliciousness. It's great to have something of this calibre in Hamilton.

Best view?

Easily the river view from the garden bar at Eastside Tavern.

Where would you take a tourist?

As many of the places I've mentioned in these questions as possible, and Hamilton Gardens, too.

A fond food memory from the region?

One of my fondest memories would have to be the first time we ate at Sichuan Style on Collingwood St: Sichuan dumplings, cumin lamb, Dan Dan, Mapo tofu, etc. When Chim was just around the corner, we went through a stage of eating there every second day.

Favourite weekend/holiday getaway in the Waikato?

Waihi Beach, a nice quick drive from Hamilton.

What Waikato product/produce can you not do without this season?

Wholly Cow butchery on Grey St – all of their goods, there's always something new and interesting, top-quality produce.

Favourite day trip with the kids?

Waihi Beach, during summer – sand, castles and salt water.

What do you think is Waikato's best-kept secret?

Te Aroha's mineral spas – I don't know if they're a secret but I just found out about them – and $1.50 samosas from the Indian grocer in Clyde St carpark.

 - Stuff

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