Always ready for a challenge

LESSON OVER: Blenheim-based chef Chris Fortune watches as Hampden Street School pupil Levi McMillan, 10, tastes a gnocchi pasta dish he prepared.
LESSON OVER: Blenheim-based chef Chris Fortune watches as Hampden Street School pupil Levi McMillan, 10, tastes a gnocchi pasta dish he prepared.

Chris Fortune is probably best known as a chef, a driving force of the Marlborough Farmers' Market and for advocating regional produce.

Few people probably know that his passion for food began in the galley at Woodbourne air force base. Originally from Motueka, the proudly "top of the South Island boy" first saw his future as a pilot in the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

While still in high school he spent a week at Woodbourne but the air force was winding down its capacity and there would not be an opportunity for him to train as a pilot.

"I thought that if I can't be a pilot in the air force I could be a cook and spent a week on base working all kinds of jobs in the galley and loved every bit of it," said Chris.

His calling realised, he trained as a chef in Nelson after leaving school before meeting future wife, Tina. Keen to see the world the pair headed to Australia where they spent 10 years working in restaurants. They spent time on the Gold Coast where many of the places they worked were Kiwi-owned. But the majority of their time was spent in the Barossa Valley in South Australia where Chris developed his passion for wine producing regions.

"One of the best things about the area was that the restaurants we worked in were very passionate about regional produce."

After a decade Chris and Tina headed off for two years travelling through Asia and on to Britain where they worked and used as a base for travels to Europe.

"There are all these countries famous for their food that we learn about and we wanted to see and experience them for ourselves.

"You did have to get off the tourist routes and make an effort to experience the real culture to get a real feel for the countries and their cuisine."

While in Europe they made a point of sampling the best produce they could find and dining at the finest restaurants, even if being restricted to what they had in their backpacks meant they were quite under-dressed.

"I remember eating at one of Gordon Ramsay's restaurants and having these really posh woman all dressed up with their little dogs in their purses - we really stuck out."

Despite their incredible times overseas the couple came to realise that the grass really is not greener on the other side and returned to Nelson. Their coming to Blenheim in 2000 resulted from curiosity for the expanding wine industry.

"We took a day trip over to Blenheim and never went back. I think that what we have here is second-to-none."

The couple established themselves in the town with Chris working as head or executive chef at Blenheim establishments before finishing up in August last year as executive chef at the Scenic Hotel and Marlborough Convention Centre. He also did a five-year stint aboard a super yacht which cruised between Tonga, Fiji and New Zealand.

In 2001 he and Tina started the Marlborough Farmers' Market, only the second one in the country at the time. The idea saw its share of nay sayers but has grown steadily ever since.

They have also been heavily involved in forming the Farmers' Markets New Zealand, which helps to start the markets around the country. There are now 43.

"I was lucky to work with a great bunch of people when setting up the Marlborough market."

Always keen for a new challenge and project, Chris started a campaign to teach cooking skills to school children through the Kids Can Cook programme, which he has taken on the road to more than 20 schools in the past five months. He has also announced his candidacy for mayor.

"I feel that when you have something to contribute and you have something to say then you need to put your hand up, and that is what I am doing. I enjoy new challenges and this will certainly be one."

Gluten-free potato gnocchi with field mushrooms, garlic and tomato

800gm Desiree potatoes [or other floury potatoes, peeled, quartered]

Marlborough salt and ground pepper

1 egg, lightly whisked

300gm gluten-free flour (or plain)

20gm (1/4 cup) finely grated parmesan

Flour to dust

Steam or boil the potatoes. Transfer to a bowl and use a potato masher to mash until smooth.

Season with salt and pepper.

Add half the flour and parmesan and stir until combined.

Add the egg and remaining flour, in two more batches, until well combined and a firm dough forms.

If dough is too soft, add more flour.

Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth.

Divide dough into four equal portions. Roll one portion into a 2cm diameter log about 30cm long.

Use a lightly floured knife to cut into 2cm pieces.

Repeat with remaining dough portions.

Bring a saucepan of salted water to the boil over medium heat.

Add one-quarter of gnocchi and cook for 3 minutes or until they rise to the surface.

Use a slotted spoon to drain and transfer to a bowl.

Cover with foil to keep warm or chill for later use.

Repeat, in three more batches, with the remaining gnocchi.

The Marlborough Express