How willing are you to choose sustainably when dining out?

It is fitting that we recognise the Ōra King Awards in this issue with its focus on our competitive restaurant industry and the telling of the everevolving New Zealand food story. Their prestigious global awards program invites chefs from North America, Australia and Japan to compete for the coveted titles of Best Ōra King Dish for their respective region alongside a nationwide search for innovative chefs. The Ōra’s are crafted to recognise chefs’ imagination and technique and the theme for 2019 and their seventh annual awards was ‘Sustainability’. With a firm belief that the New Zealand food industry has the potential to be a positive force for change, this theme challenged chefs to draw on their own personal sustainability story and communicate this effectively through their dish. As a result, all local and international finalists were flown to the Nelson and Marlborough region for a four-day all-expenses-paid celebration in October. At a time when it has never been so important to tell a premium food story for New Zealand, this celebration brought some notable food media and chefs from some pretty impressive restaurants (if you relate to the hallowed words ‘Eleven Madison Park, New York’ then you will get where I am going here) to discover our unique flavours of Aotearoa.

As you are reading this article, I know your eyes have already been drawn to the image opposite of the rather challenging looking plate of food produced by the winner of the Best New Zealand Dish category. Phil Clark from Phil’s Kitchen in Kingsland created what he calls ‘Ocean, Seaweed, Land & River’ and hoped that he would be able to make the judges think beyond the locust on the plate. “Sustainability is huge for our industry now and so important for helping the next generation of chefs to come through with new skills and techniques, learning ways to look after our food future with minimum wastage and the ability to use up the whole ingredient.” And this ethical food message shines through, too, at Phil’s Kitchen where seasonal produce gets the European treatment with a uniquely Kiwi flavour.

Awards judge, food writer and restaurant critic Lauraine Jacobs admits that at first sight Phil’s winning dish was confronting and yet it stood out as both bold and daring. “The dish used complex techniques and demonstrated a high degree of skill with a unique approach to telling the sustainable story of Ōra King salmon and Aotearoa. Most importantly, among the representation of the flotsam and jetsam of the fragile ocean economy, Phil Clark presented us with a totally delicious dish.”

New Zealand chef and co-judge Geoff Scott was also unsettled by the dish, explaining that there was friction between the comfortable and the uncomfortable. “The things you want to eat and the things you don’t! The dish thoroughly delivers the sustainable concept through the chef’s desire to take care of the ocean, sea bed, land and rivers; reducing the use of plastic bags is brought to life with an edible bag made of salmon stock containing ‘rubbish’ in the form of a few salmon caviar pearls, yet this is only one example of the chef’s story on the plate. The cleaned salmon bone reminds me of walking along the beach shore after a storm and we can see the chef showcasing his ‘nose to tail’ philosophy and his dedication to spending hours cleaning the salmon frame to perfection. The sea bed is represented by a perfect, delicious purée of broccoli with fried quinoa and pumpkin, spring onion becomes the seaweed found washed up on the beach. The land is tasted through the nutty earthiness of the slow-roasted buttery leeks, crunchy locusts (as earthy as you can be) and New Zealand black truffle just to bring you completely back down to earth. This ‘sustainability’ concept is superbly executed and very compelling.” However, one must not overlook the most important aspects of a winning dish and that Ōra King has understandably designed this competition to make their product the hero ingredient. How does it actually taste? Both judges agreed that the simple and perfect salmon shines, with its tasty cure in juniper and the accompanying textures and flavour combinations ensuring that this is a dish that you will want to go back and eat again and again. Now THAT’S the sign of a real winner.

We dare you to take another look at the picture of Phil’s dish and read his explanations of the components on his plate. In Geoff’s Scott’s words “It is Ōra King salmon at it’s finest: it’s interesting, it’s challenging, it’s utterly delicious, it’s thought provoking, it’s slightly unsettling and challenging to eat, yet it’s a triumph.”

So the Ōra’s have challenged and continue to challenge a growing group of impressive chefs. Perhaps it’s now your turn to step up to that challenge? Would you shy away from this dish if it were presented to you as an option on a menu? I admit I probably would feel a little uncomfortable at first. But as Lauraine Jacobs says, “I have observed sustainability becoming one of the most important values guiding thoughtful chefs and restaurateurs in their work, and it is also increasingly significant to conscientious diners who want to know that the food choices they make when eating out have been carefully chosen and delivered with the planet’s future in mind.” Is being conscientious a factor for you when choosing a restaurant? I hope many of our readers would answer yes to that question. If your answer is no and if you have not yet read Truth, Love & Clean Cutlery perhaps now is a good time to get your hands on a copy. It’s a restaurant guide that gives us great reasons to think about spending our restaurant dollars in places that care about sustainability and the responsibility to locality that go hand in hand with that commitment. There is an exciting new wave of restaurateurs around the world that are taking risks and not catering to our expectations of traditional comfort on their menus. As a customer we can now use our dining out budgets to hold restaurants to account for the way they source their suppliers, treat their food, their staff and their local community. Bravo Ōra King for giving chefs a global platform to be inspired to make a sustainable choice the norm, and offering us a kinder way to eat…