Country kitchen provides life with style
Just as you were starting to get used to an award-winning restaurant in farmland north of Oamaru, they add a castle. PHILIP MATTHEWS reports on Riverstone Kitchen and the unlikely dream of Dot Smith.
Sometimes the Waitaki River feels like a border in time as well as space. Cross from Canterbury to Otago, and you notice the landscape changing from unrelieved flatness to minor variation. You expected that. But you can also feel like you have gone back in time 40 or 50 years.
This is not always a bad thing. Just over the border in Oamaru, clinging to the past has become a civic mission. At both ends of town, signs promote the Steampunk capital - probably not a title that was hotly contested. Yet Oamaru's greatest asset is still its Victorian quarter.
All of which makes the appearance of Riverstone Kitchen just north of Oamaru even more brilliant than it might otherwise have seemed.
The owners are used to hearing this.
"I think people are surprised by the location and then what they find within that," says head chef and co-owner Bevan Smith. "If you're driving from Christchurch, by the time you get to the Waimate turnoff, you're starting to think you're in the wilds."
Instead, you find yourself at one of New Zealand's best restaurants. Don't just take our word for it.
In 2008, two years after opening, Riverstone Kitchen was a runner- up in Cuisine magazine's restaurant of the year. Go forward another two years and Riverstone won. "Everything was so beautifully cooked and composed, it was just a joy," a Cuisine judge gushed.
"What were we doing that trumped everyone else?" Smith wonders. "It was the first time a casual restaurant had won it, let alone a South Island restaurant."
The chef and his wife, Monique, co-owner and restaurant manager, flew north for the big ceremony. There were more than a few glum faces.
"Aucklanders weren't happy," she says, grinning.
At that stage, the big city chefs hadn't visited Riverstone. Post- Cuisine, it is definitely on the circuit. Just the other day, they had the crew from the Ponsonby Road Bistro in. It's a nice thing to imagine: despite expectations of competitiveness, there is also collegiality, with chefs dropping into each other's places.
"The first year, we didn't know anyone," Bevan says. Now the Waitaki Valley is on the New Zealand culinary map. But there is a danger in picturing Bevan and Monique Smith as southern yokels overwhelmed by the sophisticates from the big city. They are every bit as sophisticated.
Smith grew up here on his parents' farm after his family shifted south from Wellsford, north of Auckland, but he trained as a chef in Christchurch and went to London. He worked at acclaimed restaurants La Pont de la Tour and the Canteen before moving to Australia, where he was head chef at ecco bistro in Brisbane.
The couple met there. She was born in Zimbabwe and moved to Queensland with her family during the 1980s. As in all great romances, there was serendipity. He was living back in New Zealand and had popped over to Brisbane for a friend's wedding, which was cancelled when the bride did a runner.
She had finished six years at university and was waitressing to pay the bills.
It was a fine lifestyle for a time. He cooked at ecco bistro. She taught in a music studio (her mother-in-law, Dot Smith, will later let slip that she is a superb opera singer). But they didn't want to raise kids "on a 400 square metre block in the middle of the city" or work for other people.
"We had enough friends with restaurants in Brisbane to realise how tough it is," she says. "Rents are higher, expenses are higher. You do have the population but they're fickle and don't have any loyalty."
"The main thing was the lifestyle with kids growing up," he adds. "If you want to be top of your game in the city, you need to dedicate yourself. There are too many hospitality orphans."
There was nothing here. Well, there was something - a paddock with grazing cows.
A restaurant was built from scratch and opened in 2006. Extensive gardens have grown up around it. The children's playground, the aviary. It is not just food that has made this a great destination, mostly by word of mouth - it is the setting.
Family has grown up around it too: the two Smith children are now aged 8 and 6.
On a sunny afternoon in summer, this looks like the good life. Of course, the gardens are not simply decorative.
"The main thing is that the gardens are at the centre of the menu," Bevan says. "What we grow and local growers around us grow is the basis of what we do. If it's in the garden we'll use it. If it's not, we'll change the menu to suit what's growing.
"It's about staying with that wave that ripples around the garden."
Nicely put. The first raspberries were picked in early December and the menu changed as a result. The raspberry souffle went on, the raspberry ice cream and chocolate ganache. The raspberry grower is six minutes that way. The strawberries come from 10 minutes in another direction.
"You don't even get into the issue of why Chinese strawberries don't taste very nice," Bevan says. "You're buying them from a guy who's doing the right thing, and you're supporting him."
For four years, all the lamb has come from just one local farmer. They get 10 at a time. When he rings up, you can hear the lambs at his feet.
"You're not doing it because you're trying to tick boxes and make people feel good. It's the right thing to do and the product's second to none."
This is localism at its most intense. One advantage over big- city restaurants is fewer people in the supply chain.
They do their own veal, just six calves per year. They have about 40 or 50 egg-laying hens but they always need more eggs, sourced from an organic supplier at Round Hill, near Oamaru. Free-range pork comes from the other side of the Waitaki.
The big story in the south is dairy conversion, so it's good to picture this relatively new undercurrent of niche providers.
"At the moment, dairying's just the easy option," Bevan says.
"You get a pay cheque at the end of the month, eight or nine months of the year. If it's more of a niche market, you've got to be smart.
"Even for us, the first couple of years were really hard while we were waiting for customers. We had the staff and we had the building and we'd stand round."
On day one there were 17 bookings - more than they expected.
"We didn't know what was going to happen. But we had been cooking and working long enough that we knew what we were doing. The first two years were about establishing ourselves.
"The food was always OK. That's the easy part. It's running a business and running the floor and getting all those other things right."
There are 16 people in the kitchen and on the floor now, plus the Smiths.
Was it easy finding staff? They pause, look at each other and laugh. It was "horrendous", he says.
"It was absolutely a nightmare, because nobody knew who we were," she adds. "If you're not used to eating at good restaurants regularly, your expectations are really low," he says.
"We didn't want to dumb things down.
"You should be careful thinking about what customers want, because they want a lot more than people give them credit for. The more we relaxed and opened up what we were doing with food and service, the more people ran with it.
"If anything, the only thing constraining the business was our own thoughts and stereotypes. You think a farmer isn't going to want to eat spicy Thai or Portuguese food."
These days, around half their business comes from Oamaru, Timaru and the surrounding valley.
"There are older people with time on their hands, but also people who have taken up dairying as a commercial reality to get them ahead," Bevan says.
"They've had other vocations, they've travelled overseas. They still want to eat and drink good coffee. They don't want to give it up just because they've moved to the countryside."
They got used to a lull in winter, but this was the first year in which they have been steadily busy all the way through. How come? It could be about publicity - another Cuisine nod, a prominent story on TV3 - or it could be the work of that word-of-mouth reputation.
HarperCollins has published two Riverstone Kitchen cookbooks as the reputation has grown, and Smith has been approached to do things on television.
He turns that down.
Masterchef strikes him as a way for a supermarket to push its product. The bad-boy chef image also seems abhorrent to him - "Bevan is the complete opposite of that," his wife says.
Mostly, they seem resistant to celebrity culture, the chef as egomaniac and rock star.
"This whole thing is not about us," he says.
"This is a business that has enabled us to live in the country and have some kids and try and give them a good head start.
"Once they've gone, maybe we'll go to Turkey."