Kim Newth joins a cooking class for some tips on taking the stress out of hosting a dinner party.
A cool calm cook
Arriving at the 116-year-old Otahuna Lodge in Tai Tapu, we are greeted with coffee and homemade biscuits, before being treated to a short guided tour of the formal dining room and guest suites. Managing director Hall Cannon explains that we will shortly join executive chef Jimmy McIntyre for our cooking class, the first of the year at the beautiful rural homestead.
Earthquakes disrupted the lodge's operations for months. In the first big jolt a year ago, Otahuna lost all of its 11 brick chimneys. Internal walls, ceilings and doors were damaged in the February quake.
However, that is now in the past. After months of repairs, the homestead is fully restored and functioning again and, with substantial new seismic strengthening, it is also probably one of the safest heritage buildings still standing in Canterbury.
"The house is, in fact, in better condition now than it was before all these earthquakes," says Hall, who leads us through the Rhodes Suite, once the bedroom of Sir Heaton Rhodes, for whom Otahuna was built in 1895, and the elegant Verandah Suite, before we are guided downstairs to the kitchen. We are all impressed by what we have seen and feel a keen sense of anticipation as Jimmy outlines the day's cooking itinerary.
Our party of 10 will be sitting down to a four-course lunch about 1pm. Throughout the morning, Jimmy will be showing us a range of ways to present these courses, giving us tips on how much to make and what can be made ahead of time. His motto: "Keep it simple, but do it well."
Lunch will start with a smooth pea soup, followed by one of Jimmy's signature dishes, salmon ceviche and kokoda (Tahitian marinated fish). The main will be slow-roasted rack of lamb, and we'll be finishing with a trio of fruit sorbets, then vanilla-bean brûlée.
It all sounds delicious, decadent and, frankly, well beyond my usual culinary range.
But there is something very motivating about watching a pro such as Jimmy at work. The true usefulness of a little item, such as a proper zester, suddenly becomes apparent, as does the need for flaky sea salt and Italian parsley. I had never thought of purchasing a kitchen blow torch for caramelising the top of a brûlée, but now I can see what I've been missing.
It is also a pleasant surprise to watch Jimmy show how easy it is, in truth, to make raspberry or passionfruit sorbet. At least, he makes it look easy. This is a demonstration class, so the ultimate test will be to try it at home some time, preferably with the help of an icecream-maker or sorbet machine.
Preparing pea soup appears to be a straightforward process - the secret to its "wow factor" lies in how it is presented. Jimmy shows us three serving options. My favourite involves piping crème fraiche over the soup, before adding semi-dried cherry tomatoes and a scattering of cold-smoked salmon, pickled lemon and shredded mint, with a dash of extra-virgin olive oil.
While the peas are boiling, we are also shown how to marinate the salmon for a flavoursome ceviche, then Jimmy starts the kokoda with fresh blue cod tossed in lime juice and a little chardonnay vinegar. (These dishes were finished later and tasted divine).
With practised ease, Jimmy scrapes the seeds from vanilla pods for heavenly brûlée consisting entirely of egg yolks, cream and caster sugar. "This is so quick and easy, and you can serve it with shortbread fingers or biscotti," Jimmy explains.
By the time we've been taken through the steps for the slow-roasted lamb, my head is spinning. It's difficult to say how much of this I will be able to replicate at home, but I do feel inspired to at least try out fondant potatoes, herbed mushrooms and beef stock reduced jus.
There is an informative cheese tasting before lunch is served. And our sommelier host, Emma Ferguson, is an expert at matching wine to the menu.
Our class concludes with a quick tour of Otahuna's grounds, including the extensive potager garden, before we head home, brimming with new ideas. Thanks to Jimmy and his hard-working sous chef, Fiona Ewart, for such a memorable day in the kitchen.
This month's classes at Otahuna focus on canapés, with classes on Tuesday, September 20 and Thursday, September 22. For more information, contact Otahuna Lodge on 329 6333 or email email@example.com.