Did he just say curried pineapple ice cream? Yes he did. Ryan Henley, chef de cuisine at Pescatore, explains that it’s one of the innovative dishes that make up his new menu at Christchurch’s longstanding fine-dining restaurant at The George.

Just shy of two years in the job and Ryan is slowly but determindly reinvigorating Pescatore, shrugging off some of the old-fashioned formality and injecting new energy and excitement. Refocussing the menu to have more of a focus on seafood is allowing Ryan to showcase his skills. “I really learned about seafood at Vue de Monde,” he says. “As a child we were always fishing and at the beach, but working with Cory Campbell at Vue de Monde was my polishing school.”

In fact Ryan credits Cory with entirely changing the way he looks at food. After leaving polytechnic he says he got in with the right people at a very young age. A job at Misceo Cafe with Philip Rossiter lead to an introduction to Jonny Schwass, with whom he worked for four years, before moving to The George (for the first time). “There was no stopping me then,” he says. “There was really room to grow.” But a move back across the ditch, lured by the opportunities of Melbourne’s food scene, landed Ryan at Shannon Bennett’s prestigious Vue de Monde, which gave him not just a change of scene but a whole new way of thinking. “Before that I was into all the Heston Blumenthal style. I was all about how to make food taste like one thing but look like another. That’s what challenged me then and it was fun. Cory’s was a completely different world, clean and simple but technical and complex. His style is natural Australian with a Nordic twist and it’s all about the product. He taught me that if it’s delicious raw, then eat it raw.”

Ryan will soon be cooking with Cory again, for a couple of special dinners in May – one in Christchurch and one in Queenstown – when the pair will also be joined by Peter Gunn of Melbourne restaurant, Ides. Ryan is planning a tiki tour for the guys, taking them to visit the organic suppliers and farms he uses so that they can see the provenance of the produce they’ll be using. And they’ll be going fishing, out for the day with Nate Smith of Gravity Fishing in Bluff.

Ryan became interested in sustainable fishing when working in Melbourne, where he was introduced to iki-jime fishing, a Japanese method of killing and storing fish. This method involves using a spike to pierce the brain which kills the fish in the most humane way. The fish are then put into an ice slurry to bring the core temperature down as fast as possible without actually freezing the fish, giving a firmer flesh and cleaner fish.

On his return to Christchurch, he sought out local suppliers who used those same methods, and today he sources most of his seafood from Leigh Fisheries and Gravity Fishing. Both only use lines and hooks to catch their fish which is more sustainable than nets. “And,” says Ryan, “they’re 100% proud of what they do.”

It’s by forging strong relationships with his suppliers that Ryan can be confident of the sustainable credentials of his seafood. And with 80% of Pescatore’s menu being seafood, he needs to be sure of getting the best quality in sufficient quantity to consistently put out seven different types of fish on the menu, across an average of 400 plates, five nights a week.

All that from a kitchen with just three chefs. A new sous chef and a new apprentice have recently come on board, and the executive chef, Antony Page is a new hire, too. By bringing in new talent and fresh attitudes, the team is slowly dispelling the restaurant’s previous slightly starchy, even pompous, reputation.

While Antony has an overview of Pescatore, Ryan is clear about his responsibilities. “I was hired to get three hats,” he says candidly, referring to the Cuisine Good Food Awards. “Pescatore is 100% me – the concept, the food – my name, my ideas, my work. And it’s working out quite well.”

He acknowledges that, as a hotel restaurant, Pescatore has a different vibe to a standalone establishment, and that he answers to a more complex mix of stakeholders. However he says, “I have freedom to play and change and push boundaries. This is a team that wants to push.”

Pushing forward means lots of experimentation for the kitchen team. Keen to minimise wastage, they are trialling seafood charcuterie, and as soon as we finish talking Ryan is off to check on a batch of black pears. Using a process similar to creating black garlic they have been sitting in the rice cooker for six weeks. With a caramelised-raisin flavour (like eating Pedro Ximénez, reckons Ryan) once perfected they will join local squid and charred, roasted red cabbage glazed with an umami-rich fermented squid sauce. They are also playing around with lots of fermenting and smoking. “We try the weirdest possible things to see if it works. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Which brings us back to that curried pineapple ice cream. Seriously, this should not work. But it does. Our Cuisine reviewer commented, “Making a dessert out of curry, rice and coriander is a big call to get right. And he does. This dish really surprised me with the balance of sweetness and spices, which left me – who is not that keen on trad curry powder – really happy. The rice foam tasted just like rice, the coriander lifted everything, the ice cream’s pineapple flavours steered the curry into a pleasant place. It’s a dessert with a big medley of flavours and the medley works because it has lovely balance.”

So how does a chef go about thinking up such new ideas? Ryan laughs, “I’d been working for ages on a concept with green strawberries and rocket. The day before I was due to serve it the supplier phoned to say that the green strawberries were too hard to pick and that they would cost $150/kg. So, there I was without a dish and I had to scramble. I’d worked before with a rice mousse, so I toasted raw basmati then infused it into a mousse for a bit of an umami flavour. Then I thought, ‘OK, rice goes well with curry!’”The pineapple is treated as if it were meat, marinated overnight then barbecued. With flavours of coriander, fennel, turmeric, ginger and peppercorns, a little fermented coconut giving a salty richness, and finished with a burnt-lime gel and crystallised coconut, it’s light and fresh and goes beautifully matched with rum. “It was a crazy, last-minute put-together, but it works quite well.” So well that it’s fast becoming Pescatore’s signature dish.

It’s with innovations like this that Ryan means to keep moving forward. “I’ll keep chipping away and getting one little step closer to where I want to be.” Ah yes, those all-important three hats.

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