The locked door has become part of the folklore at Pasture, Ed Verner’s Auckland restaurant. How six guests per sitting amble down the Parnell laneway to find the restaurant barred, have to wait outside until, bang on time, comes the reveal with Ed ushering diners inside. But, not for much longer. Ed’s new bar adventure, Mr Roboto, is on the horizon for March/April 2020 and promises to muddle things up a bit for Pasture. Not one to stick to conventions, Ed is turning the hidden speakeasy idea on its head with the bar fronting onto Parnell Road to provide sole access to the restaurant via a ‘secret’ doorway at the back. “It will be a cocktail bar run by chefs,” Ed tells me, “The essence of the Pasture restaurant experience in a bar, so a curated drinks list, no bottled spirits. I love creating drinks, it fascinates me and it’s a great creative outlet.”

And there’s evidence of this around the restaurant with jars of pickles and preserves lining the walls, glass demijohns bubbling away by the door and an impressive piece of kit whirring away on the bar. It’s a rotary evaporator I’m told – a science-experiment look-alike spinning a flask of candy-pink watermelon over a water bath, feeding into an ice-blue coil dripping crystal-clear distillate.

The Pasture back story is well- documented: how despite some hot- trend media focus and being awarded  Cuisine Chef of the Year and Metro Best New Restaurant in 2017, chef Ed and his wife Laura as front-of-house struggled to make the restaurant pay. Tackling the problem in a unique way they downsized to just six seats, the timing of which, controversially, ruled them ineligible for the 2018 Cuisine Good Food Awards. Then Laura left, leaving Ed to forge forward with the new concept. “It wasn’t ideal,” says Ed, “But we made it, it’s all good.” ‘Making it’ includes a slew of new awards this year, including the Cuisine Innovation Award 2019, Metro Restaurant of the Year 2019 and Metro Best Chef 2019.

Describing Ed as curious and brave, with a generous dollop of genius, Cuisine editor Kelli Brett says, “Ed took a huge risk last year throwing aside the conventional approach to a restaurant, limiting his service to six seats per sitting and eliminating front of house staff, to take a distinctly modern approach to old techniques. The result is an incredible dining experience that is delivered personally to you by a chef with great skill and passion. It is intense but also great fun. There is nothing else like it in New Zealand. The food will blow you away.”

But at what cost came the accolades? In an article in May 2019, Metro editor Henry

Oliver described Ed as a sad man with eyes sunken and red from the unending labour of running Pasture alone, a man pushed a bit too far, a bit too often.

But on this January afternoon during a rare close-down period at Pasture, I see a man transformed: energised, buoyed with enthusiasm for a new venture, a new menu and new opportunities. No sooner is he sitting down then he bounces up and runs off to get the bread started, then he’s dead keen that I try some of the distillates, pouring me tastes of marjoram, sugar snaps and that watermelon which strangely has little taste but has a summer-forever aroma.

He laughs ruefully at the characterisation of Pasture’s new  approach as visionary risk-taking. “Everything came from absolute necessity. I had to keep the restaurant going by any means. What Pasture is today comes from my stubbornness. I want to keep Pasture, what we’ve been working on for so long, and I won’t let it be dumbed down. Everything is centred around keeping this food that I want to serve and being what I believe Pasture should be. A lot of the things we do at Pasture now were born out of the limitations we have.”

Ah, back to the locked doors then. “That’s because last February the restaurant almost had to close. There was no money to even buy ingredients for the next week. I realised that if Pasture was going to stay open, I couldn’t afford front-of-house staff. But I thought we

could do as good a job, in our own chefs’ way. So, in the few minutes before we open the chefs are probably running around lighting candles. I want everything to be right, everything perfect for when guests walk in the door.
“I looked at the ‘proper’ way to do things and some things just didn’t make sense to me. We want service to be as good as possible in an approachable way – there’s an idea that there’s a rule book and everyone has to follow it or you’re not doing a good job. Some of the things we do, trained front-of-house staff wouldn’t agree with, but it’s not a text book and we don’t have to do the same as everyone else. There are many different ways. It’s kind of fun delivering this level of dining but giving it my own personality. We don’t have any rules here. At Pasture, the time and place is now.”

So now Pasture runs with just three people: Ed together with two chefs Vinicius Pichuante and Rico Birndt. Yes, Ed admits it’s a double-edged sword as every decision comes back to him. “But then I’m involved in everything and have good control over it all. I understand the whole picture and ensure that everything is connected and integrated.”

It’s the day before Ed is unveiling Pasture’s new menu and for a man who espouses a love of being in control, there appears to be a healthy element of laissez faire. Rico has worked with Ed for just one day, but seems totally at home working by the open fire and blistering tomatoes with a blowtorch. Neither he nor Vinnie seem to be fazed by the prospect of cooking a new 20-course menu right under the gaze of diners. Ed quietly reminds Vinnie to check out the avocado leaves, their licorice-like flavour to be used for a frozen, aerated ‘kind of savoury dessert’. Again Ed laughs, “We’ve got less than a day to work out how to do it, but it will all come together. Some of the dishes might not work out tomorrow, but we’ll be fine.” Also on the new menu is a dessert cocktail of distilled sugar snap peas served with blackberries which sings to Ed’s desire that the menu evoke the pure herbaceous flavours of summer. “You lift it up to drink and it’s, ‘That’s summer, man’.”

So is it fine-dining or casual? Well, there are no starched, white tablecloths or brigades of staff, but the degree of attention that goes into absolutely every detail (with a furrow of concentration Ed tells me that from tomorrow the water glasses are going to be placed in the centre of the setting, instead of to the diners’ right) swerves firmly to the high end. “Fine-dining will always be there,” he says. “It’s important. It’s not all about drinking expensive wine and having fancy service. It’s about development, exploring and pushing boundaries and the concept of food.”

It’s his willingness to experiment in this way that was recognised by the Cuisine innovation accolade. And a timely boost it was, too, along with those Metro gongs. “That recognition was the be all and end all for Pasture last year,” says Ed. “It was everything. Without it we wouldn’t be here. It means a lot: we kept going and it paid off in the end. So many people worked so hard over the years, especially when people said ‘What you’re doing is ridiculous’.”

Ridiculous or inspired, it’s certainly popular. Invited to the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival in March, Ed’s collaboration with Kiwi chef Dave Verheul at Lesa is a sell-out. He’s enthusiastic to take Pasture on tour, “I was amazed at how quickly it sold out – lots of people are interested in seeing us.”

So, a new bar, a new menu, a new collaboration – then what? “We’ll see, I’m not sure. Pasture is constantly evolving and changing. I’m excited. Pasture 2020 is going to be different.”

Chef Recipe