Hamilton chef Mat McLean finished his entry dish for Silver Fern Farms' Premier Selection Awards bang on deadline day last November, without any leeway to make tweaks and changes.
It didn't matter. This month McLean's down-to-the-wire dish won the tightly fought culinary contest, and earned him meat company Silver Fern Farms' title of Premier Master of Fine Cuisine.
When he tells the story of cutting it fine to enter, McLean says, "It's always like that. I'd been thinking about it a lot. But it was one of those dishes that came together really well at the final hour."
McLean, owner of Hamilton's Palate restaurant, was one of 73 chefs who entered the inaugural Premier Selection Awards, each of them creating a dish with one of Silver Fern's finest cuts of lamb, beef or venison. Ten chefs made the final, including Andrew Clarke of Hamilton's Victoria Street Bistro, and Scott Corbett of the Pepper Tree in Coromandel town.
McLean is delighted to win; he says there were some pretty fantastic chefs in the running. His dish comprised Silver Fern's Reserve eye fillet and slow-cooked short rib, the beef partnered with smoked kumara, shiitake mushroom salad, baby turnip and soy chilli butter.
McLean says he cooked the short-rib with lighter, fragrant Asian flavours such as soy, chilli, coriander and ginger, different from the more robust style he'd have done in winter. "That's how the Asian feel for the dish came about. I used the braising stock to make the soy butter. The flavour of the short-rib is beautiful."
He also got big, moist shiitake mushrooms from an Auckland supplier, perfect for what he wanted. McLean was pleased with what he put on the plate.
Awards head judge Kerry Tyack was too. He says the entry was faultless, with McLean choosing beautiful Asian ingredients that lifted the meat. Each ingredient maintained its credibility, Tyack says, yet worked harmoniously with the others. McLean's two cuts of meat were both cooked perfectly.
"It was an incredible fusion that in the hands of others would have been too risky. It worked in inconceivable ways. It was strong and delicate, at the same time it was classic and mysterious. It was a sensational dish, designed to satisfy the soul."
Tyack says there can be a problem in a complex dish of disparate flavours not pulling together. "But he [McLean] is a skilful chef who knows how to make it work. That's what he does so well."
Entries in the new award came from the likes of Wellington's Logan Brown restaurant and Pravda Cafe, O'Connell Street Bistro in Auckland, and Pier 24 in Dunedin. Tyack says it was a strong competition, and for the first time in his 25 years of judging food he considered pulling a name out of a hat, "because that's how high it [the standard] was".
He had clear instructions from award organisers to assess the treatment of the meat by the contestants. He could hardly fault them. "I am extremely pleased to be reminded of how well we cook meat in this country." So Tyack had to look for other things to pick his winner, and found them at Palate, in the kitchen of Mat McLean.
He adds that he wasn't surprised to see McLean, Andrew Clarke from Victoria Street Bistro, and Scott Corbett from the Pepper Tree in the finals line up. "They are working at the highest level."
McLean's hometown is Hamilton. He gained his professional qualifications from the Waikato Polytechnic, travelled and worked in London at two Michelin star restaurants, and did a stint in Melbourne. He returned to the Waikato and set up Palate in 2005, first in Victoria St's southend, before moving to Alma St nearly two years ago. Palate has won a number of prestigious titles, and has a long history of scoring highly in Cuisine magazine's awards.
McLean says his Silver Fern Farms entry has been by far the most popular dish on his current menu, and he'll run it for another two or three months.
He likes working with the Reserve meat range. "The quality is fantastic, and consistent. You could do a blind tasting and it would come out on top. It's great that a big company has its meat grading down to a fine art."