Auckland’s food scene seen through the eyes of a top San Fransisco chef.
When we heard that Pim Techamuanvivit – chef/owner of Michelin-starred Kin Khao and Nari in San Francisco, as well as the executive chef of Nahm in Bangkok – was spending time in Auckland, we jumped at the chance to get her impressions of our food landscape. Here’s her perspective of living, cooking and eating in Aotearoa.
My very first night out in Auckland, I burst into tears. Sitting at the kitchen counter at Mr Morris in Britomart, watching the familiar rhythmic flow of a working kitchen, listening to the hum and buzz of a busy dining room, my emotions got the best of me. And I burst into tears.
Before you think me raving mad, let me back up a bit. By the time I was perching at the bar at Mr Morris this January, I had not dined inside a restaurant since March 2020. Of my two restaurants in San Francisco, the Michelin-starred Kin Khao and the newly opened Nari (only six months’ old when the pandemic hit), one has been closed while the other has not been operating fully for nearly an entire year. So, pardon me if I was overcome by the incredible lightness of life here.
I wasn’t jealous exactly. I was quite aware of my privilege to shelter here in the calm waters of New Zealand while the pandemic storm rages elsewhere. My husband Mark is from Whangārei. When his elderly father fell ill last year, we, mindful of the unpredictability of travel during the pandemic, decided to come here to spend a few months with him.
Instead of travelling around the country as we normally would, we stayed mostly in Auckland to be close to family. That means I experienced this city from an entirely new perspective. It’s my first taste of what it’s like to live here, and what a joy it has been.
Early on in our stay, we were still quite nervous being around a crowd of people – eight months of lockdown would do that to anyone – so our food life centred around home cooking. Friends recommended Avondale Sunday Market for the not-so-common Asian ingredients, so there we were on our first Sunday in town. My mind was blown. At the very first market stall we stopped at, I bought three different basils from a smiling Cambodian lady, and not in bunches, but big, luscious plants. Spicy holy basil for my pad krapow; lemon basil for fish curries; even the more mundane but amazingly fragrant Thai basil. At another stall I was stopped in my tracks by the clove-scented bai yeera or tree basil. In California I have a farmer grow them for me specifically, but here they were readily available. A Thai auntie minding the stall even told me where to find the Thai granite mortar and pestle I needed to pound a proper curry paste: the fancy Italian marble ones just wouldn’t do for this task.
Avondale Market became a weekly ritual. I regularly picked up not just makrut lime leaves but the fruits, too, the peels of which are crucial in Thai cooking. One week I found a giant pot of betel plant, an herbaceous leaf we use in the famous Central Thai snack, miang. Another week there were fresh bamboo shoots, which went into a chicken curry that my Herne Bay neighbour called the best curry he’s ever had. Sorry if I sounded a bit breathless in my excitement, but that’s certainly how I felt. I was practically ready to open a restaurant here just to take advantage of all these fresh ingredients. (And I just might, one day.)
I had so much fun adapting my Thai cooking to local ingredients. A spicy, sour tamarind soup made with local smoked kahawai was loved by friends at our dinner party. Stonefruits from Hawke’s Bay lent brightness and sweetness to temper my fiery curries. This Thai cook is finding her way in Aotearoa.
Of course, we didn’t cook at home every night. As our confidence grew, we ventured out to restaurants, visiting our old favorites such as Sidart, Cocoro, and Pasture, and trying out hot new spots such as Mr Morris (you really must try their raw clams in aguachile) and Ahi (the smoked pāua!). It was more than lovely to see an old Asian standby such as Sri Pinang still so lively and utterly scrumptious, and a new charmer such as Ockhee pushing diners with such punchy yet clear, clean flavors. Seeing Auckland’s dining scene this vibrant and dynamic even in this pandemic year is a balm to my weary soul.
It’s fitting that one of our final meals in Auckland was a dinner at the home of a friend, a beautiful house overlooking gorgeous Hobson Bay where she’s lived for many decades. We feasted on Bluff oysters, coming into season just in time, and impeccably fresh snapper that her husband caught off the coast in Matakana. We drank Kumeu River Chardonnay and Prophet’s Rock Pinot Noir. All among the best New Zealand has to offer.
This summer is surely one to be remembered.
E noho rā, Auckland and Aotearoa. Thank you so much for having me. It won’t be long before you see me again, I hope. PIM TECHAMUANVIVIT