There's a touch of Pablo Picasso meets Michelin man about Nelson chef Stuart Cliffin.
Food is his art, and his approach is simple and pretty much straight from the Picasso quotebook: "Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist."
That approach has flavoured the menu at Stuart's popular waterfront restaurant, Relish - and is especially applicable to one of his signature dessert dishes, which he has agreed to share the secrets of with Leader readers today.
Featuring smoked apples, it evolved during a time a few years back when he was into experimenting with his smoker.
"I was going through a general period of smoking things - tomatoes, beef, tomatoes - and I figured, ‘why not apples'?
"And I tried them, and you know, it really worked."
His advice to budding chefs is simple enough: "Learn the basic rules first. It is only once you know the rules that you can start changing them, and experimenting, levering off them."
Stuart says he has always been into food, having started at his first restaurant in Auckland at 14.
Since then he has cooked in restaurants all over the world, from Scotland to Kaikoura and Furneaux Lodge in the Marlborough Sounds.
But Relish is the first restaurant his has owned. He fired up the gas hobs there in 2009.
He says the waterfront is special, even if it doesn't always appear to be appreciated fully by Nelsonians. "Anywhere else in the world, waterfronts are buzzing, vibrant places, but that's not always the case in Nelson, especially over winter. The state highway doesn't help, and the city council and Uniquely Nelson seem to be focused solely on the CBD.
"Here, we have to do it on our own.
"It's such a beautiful spot, but it's under-utilised".
Stuart says the Nelson restaurant scene generally "steamrolls" in summer but winters can be harsh.
"It's not always easy to persuade people to venture out in winter … but look at this," he says, pointing through his "office" window towards an autumn sunset as a yacht slips across gold-tinged waters towards the Cut.
"It's just as spectacular during a winter storm as it is during summer," Stuart says.
He'll be reintroducing some of the restaurant's more popular dishes for a winter change-up to the menu, including braised lamb shoulder and twice-cooked pork belly. And that aside, he's still experimenting, creating and looking for the next big thing, food-wise.
"It's really hard, trying to be everything to everybody, but you do have to try. Nelson doesn't really have the population base to specialise too much." As for his basic philosophy, that's simple, he says: to use simple, fresh ingredients to produce tasty, consistent, quality food.
WHITE CHOCOLATE AND SMOKED APPLE CHEESE CAKE Serves 10
1kg Cream Cheese
300gr Caster Sugar
400gr White Chocolate
20gr soft brown sugar
1 pkt of your favorite biscuits
50gr melted butter
This might seem like a lot of effort but it is really easy. If you don't have a fish smoker you can use a gas barbecue. It just needs wood chips, a wire rack and a lid. (You could use a stainless steel bowl for example).
You don't need to use much heat to generate the smoke. The sugar and butter will counteract the bitterness of the smoke and leaves you with a really stunning product.
To smoke apple:
Peel apple and remove core. Cut apple into even sized wedges. Place suitable sized dish and sprinkle with soft brown sugar and small cubes of butter and place into a fish smoker. Smoke until the butter melts which should take about 3-4 minutes. Remove the tray from the smoker and cover with tinfoil. Place in the oven and roast for 5-6 minutes until the apple is cooked. You don't want the apple to become mushy. It should be firm.
Place biscuits and butter in a food processor to make base. Pack into a 20cm spring form tin and set aside.
Cut the apples into chunks and spread across the base. Cream the sugar and cream cheese together. Melt the white chocolate into the cream and mix into cream cheese. Mix in the whole eggs.
Pour over the apples on to the base. Bake at 120 degrees Celsius for approximately 120 minutes
Allow to refrigerate overnight.