As the warm late-afternoon sun was setting behind the distant Takaka hill…

A group of Chefs from around the world gathered close to two impressive fire pits dug on a grassy slope in the Upper Moutere Valley. Cuisine’s newly crowned Future Food Legend, Monique Fiso, was helping to dig up a feast she’d prepared, which had been slow- cooking all day in a traditional hāngi pit. Alongside, a dozen magnificent sides of cedar-planked Ōra King salmon were slowly roasting in the heat and smoke of an open fire pit.

This unique Kiwi celebration was the welcoming banquet for finalists and ambassadors of the annual Ōra King competition. Each year chefs in North America, Australia, Japan, Europe and New Zealand are challenged to create a dish to a theme using this magnificent species of fish that is raised and farmed in Marlborough waters. This year the appreciative chefs had come from distant Portugal, Washington DC, Tokyo and around the Pacific. Ōra King salmon are uniquely available to chefs and restaurateurs, and it’s a brand that tells the world an exemplary story of a premium New Zealand food helping to achieve maximum economic advantage. Regarded as superior to other salmon brands, it is seized on by international chefs.

The brand was launched in 2012 by local company NZ King Salmon, a brand inspired by and created for the world’s best chefs. With a high oil content that can be seen in the marbled fat lines within the vibrant orange flesh, this salmon has an elegant balance of sweet and umami flavours, and a buttery mouthfeel. That oil is a great source of natural, healthy long-chain Omega-3s, which also keeps the salmon moist, and reduces the risk of over-cooking. It is a genetically unique breed, distinct from any other king salmon produced in New Zealand or the world.

The Ōra King brand was eight years in the making, as the classical breeding programme commenced in 2004. More than 100 distinct king salmon families have been developed over nine generations, chosen so that the finest examples, with the most appealing taste, texture, colour and size, are carried forward to subsequent generations.

The company’s salmon hatchery is at Te Waikoropupu Springs near Takaka, where almost 14,000 litres of fresh, clear water bubble to the surface of the springs every second. Smolt (baby salmon) are transported from there to the Marlborough Sounds, to mature in fast-flowing sea waters, emulating the lifecycle of wild king salmon. New Zealand king salmon are fed a nutritionally balanced diet from sustainable, certified GMO-free  suppliers and are respectfully raised with low stocking densities; the sea farm pens are 98% water space to 2% salmon. Each fish is reviewed at the processing plant in Nelson, where grading, filleting, trimming, pin boning and packing of fillets is undertaken by hand and an individually numbered tag is attached to each whole fish to guarantee authenticity and traceability.

The 2018 Ōra King salmon competition theme was Inspired by Art and attracted hundreds of innovative entries from talented chefs eager to show their cooking skills with the fish. Paintings, sculptures, photography and nature’s unique artworks all inspired the chefs and the resulting dishes were colourful, dramatic and inventive. Three or four finalists in each region were selected by an independent judging panel, and expert food writers and chefs then tasted their way around the countries involved to find the winners for each nation.
New Zealand’s three finalists were diverse and clever. Phil Clark from Phil’s Kitchen, Auckland created an eye-catching dish inspired by a brightly coloured Picasso painting. The thin slab of salmon was the centrepiece surrounded by delicious leeks that had been slow-roasted until they almost melted, and a 60 degree egg yolk. At Bistro 50 at The George in Christchurch a series of Bill Hammond paintings, Fish Finder, hang on the hotel walls. Chef Antony Page told the story of family connections to Hammond and the Lyttleton Harbour in a scene on the plate that was reminiscent of the seashore at low tide – mussels, eel, smoked kina and coastal greens, with the salmon the hero in the centre. Private chef Mark McAllister drew inspiration from Newgrange, a megalithic tomb in eastern Ireland  that dates back thousands of years.

McAllister’s entry was complex, a dazzling dish that had been created with much thought and skill. As a young Irish schoolboy he’d been on many visits to the almost magical Newgrange site, leaving him with a lasting impression of the powerful spectacle of the sun shining through the central stone shaft on the winter  solstice. His Ōra King Irish whiskey- cured salmon slices fanned out like  the sun itself, garnished at the tips with pickled pumpkin and calendula petals. He’d worked with a local stone artist to create vessels for the presentation and a foraging expedition to the Muriwai coast provided sea plants and moss. There was a lovely saffron sauce and, being Irish, he couldn’t resist adding spuds. A pile of smoked dauphine potatoes (half potato, half choux pastry), coated in ash and seaweed to resemble stones, garnished the dish. Such imagination and exquisite technique led to Mark – who recently took up a position as head chef at Ripe Deli’s newly opened store in Takapuna – being named New Zealand winner. With art as the theme, fittingly the awards were announced in Nelson’s Souter Gallery. Mike Ellis, from Charlie Palmer Steak in Washington DC is one of several international Ōra King ambassadors and he willingly took up the challenge to cook canapés for the dinner guests. His use of local ingredients to showcase some magnificent bites almost stole the show, but it was truly the winner, Mark McAllister’s night.