No one knows a village, town or city like a chef. Intimately acquainted with the locals and markets, and invariably impressively informed on the best hidey-holes to drink or party at, chefs are the folks to chat up if your hotel doesn’t have a concierge.
So who better to get the inside scoop from for a series on regional escapes?
In this ELLE Exclusive series from TripAdvisor, the world’s largest travel site, top chefs from around Asia-Pacific reveal how to see the places they’re based in like a local. Bonus included for wannabe cooks: Delicious recipes from the culinary wizards’ own menus!
This week: Auckland from the perspective of Simon Wright, executive chef of New Zealand’s The French Café.
Five things you suggest first-time visitors to Auckland do?
1. Walk the city
If I were a first-time visitor, the first thing I’d do is get dropped off in the heart of the CBD and go walking. I always think this is the best way to understand the city and stumble across places you’d normally miss if you followed a guide book. The whole city is pretty much on a grid system so it’s very hard to get lost.
2. See the city from up high
Go to the top of the Sky Tower, the tallest building in the southern hemisphere, and really get a bird’s eye view of Auckland and the surrounding islands. Then, after you have your bearings, go down to the bottom and have a drink and a quick bite to eat at Depot Eatery & Oyster Bar, a cool Kiwi-style tapas bar run by Al Brown, our local celebrity chef.
3. Check out Ponsonby Road
Take a bus up to the top of College Hill and start walking down our coolest street, Ponsonby Road. It’s full of great boutiques, restaurants and bars. There’s a hip market at Ponsonby Central if you like buying fresh produce. But it’s at night that the area really comes to life, when the cool crowd comes out.
4. Visit Waiheke Island
Take a ferry from downtown Auckland and go to this stunning small island. It’s only 30 minutes away and has beautiful wineries, great places to eat and a relaxed vibe that will make you want to buy a batch there.
5. Picnic on the beach
Pack a picnic and spend a day on one of the west coast beaches. There, you can enjoy the black sands, big surf and wild coastline. If you go on a weekday you’ll have almost the whole place to yourself.
How does travel inspire your menu at The French Cafe?
Wherever I travel, I’m always inspired. I think that when I’m away from the restaurants, that’s when I’m at my most creative, and being in a country with a totally different style of food and culture always gets me thinking of how I can bring some of those influences back to the restaurant.
Sampling a cuisine that you thought you knew but didn’t can be quite surprising. I recently went on a holiday to Mexico and found that the complexity of Mexican food can be very inspiring, especially with the family home at the centre of its creativity, which gives the food such honesty. I have done my own style of ceviche with local fish that has its roots in that holiday.
What are two must-try dishes from your own menu?
I love my quail dish as it’s quite classical in some ways in the approach, but modern in others. I bone and roll quail in locally cured pancetta, then roast it with fresh truffle butter, caramelised onions and chestnuts. We make a cream from toasted croissants and serve it with a sauce slightly sweetened with Madeira.
I also love my textures of chocolate dessert, which contains a warm chocolate mousse, chocolate soil, chocolate sorbet, dehydrated chocolate, caramelised milk, mandarins, hazelnuts and malt powder. It’s a dessert that has all my favourite childhood memories in one dish.
Chef Wright’s recipe for Boneless Organic Lamb, Roasted Figs, Parsnip, Fennel & Black Olives
For the dried olive powder
150g black pitted olives
1. Rinse olives in plenty of cold water to remove the brine, then pat dry, chop roughly and place in a dehydrator for six hours to dry.
2. Once dried, process the olives to a fine crumb in a food processor and store in an airtight container until required.
For the lamb
3 racks of lamb weighing about 400g each
2 cloves minced garlic
50ml olive oil
1 tsp pickled thyme leaves
1. Carefully remove the lamb loin from the bones and trim the meat of all excess fat and sinew.
2. Mix the garlic, olive oil and thyme in a small bowl and coat the lamb loins in the oil.
3. Place the lamb loins into a vacuum bag, vacuum the lamb on full pressure and refrigerate. Take out 30 minutes before cooking.
4. Remove the lamb fat from the bones and chop into small pieces. Place in a small saucepan with 50ml of water. Place the saucepan on low heat and render the fat for about an hour or until the water has been expelled and most of the fat has dissolved. Strain the fat through a fine sieve into a clean container and keep warm. The bones can be frozen to use for sauce in another recipe.
For the fennel
1 fennel bulb
25g unsalted butter
Pinch of sea salt
1. Cut the bulb into quarters, remove the core, separate the layers and cut each layered piece in half so they’re all roughly about the same size.
2. Place the fennel, butter and sea salt into a small saucepan, then add enough water to cover the fennel and cook over high heat until the fennel is soft to the bite. Drain and keep warm.
For the roasted figs
6 large figs
1. Pre-heat oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Cut the figs in half lengthways, press the cut side down into the castor sugar to coat, then place the fig cut-side-up in an oven-proof dish and top with a small piece of butter. Repeat the process with the remaining figs and place in the oven for 10 minutes to roast. Remove from the oven and keep warm.
300ml lamb jus
Freshly ground black pepper
Dried olive powder
1. Heat a digital water bath to 65 degrees Celsius. Place the lamb in and cook for 22 minutes. Remove it from the vacuum bag, pat dry and season with sea salt and black pepper.
2. Heat a little clarified butter in a large frying pan, sear the lamb on all sides, then remove it from the pan and keep warm.
3. Heat the lamb jus and parsnip puree. Place a swipe of the puree onto a place, slice each lamb loin into four even slices and place two slices of lamb onto the plate next to the puree.
4. Place two roasted figs next to the lamb, top the lamb with a piece of fennel, pour some lamb jus into the centre of the plate and drizzle the lamb and sauce with a bit of lamb fat.
5. Garnish with fennel tips and a dusting of dried olive powder, then serve.
The French Café was named Best Fine Dining Restaurant in New Zealand in TripAdvisor’s 2015 Travellers’ Choice awards, which are based on the reviews and opinions of millions of travellers around the globe.