Six dishes and a cup
In a tiny, bustling restaurant just off the main San Francisco drag, and next to an alleyway that is famous, though the locals can't quite remember what for, Josh Emett is wondering where he could hunt down a singlet with a silver fern on it.
It's the evening before the Nespresso Grand Chef Rendezvous, for which Emett will cook the second of six courses prepared by top chefs from around the world. Over lobster-infused mashed potatoes, bread with bacon baked into it and a glass or two of French red, the Kiwi chef is relaxed, despite likening the event to the culinary Olympics.
In the harsh light of the next day, Emett is no less focused on the magnitude of the dinner. "Yes, there is pressure to do a nice dish tonight and get it right, but I'm proud to be representing Kiwis more than anything else. It's a good time to be in San Francisco with everything else that's going on, isn't it?
"I haven't got my Olympic singlet - ha, I did say that last night, didn't I? It's more a Footrot Flats vibe, black singlet and some gumboots."
Emett is, of course, kidding; you can't wear gumboots in a kitchen. But the Kiwi's pride is clear to see. Receiving an invitation to take part in this dinner was like getting a golden ticket to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Only six chefs are cooking - Marc Forgione,Thomas Keller and Michelle Bernstein from the United States; Yannick Alléno and Mauro Colagreco who both work in France; and Emett, who has cooked in London, New York and Melbourne, but is a Waikato boy, born and bred.
Between them, the six have numerous Michelin Stars and wildly successful restaurants, including Emett's own Rata, in Queenstown. The manager of Nespresso New Zealand, Guillaume Chesneau, says, "Only one to two percent of the green coffee globally meets [our] requirements. We chose Josh because he shares the same values of quality and experience that we do."
Attended by more than 200 international visitors, the Team New Zealand sponsor's gala dinner, being held at the end of the America's Cup Louis Vuitton Challenger series, is a chance for the chefs to impress. It's a long way from Emett's early days, cooking as a teenager at Hamilton's Selwyn Wilson Carlile Rest Home. Behind his calm exterior, all that talk about pressure and nerves the night before may have almost got to him.
After an early morning run along the fog shrouded San Francisco Bay, early enough to see Team New Zealand's boat hit the water ahead of their fifth win in the Louis Vuitton Cup, Emett spent the day in the prep kitchen, pulling together the final parts of his dish - seared venison loin with black grapes confit in Nespresso Arpeggio, with celeriac and enoki mushroom. It's his version of New Zealand on a plate.
"It represents New Zealand quite well, on the whole- it's not lamb, it's great meat, and it's probably not something people eat a lot of over here. It's a very beef-driven country, America, so it's quite nice to serve venison here," he explains. The dish is cold, which means a little less stress during service, but a calculated risk by the chef.
"We are doing 220 people tonight so it's a biggie.You've got to be careful what you choose to do at these sorts of occasions, because you don't want to hang yourself out to dry, do you?" But is the 40-year-old nervous about serving Americans a dish of near-raw meat they are so unfamiliar with?
"No, they'll love it, they'll love it -I'll just tell them it's tuna," he jokes. "Is it a gamble? No, I don't think so at a dinner like this when people are here for a great night, good food and they are interested in trying something new. Venison is quite a subtle dish, you can put it with ballsy flavours if you are doing a main course, a hot dish, and you can put it with red fruit and richer flavours, but this dish is quite mild. I'd say it's quite an earthy, quite a subtle dish. By no means would I call it rich.''
And anyway, it sits alongside swordfish with fennelkraut (Forgione), butternut squash and rye bread mousse (Alleno), lobster and chocolate sauce (Keller), pigeon and coffee polenta (Colagreco) and chocolate chorizo crémeux (Bernstein).
At 5pm, Emett still has three hours before the event starts. Four hours before his first plate of food leaves the kitchen at San Francisco's iconic Ferry Building. He says there have been no dramas and the prep is done and dusted. "I'm feeling good - I just want to get on with it. It hits that stage where you're ready, you've got everything ready, and you just want to do it now, basically."
But right now it's time to focus on the other things a celebrity chef has to deal with - first a bunch of eager Kiwi media, including Sunday, here to experience things from the other side of the stove, are all clamouring for answers on what produce is best and how he thinks the yachting is going.
Next, a camera crew is lurking in the wings. They want him to redo something they are calling "the button thing", which from an outsider's point of view just looks like him fiddling with buttons on his brand new chef whites. And no, still no silver fern singlet underneath. But Emett is a professional, both inside the kitchen and now in front of the camera. His time as a judge on MasterChef New Zealand has taught him a trick or two about looking cool, calm and collected under the toughest heat, including fielding questions about the upcoming fourth season.
The prep area, where all of this is taking place, is less commercial kitchen, and more sunny,outdoor experience. All six chefs, sous chefs and assistants (most of the other chefs travelled with at least one extra pair of hands; Emett is flying solo) are lined up under the awning outside the Ferry Building, sandwiched between the produce market and a busy road.
The space is a long, narrow corridor where stomachs have to be sucked in to get past the plastic-wrap-smothered mise en plus, the benches being wiped clean, and the first of the pristine, white plates starting to be laid out. Emett's bench is surgery clean, near empty, save a couple of plastic squeezy bottles and a knife. Unfortunately, the sticky name label on his fridge has his name spelled incorrectly, but for the San Fran locals and America's Cup visitors wandering by trying to get a look in past the red carpet and white linen-covered tables, the massive signage covering the top half of the building should set them straight - this is a gathering of six of the best chefs in the world.
Emett has met Keller once before and has followed the careers of the others he'll be joining in the kitchen. Whatever you have heard about tempers flaring and the competitiveness of the cooking world, forget it. For the Kiwi participant, events like this are just about getting stuck in and working as a team.
"Out-catering is always tough, and you can see it here at the set-up. But this is it, this is what you're up against. We're all here, we're all in it together, we've all got the same sort of equipment to work with and that sort of thing, so in that respect it's a really nice thing for everyone to come together and get into it. Once I've finished my dish I'll definitely get stuck in and help out wherever I can, that's what it's all about tonight.
"And it's very special. I've done a few dinners with different chefs around the world but this is an amazing line-up, so it's a very cool thing to be a part of. It's a very American thing to do, so maybe we'll have to pull out the high fives beforehand," he says with a laugh.
Just as we leave him to crack into the evening's job, Emett talks about pressure again. "In life, I think you put yourself in situations and positions where you find things awkward or hard or you put yourself under pressure, and I think this is one of these things. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a chef, so you jump at the chance. And although it's stressful you've got to enjoy it. If it's not fun then you shouldn't really be here."
At the gala, with tables full of international VIPs including Grant Dalton, Ross Blackmore and a few of Team New Zealand's crew, Emett is a hit. As his dish was served, he told the crowd, "It is a long way to come for a dinner," but a couple of hours later, while watching the second half of the Bledisloe Cup rugby match in Wellington at New Zealand-transplant restaurant, Waiheke Island Yacht Club, it was mission accomplished for the chef - just as those other guys wearing the silver fern pulled off a stunner of their own.
- Sunday Magazine