When a guy has been in this business for as long as Des Harris, and with such an impressive back catalogue including Logan Brown and Clooney, you’d think he’d know it all. But, since becoming executive chef at The Hunting Lodge in Waimauku west of Auckland, he’s learnt a thing or two. “I’m now a green thumb,” he says, “I wasn’t three years ago.” So he talks enthusiastically about the permaculture garden on the property and his crops of hyssop, shiso, horseradish and red oak lettuce, which thrive in their own microclimate. He explains that after a few years of year-round cultivation, the garden is now set to become their summer garden as poor drainage in parts of the plot mean that it’s largely dormant in winter. “It’s delicious to serve straight from the garden, but labour intensive. So, in the slow part of the year we regroup and get ready for when the frosts subside.”

And as COVID-19 lockdown enforced a ‘slow’ part of the year, Des and his restaurant team also regrouped. Drawing on experience from having cooked through a couple of recessions already, Des reopened with a pared-back set menu – an entrée and main for $40 – a price point that more accurately reflects the mood of the moment. With options such as citrus-cured salmon and meatballs using local Kaipara lamb it’s simpler food, but still built on great technique, with a menu that changes weekly depending on what’s available and what Des feels like cooking. “There’s still a real heart to the menu and we have always been good value in terms of generosity. I’m really happy with the type of food we’re doing just now, it’s our style going forward. We want to look after the locals, and the lower price point does that.”

With The Hunting Lodge’s diverse offering there’s plenty for visitors, be they local or city visitors, to like. As well as the refocussed restaurant, there’s the Lawn Bar – a casual place to rock up with the kids for sharing-style platters and pizzas, beer-tasting paddles and Liberty beer on tap. Surrounded by rolling countryside and bountiful rows of vines, it’s no surprise that it’s a popular venue for events and weddings. “With a property so diverse, we can do almost anything,” says Des explaining what prompted his shift here.”I don’t want to be known as just a restaurant chef, but wow, it’s like a reinvention. I can put my name to it and make it as good as I possibly can.”

Another new experience for Des has been teaching first-year students at AUT, though no sooner had he settled in teaching on campus, than he had to adapt to an online teaching environment. “I love training and working with young people, having spent a lot of time over the years with youngsters in the kitchen. When they ‘get it’, when they’re self-motivated and trying hard, it’s amazing.”

As the restaurant has been full in the weeks following the country’s release from lockdown, we’d say there are plenty of people who do get it. TRACY WHITMEY

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