TRACY WHITMEY DRAWS A HARD-WORKING CHEF INTO THE LIMELIGHT.
With today’s culture of rock-star chefs (and sometimes super-sized egos to match), and in an industry which can be tough on junior staff, it’s refreshing to meet a chef who spends much of her working life hidden behind the scenes, who cares about developing and mentoring those under her charge and who uses her skills to help in the community.
As the Executive Chef – Main Site at SkyCity, Fiona Ruane is charged with the care of 11 kitchens with teams working throughout the business in the production kitchen, the casino and gaming-floor kitchen and the VIP-floor kitchen.
At a recent event, keen for her chefs to be visible and get recognition for their efforts, Fiona got them out from the kitchen and into the room with guests, serving the food they had created and really being part of the vibe. “The acknowledgement they got that night gave them such a buzz. Some of the kids had never done banquet work before, I was so proud of them. One great thing was that it was the junior team that were real rock stars that night.”
The event was the KiwiHarvest Goodness Gala held at SkyCity in June 2018, a fundraising event for Kiwi Harvest, the food rescue charity that collects food that would otherwise go to waste and distributes it to those in need.
“My self-set goal was to organise a charity event from start to finish,” says Fiona. “Getting my team involved and giving them exposure was important to me as the team is never seen by the public and gets no recognition, but they’re the heart and soul of SkyCity, keeping 22 food outlets going every day.”
Already well aware of KiwiHarvest’s work, Fiona jumped right in from the get-go, drawing all her head chefs and sous chefs into developing the menus. As a fundraiser for a charity that is supported by many chefs and others involved in the world of food, they had to produce a dinner that would wow a hard-to-please crowd.
Unable to use donated KiwiHarvest food for a fee-paying event, they nonetheless wanted the event to reflect the ethos of minimising food waste. So they set out to design a menu that would use everything, including those things that would normally be thrown away in a restaurant kitchen.
Fiona believes that diners are more conscious about waste, so chefs are getting more creative. “In the kitchen we’re saying, ‘We need to find a technique to use this, so it doesn’t go to waste.’ To use those ingredients you need to know what you’re doing and put some thought into it. It’s actually much harder.”
Cuisine editor, Kelli Brett, who attended the event said, “I’m ashamed to admit that I suspected the meal might be a bit disappointing as the chef would be limited with what she could use. I was wrong. The menu was fantastic, and in some cases beyond what you would expect at a gala event. It made me wonder about just how much gets thrown out behind the scenes at other big establishments and, realistically, whether most corporate kitchens would struggle with the challenge.”
The canapés subtly set the scene: the beef trimmings, leftover vegetables and fish scraps from the entrée and main courses (items that would not normally be served to guests) were fashioned into elegant fish tostadas, mini BBQ beef cones with pickled carrot, watermelon jellies and vegetable tarts with beetroot foam.
Then Fiona sent the chefs to collect mushroom trimmings from all the various food outlets spread around the SkyCity building. Not only did this thrifty ethic fit the bill for the night, but it began relationship building for the chefs too, as it got those from Fiona’s team meeting and interacting with teams that they don’t normally work with. The mushroom scraps became an amuse bouche of mushroom dumplings served with a consomme that had been simmered from the beef bones of the main course.
Then on to the salmon poke bowl entrée. The rarely used belly meat and head were made into a velvety salmon mousse, then crispy skin and salmon fillet made up the poke bowls, which were assembled by the chefs in the banqueting room. Vegetarians were treated to a bowl of watermelon, marinated tofu and roasted macadamia.
The main course tackled the issue by skillfully using less-popular cuts of meat; ‘Nose-to-tail beef’ presented smoked beef cheek, oxtail and beetroot croquette, beef-shin tartin, rolled tongue stuffed with corn and cauliflower puree, beef bone marrow and Jerusalem artichoke puree. The gnocchi used potato, pumpkin and cheese scraps from around the kitchens.
Fiona’s team pulled out all the stops for the dessert, creating a do-your-own- thing chocolate piñata. “We wanted something unique, to have fun with,” she said. Dessert was bangin’– literally – with diners wielding mini hammers to break open spheres filled with white chocolate, dark chocolate and milk chocolate mousse. A goody bag came to the table with syringes, paintbrushes, pots of strawberry and mango sauce, tubes of salted caramel, coconut and chilli sauce, brownies, meringues hokey pokey and freeze-dried fruit to scatter, splodge and squirt. Diners took to the idea, bashing away with gusto.
Fiona admits that it was a challenging night, and at times a bit chaotic.
KiwiHarvest CEO Deborah Manning said, “It was a pleasure to work with Fiona on KiwiHarvest’s Goodness Gala. Fiona pushed the boundaries and created a unique menu and interactive experience for our guests while being mindful to support our message of zero food waste.”
Fiona credits her ability to pull off big events like this to her varied experience traversing the worlds of hotels, restaurants and events.
Her entry into the the world of food was inspired partly by her mum and aunts who were amazing cooks and a cousin who was a chef, and partly by laziness; having given up trying at school she knew she wouldn’t get into uni, but she discovered that she enjoyed cooking and was good at it. Following two years’ full-time training at culinary school in Ireland, she and a friend decamped to Luxembourg, with nothing more than the possibility of a floor to sleep on and the address of a friend’s brother. There she began cooking at the European Commission, but quickly moved to the five-star Le Royal hotel. “It was my first real job and real tough, hardly anyone spoke English, so I learned to speak French really quickly.”
Stints moving between New York (where she cooked for Bill Clinton and the Grammy Awards), Luxembourg, France and Ireland culminated in 10 years in London, working at big venues such as Wembley Stadium and Arsenal Stadium.
An ex-boss, lured to New Zealand by the the chance to work at Eden Park for the Rugby World Cup, convinced Fiona to give NZ a go. Visa problems caused the Eden Park job to fall through but SkyCity jumped at the chance to get her on board.
The KiwiHarvest gala was not the only occasion that Fiona has used her time and skills to help others. She is a regular volunteer with Everybody Eats, another charity that tackles food waste and food poverty by taking donated food, organising teams of volunteers to cook it up into restaurant-quality meals and serving three courses to those who need a good meal at a weekly pop-up restaurant. Those who can pay, do (with the money raised used for ingredients that aren’t readily sourced by donations) and those who can’t are treated with respect and dignity.
Fiona has taken four or five different teams of volunteers from SkyCity to volunteer at Everybody Eats; and not just chefs, people from across the business have come to help. It doesn’t matter if they have no cooking experience, there’s always plenty to peel and chop. Arriving at the venue at about 12.30pm, they have approximately 20 minutes to assess the produce that has arrived that day and decide on a menu to feed 200 people. By 6pm they’re ready with soup, a main course and dessert. “We can make good, hearty comfort food. It’s a big deal for those who need it and there’s a great atmosphere. For me it’s a real feel-good thing.”
With such a busy work life and volunteering in her downtime, Fiona admits that she doesn’t cook very often at home, but when she does the planning skills she has developed at work come into play. “I tend not to waste much at home, by planning and using a list I buy just what I need. I don’t cook very often so when I do have mates around there is really never anything left!”