Dish of the day

‘‘Home boy’’: Josh Emett is looking forward to cooking for Waikato folk.
‘‘Home boy’’: Josh Emett is looking forward to cooking for Waikato folk.

Gill Davis talks to the star of the food and wine festival Josh Emett.

Josh Emett's feeling poorly. Nursing a sore throat.

But he'll bounce straight up again, he says. Has, in fact, by the time we call him back a few hours later for our interview. He's a box of fluffies.

No keeping down this local-boy-makes-good, who is a Wintec-trained, former Gordon Ramsay chef, MasterChef New Zealand judge and guest chef at this weekend's Waikato Times Food & Wine festival.

It was merely a flu that floored him for a couple of days. Nah, nothing to do with overwork or stress. Although, he says, bewildered, wife Helen has suggested the very same thing. Says he's pushing it too hard.

"I don't know that I am".

He's just been following his normal routine: Getting up early, exercising, off to work, more exercise later, more work at home in the evening. He did watch the Australian Open tennis from 10pm to 1am the night before he was struck down.

"But I've always worked like that."

Years catching up? Good grief, he'll be 40 this year. And there's no sign of slowing down any time soon.

"Definitely not. I enjoy what I do."

And he's looking forward to the food and wine festival, to coming home. Cooking for Waikato folk will be "really, really nice. I'm a home boy at heart".

As to what he'll cook, um, two weeks out from the festival, he hasn't given it a lot of thought.

Nice simple dishes, something the audience can take away with them, cook at home. Definitely.

His signature style is based on classic French techniques and very classic training - with a contemporary spin. Refined simplicity is what it's all about. The dish might appear simple, but a huge amount of work goes into making it that way. And there's always a little twist in his dishes, a surprise designed to take the diner unaware.

His dishes are quite technical, working with the ingredients rather than altering them, letting them do the talking.

"It's very important not to overshadow the product."

A successful dish is all about balance.

"If it hasn't got balance, it's not worth anything."

Finesse, too, using robust flavours but using them subtly. "The more flavours put on a plate, the more subtle you have to be. You can't have a lot of flavours all pounding around on a plate."

Quality ingredients are the basis of each dish. Josh opts for local products where he can; he's supporting the growers, yes, but it also makes good economic sense. Take duck, for instance. Josh likes working with duck, finds duck from Cambridge "incredible". The lightbulb flashes on. Ah, perfect for his cooking demonstrations at the festival.

"There you are. Decision made."

It's all about thinking on your feet.

And that's been the programme for the last year. Josh has been flat out, getting things up and running in New Zealand, dividing his time between commitments in Queenstown and Auckland.

After running Gordon Ramsay restaurants in London, New York and Melbourne, then a stint consulting in the United Kingdom, he and his family are making New Zealand home. For 2013, at least.

Juggling consulting in the UK with his new restaurant in Queenstown and launching the new Josh Emett Chef Series, his own brand of braised and vacuum-packed meats, became difficult. Add in three months of being in MasterChef New Zealand and it became downright impossible. Moving the family here became a no-brainer.

MasterChef? Josh waxes enthusiastic: The production company is great to work for and he enjoys working with fellow judges Simon Gault and Ray McVinnie.

Season four started this week and it'll be a cracker. Great fun to make, amazing competitors and they ate a whole lot of good food.

Josh is enjoying the whole package. It's all about food, eating, travel and people. It's

interesting and he gets paid for it.

And the people who put themselves up for MasterChef change and develop as each series runs. Their skill levels go through the roof. "But shit, they put themselves through hell. We put them through hell."

Rata, Josh's own restaurant and his first, has been running eight months now and everything's "going great, going very, very well. We've had really good feedback".

The Queenstown restaurant had a huge winter thanks to the ski season and summer's even busier. It's a contemporary little place, Josh says, "just the sort of place I like to go and eat at".

But like any reputable restaurant, it's a work in progress. Things change and develop. The menu moves constantly: Before lunch, before dinner, when new produce comes in. Getting products to Queenstown requires that sort of flexibility, he says.

Head chef Helen Turnbull lived and worked in Japan for five years. "She's a great girl, she's cool; she and I work really well together."

The Josh Emett Chef Series of retail gourmet foods will be his "main preoccupation in 2013". He's been working hard on it for 18 months and it's developing well.

"It's very important to me at the moment. It's as big as, even bigger than opening the restaurant. It's an amazing product - there isn't anything else like it on the market."

Included in his target market are those who don't usually buy ready-cooked meals from the likes of supermarkets.

"It's as much about changing the way people think. I'm doing something bloody good."

He's just launched a range of pork ribs.

Taking the brand overseas too is an option, but he wants to take it slowly in the first year.

"I need to find out where we're going with it first, get it really right." Fine tune distribution lines, for instance, and balance economy to scale.

Josh has also just finished writing a recipe book and there's another in the pipeline. Er, no, he can't talk details, those are all tied up in an exclusive media deal. But he can say it will be out by Christmas and, yes, he says helpfully, both books will be themed. One will definitely be on meat. And the other on fish.

OK . . . so when does he chill out? He slots in a game of tennis when he can, but downtime is usually spent hanging out with sons Finn, 3 , and Louis, 2. Whizzing about on scooters and "skate boarding" and going to the park, visiting Nana, Raewyn, in Hamilton. That's quiet family time and, since this is the first time Josh has lived here in 20 years, he's making the most of all New Zealand has to offer.