Issue 216: Give a man a fish…

By Cuisine5 Minutes
March 27, 2023By Cuisine

Martin Bosley catches up with Teresa Pert, head chef at Wellington’s Ortega Fish Shack.

It’s 6.30am when I finally get a chance to speak with Teresa Pert. We have to be quick as she is on her way to work. She had finally got home at 2.30am that morning after finishing her night washing dishes with the new kitchen hand, “Otherwise,” she says, “we would never have got out.” Such is the glamorous life of this head chef, who today runs the kitchen of Wellington restaurant institution Ortega Fish Shack.

It’s a long way from her beginnings in Māhia and Wairoa. “My mum cooked a lot and I loitered in the kitchen when I was a kid,” Teresa says. “She was a really good cook and was a big influence. My nana was also in the kitchen and she was still baking at 90.” With days spent preserving, pickling and bottling seasonal produce, cooking was all Teresa ever wanted to do. Determined, she studied at CIT in Trentham and on graduating went to work in the kitchen of the Kaitoke Country Gardens restaurant before heading off to London where, she says, she had “no idea about ‘big’ food”. She had never heard of Michelin and its stars.

She found herself working for the exceptionally talented Kiwi chef Sean Marshall, learning much from him. The training was tough in a hardcore kitchen but she held her own, gaining confidence and spending weeks thinking out a new dish and finding the time to play around. Returning to New Zealand, she took on a temporary job working for Mark Limacher at his Wellington restaurant, Roxburgh Bistro. She left there to go to Italy where she found herself “stuck in Florence living with relatives, living and eating like a local”. Eventually she got a job in a pizza joint owned by a Scotsman where one day the Moroccan chef, after stealing her sharpening steel, threatened to slit her throat. It coincided with her visa running out, so it was back to Wellington.

Teresa Pert

She joined chef Nick Huffman at Matterhorn just to help out, but stayed for six years. What followed was a variety of restaurants in Auckland, working alongside Sean Marshall again, helping open and rescue restaurants in trouble. It was, she says, “nightmare after nightmare”. Tired of being ‘the recipe lady’ she moved into her first head chef role at Pegasus Bay Winery Restaurant and to the strange environment of operating around a winery schedule. Here, surrounded by produce that she loved, she learnt how food needs to suit its environment and, most importantly, not to worry about what anyone else is doing. As Teresa puts it, “Stick to your truth and cook from the heart.” Winning a few Cuisine awards along the way, she stayed for four years before Mark Limacher called her, looking for a head chef for his new restaurant, Frenchie. When Frenchie closed the following year, she moved next door to Ortega. She’s overseen the kitchen there since 2019 and feels like it’s home: the family atmosphere, the energy and genuine passion for hospitality and the solid, consistent menu where respect and attention to detail is paramount. She regards Mark Limacher as her mentor, instilling in her a respect for ingredients and refinement.

She lives in Trentham and loves it, though a move to Ōtaki is on the horizon at some stage. She takes Cooper, her staffy-labrador-cross, to work with her every day, where he has a kennel on the roof of the kitchen.

In a throw-back to her childhood, the dish she is cooking for Cuisine features East Coast trevally. Fished off the local wharf, it was a bait fish when she was growing up and it wasn’t until she started cooking that she realised you could actually eat it. In some ways, it defines her cooking. “It’s a heartland dish, with a respectful nod to the Roxburgh,” she says. “Delicious, simple, with nothing fluffy. I am not about fluffy.”