Stacey is a good friend of Kai. She is a born and bred Kiwi girl, but has spent the last seven years making her own way in London and Europe. She had a very successful food business and published two great cookbooks.
We caught up with her fresh off the plane and asked about her impressions of New Zealand food. Her thoughts are below. We may even follow up in a few months and see what she thinks after being home for a while.
To get to know Stacey a little better...or use her for your next food project... visit her web site here
My perception of NZ food:
When I left little old New Zealand seven years ago, I went out into the world with huge culinary expectations. I was going to experience first hand all of the delectable delights of Europe, Asia and beyond that had been shown and promised to me by my beloved Rick Stein, Jamie Oliver and Nigella. The bar had been set high.
I traveled all over the United Kingdom and tried countless Sunday roasts and steak pies. None of which came close to a New Zealand leg of lamb, smothered in garlic, rosemary and sea salt, roasted to perfection and finished with lashings of vinegary, sweet mint sauce or anywhere near a classic $1.50 steak and cheese pie from my local kiwasian (that’s kiwi and asian morphed into one) bakery.
I navigated my way through France and tried the famous Belon oysters and countless croque-monsieurs. Give me a creamed corn and cheddar cheese toastie any day of the week and do not even talk to me about oysters until you have experienced my one true love and forever soulmate - Mr Bluff. I explored Greece where I would order whitebait off the menu and all of a sudden a huge bowl of deep fried battered anchovies would appear in front of me. Where were my delicate, fluffy, fritters, smooshed between two buttered pieces of fresh white bread with a squeeze of lemon and lashings of sea salt? I toured Italy and consumed all of the fritto misto I could get my hands on. Still, this did not compare to the beer battered, deep fried blue cod, mussels, paua and scallops that I was used to picking up from The Coromandel Oyster Company on my way to Granny's in Kuaotunu.
Even after dining at what are considered to be the best restaurants in the world: Restaurant Gordon Ramsey (3 Michelin stars), Michel Roux’s waterside in (3 Michelin stars), Dinner by Heston Blumental (2 Michelin stars) and The Ledbury (2 Michelin stars), I would prefer to sit down to a meal at the French Cafe in Auckland or Pacifica in the Hawkes Bay any day of the week. There is an authenticity and heart to these places that no amount of Michelin stars can conjure up. And aside from that, the food is just...better.
Of course it’s easier to compare New Zealand food with European food - a lot of what I ate growing up had its roots in the culinary traditions of my British and European ancestors. My travels through Asia have pushed me the closest I've been to edible heaven outside my home land. The street food markets of Bangkok, the fresh spicy curries in Goa, the piping hot string hoppers of a Sri Lankan breakfast, all of these and many many more have blown my tiny mind again and again (and again). But then I remember, New Zealand is FULL of people from these places, incredible chefs inspired by these cuisines and trained so impeccably in the fine arts of Asian cooking. And alongside the streets of Bangkok, Vietnam and China, I have had some of the best Asian eating experiences of my life in Auckland City. Take ‘Grand Harbour’ in the viaduct, ‘Sri Pinang’ on K Rd, ‘Eden Noodles’ on Dominion Rd and ‘Paradise Indian Food’ in Sandringham - Yes, yes and more yes!
There’s something about the history of the places I’ve travelled in. They have such a long culinary heritage of developing a cuisine from what they had available to them, they have such a strong definition of who they are with their food, they are proud of it, it is part of their national identity.
In Europe at least, that identity comes with a kind of arrogance, maybe not even an arrogance but more of a narrow focus that comes with a strong identity - kind of like a “don’t fix what ain’t broke” mentality. They make what they make, and they make it SO well that there isn’t so much of a need or a desire to look outside the box, to innovate, to bring in fresh new ideas from other places. For some cooks it’s like a blasphemy, a cardinal sin to fuck with the original recipe you know? Like this is how my Grandmother’s Grandmother’s Grandma made it, this has been perfected over hundreds of years, and yeah COOL yum DELICIOUS thank you AMAZING, but it’s not the only way to have a delicious vibing food culture.
In Asia its more of a necessity call - they use what has been available to them and flavour / spice it up to the extreme. They haven’t had the time or the money to develop more of a fusion culture. And if they have often it has been forced upon them throughout history through colonisation - ie the delish French influence in Laos.
But for us, there isn’t so much of that history. We are new, we are made up of so many different heritages and we are blessed with a land that can grow almost anything, and bountifully. And inherent in our small country is a desire to travel, to see and taste the world outside our tiny island (“see the line where the sky meets the sea, it CALLLLLLS MEEEE” - Moana). We are so proud of what we have, but we are also so excited of what the world around us has to offer, and how we can take a part of this and a part of that and mould it into something completely fresh and new. And maybe it is in the “lack” of a clearly defined culinary identity that in turn defines us and makes us different.
Do we even need a clear identity? Absolutely not, Nobody Puts Baby In a Corner. Innovation seems to breed more innovation, there’s a sense of trying something out and just going for it in NZ - people are incredibly focused, multi-talented and open to new ideas on how to make their product / service the best it can be.
In terms of how we’re different from Australia, thats a hard one for me. I don’t know enough, I haven’t spent enough time there. In a massive generalisation based on nothing but my own prejudices, I feel like Australia doesn’t have the same level of connection to their indigenous culinary history. I know that New Zealander (ahem) Ben Shewry of Attica has done a lot for indigenous cuisine in Australia and there are more and more renowned Aussie chefs having that conversation which is great.
NZ has finally begun to celebrate Maori cooking and food heritage to the level of fine dining and has a load of Maori and Pacific Island people leading some of our most amazing restaurants. We all still have a long way to go in that respect, but the fact that as a child of no Maori heritage I got to sit and eat hangi at a maraes on school trips and amazing chop suey and smoked fish at my Samoan mate’s house on a Sunday evening are incredible food heritage memories I will forget. I find it difficult to talk about indigenous food culture coming from a privileged white perspective and I feel there is definitely a need for more Maori and Pacific Island food writers for more exploration in those areas.
I'm sure a lot of people would say this about their home country's cuisine but there is something deeply special and almost spiritual about New Zealand food. There's something about the way we take the time to honour our food traditions, perfecting the recipes that have been passed down to us from generation to generation, but are still so inspired by what is new and fresh and evolving that both connects and separates us from the rest of the world. Our food is a celebration of our cultural diversity and incredible natural resources, and the absence of a single, clearly defined "national cuisine" (which many other countries appear to rest upon heavily) seems only to have worked in our favour. It is our connection to our land, our colourful heritage, and the driving, magnificent force of diversity that keeps us pushing, testing, perfecting, and always hungry for more.
We love to hear from Kiwis about their food stories.
Or from visitors to our beautiful country - what are your experiences of New Zealand kai?
Write to us email@example.com
local food is not just an idealistic middle class fad, as some cynical commentators claim.
But the local food economy is an interesting and paradoxical phenomenon, particularly in New Zealand, which has always focused on export. Producing for local markets requires determination and creativity.
Sign up for our newsletter for food news, deals and tips to make life a little tastier