A young Wellington chef has cooked his way to an experience of a lifetime – but for all his fancy knifework, it's good simple food that gets him excited.
What do you do if you open up a mystery box of ingredients and find a whole snapper, a rack of lamb, assorted vegetables, mint and fresh raspberries?
If you are Regnar Christiansen, you will turn it into pan-fried snapper ratatouille with sauteed bok choy, spinach and herbed butter sauce, oven-roasted lamb cutlets with parsnip puree and sauteed onion, and raspberry mille feuilles with mint. All in three hours.
Regnar, a 23-year-old sous chef at Wellington's General Practitioner, won the Hospitality Standards Institute Modern Apprentice of the Year for 2010 last month.
First selected by interviews held throughout New Zealand, he and seven other apprentices cooked it out in a contest reminiscent of television's MasterChef.
The apprentices were given a night to plan the menu before the contest. "One of the hardest things was working out what I was going to make, because it had to be something I would be capable of doing in the time. And I knew that I'd have to fillet the snapper," he says.
The time frame included 20 minutes just for setting up and prepping.
It was a test of organisation and a cool head under pressure, as well as creative flair. One group of judges prowled the kitchen, marking the apprentices on working practice and hygiene standards as they cooked, while another group conducted a blind tasting of dishes in the dining room.
Regnar recalls the last 20 minutes spent finishing all three dishes as particularly heated.
Set up to foster New Zealand's brightest young cooking talent, the contest offers Regnar a chance to work in some of London's most select kitchens.
"To start with, I'll work at Providores, Peter Gordon's restaurant, for a week, then I hope I can work at Le Gavroche and St John's," he says.
"I'm writing letters, but Peter Gordon will help to set that up."
He will be working unpaid, but sees it as a chance to learn from chefs with whom until now he has been acquainted only through cookbooks. He is keen to work in Le Gavroche, because Michel Roux's 43-year-old restaurant is still one of London's most influential. Trainee chefs who have passed through its kitchen include Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White. "It's French, but modern and simple," Regnar says.
He is also interested in St John's, "because it's more like the kind of food we do in the restaurant here. It's more British, and they use lots of offal.
"I've already read two of Fergus Henderson's books." With his book, Nose to Tail Eating, the British chef did for offal what Nigella Lawson was later to do for cupcakes.
It won't be Regnar's first time in London. He went there when he was 11 with his family on a trip to meet his Danish relatives.
He plans to be away for at least six weeks from mid-October and hopes the budget stretches to cover his gastronomic plans.
"I want to eat in as many restaurants as I can, but it's pretty expensive, so I'll probably just look at the menus in some of them. I'd also like to take the train to Paris and have a look at restaurants there."
He sees his culinary style as based solidly on French cooking traditions, but primarily "good, simple food". At the General Practitioner his role as sous chef runs from preparing vegetables to cooking some of the specials.
"Andy Potts, the chef, likes me to be creative," he says. "I like charcuterie. I do the pates and terrines here."
He has been working in restaurants, including Wellington's Cafe Bastille, since he was 17, but when he left school in year 11, he considered going into computing. Although he rates his mother's home cooking highly – "she does good Mum food" – he didn't spend his childhood by her side in the kitchen.
It was a holiday job that inspired his choice of career. "After I left school, I had a job washing dishes as a kitchen hand at a Napier cafe [the Bull and Hound], and then I started to take more responsibility and do more and more of the cooking. I still just enjoy being able to create something."
Even so, a chef's working day is long and hard, with mountainous peaks of stress. What does he do to relax?
"Well, I like to go fishing, although with the shifts and the Wellington weather, that's not always so easy."
Regnar has ambitions of one day opening his own restaurant, but at the moment, he's saving hard for accommodation, because his prize money only goes so far.
"Accommodation's so expensive over there. All I'm really looking for is a couch or a space on someone's floor, but London flats are so small that there's probably someone already on the floor."
REGNAR'S DEVILLED SCALLOPS ON FENNEL AND SPRING ONION RISOTTO
With Caper Vinaigrette.
25g curry powder (medium)
1 litre fish stock
500g arborio rice
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and finely diced
1 onion, finely diced
2 spring onion stems, chopped into rounds
4 Tbsp mascarpone
1 small bunch of chives, finely chopped
30ml Pernod (optional)
100ml extra-virgin olive oil
50g capers, chopped
Pinch smoked paprika
25ml white balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper
Quartered lemon to garnish
Mix all the ingredients in bowl and season to taste.
Heat the fish stock and keep warm on a low heat.
In a large pot, melt the butter and sweat the fennel and onion for about 2 minutes.
Add the rice, continue to cook on a medium-low heat for a minute, ensuring that all the rice grains are coated with butter.
Add about a quarter of the fish stock and all the spring onion to the rice and cook on a low heat stirring frequently. Continue to stir and add the fish stock in small quantities to the rice for 15-20 minutes or until the rice absorbs the liquid. Finish the risotto by stirring in the mascarpone, chives and Pernod. Season to taste.
Lightly coat the scallops in the curry powder and flour mix, season with salt and pepper. Place the scallops in a medium-hot oiled pan and cook for 2 minutes until lightly caramelised.
Place a generous spoon of risotto in the centre of the plate, sit the scallops on top and lightly drizzle the caper vinaigrette around the risotto. Garnish with chives and lemon.
- The Dominion Post
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